A lesson in forgiveness: What it is, and what it’s not

“Resentment is like drinking poison — and expecting the other person to die.”

— Paula Bloom

It is not necessarily what happens to us but our reaction to what happens that may cause us the most harm.

What follows is not primarily a how-to concerning forgiveness. That is for another column.

For now, it is enough to define the subject — especially considering that the savior put forgiveness toward his executioners front and center as he died on Good Friday.

First, forgiveness is not an option. It is a mandate.

Jesus said, “If you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive you.”

If you refuse to forgive, you place yourself back under the judgment of God.

Second, forgiveness is not forgetting.

When we have been deeply wounded by someone, we tend to relive the hurt by “replaying the video” over and over in our minds.

Subconsciously we may be seeking retribution, reconciliation or some other outcome. We relive the experience in our minds, but it is what it is. We cannot forget what happened any more than we can change it.

That may be why, when Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive an offender, Jesus replied, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Christ’s meaning may be less about how often the offender will re-offend and more about how often we will relive the experience and hold a grudge.

Third, forgiveness is not a guarantee that the offender will change. People can and do resist the grace of God. Consider the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, who refused to forgive a small sum after being forgiven a large sum.

Fourth and finally, forgiveness is not a feeling.

Feelings are sudden, intense reactions to whatever happens to us. They are involuntary. We do not control them. They control us.

If I wait to forgive until I feel like it, I may never forgive.

Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is not a reaction. It is a choice.

Forgiveness is a purposeful, calculated response which takes the initiative away from the offender and prompts the offender to react or to respond to you.

That’s what God is doing in Christ. Our sin grieves God. It angers him, and it arouses his regret.

We read in Genesis 6 that, in reaction to our sin, God regretted that he had made human beings.

But God is not content to be angry and live with regret. He does more than react to us.

God responds.

He re-takes the lead in any troubled relationship.

God initiates a new state of affairs with humanity by taking our guilt upon himself and the suffering that goes with it, and by crediting to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

That changes everything.

It changes the way we view God because now we know how God views us — in a gracious, forgiving way because of Jesus Christ.

By unilaterally removing our offenses, God regains the initiative and renews his relationship with us.

This good news enables us to do the same to others.

We are not called to be victims.

We are not called to remain in anger, grief or regret because of the actions of another.

God asks nothing of you that he has not already given to you.

God calls and enables you to re-take the lead in troubled relationships by passing on the grace you have first received.

God himself plays the lead role, through you, in any relationship you are involved in. God initiates — through you.

There is no guarantee the offender will change, but by the grace of God, he must now react, or respond, to you.

The ball is now in his court, and that means it is no longer in yours.

The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Columbus’ Grace Lutheran Church. He can be reached at jwarmstrong@gracecolumbus.org.