Forgiveness is something we can all work on in our quest to be better men. But when we’ve been hurt deeply, it’s tough to do. We’ve heard “forgive and forget,” but how often have you considered what it means to forgive?
Forgiveness Comes at a Cost
Forgiveness is rooted as a legal term. It goes hand in hand with justice. Within the formal justice system or even in our moral justice codes, we seek to be on equal terms with one another. When someone commits a crime, they are no longer on equal terms with the law. There’s a consequence to pay in order to be back on level terms.
But in a relationship, it’s a different story in practice. There’s no set code or list of consequences to make things right again. We feel hurt or angry when someone we love says or does something that offends us. But if we’re honest, we feel different levels of hurt depending on who the offender is. When your wife says something mean, it hurts on a much different level than a coworker saying the same thing.
Sometimes an apology or admission of wrongdoing is enough to set us back on equal terms. Other times, no amount of words will ever make the hurt go away.
Regardless of a criminal or relational level of offense, when you forgive, it comes at a cost and leaves an unjust situation. Sometimes that cost is you giving up the right to hurt someone for the way they hurt you. Other times you take on a financial burden to cover someone else’s mistake. But no matter what the situation, the person forgiving agrees to bear some sort of cost.
The Beauty of Forgiveness
Forgiveness isn’t something you can force another person into. That’s coercion or imputation. Forgiveness is a voluntary act and that’s what makes it so beautiful to witness.
Take a look at history’s greatest act of forgiveness – the life and death of Jesus Christ on the cross. With the penalty for our sin being death and an eternity separated from God, God the Son came down to us, lived perfectly on our behalf, and took the punishment we earned. His forgiveness is two fold – the perfect life he lived counts for us as does his death. And because of the cost he bore, we are seen as righteous in God’s eyes and back on equal terms. The voluntary, sacrificial cost of the forgiveness is the most beautiful story the world has ever witnessed.
And just like the forgiveness we find in Christ restores our relationship to God, the beauty of the forgiveness we offer often restores relationships as well. We all say careless and hurtful things to people we love from time to time. But by giving up our right to hurt them for the sake of justice, we invite restoration into the relationship.
Estranged siblings find the bonds of brotherly love again, a romance is rekindled in marriage, friends can once again laugh together. True forgiveness in a relationship is so beautiful because of the way it brings people back together.
How to Forgive… But Not Forget
Being a forgiving person doesn’t mean you’re a doormat. It’s okay to feel hurt. It’s okay that you don’t get over it the moment you agree to forgive the person that offended you. And sometimes the offense is big enough that you need to forgive and walk away… permanently. Hurtful actions can and do lead to broken relationships.
Even when the relationship is intact, you don’t forget that someone has a tendency towards hurtful actions. Giving up your right to justice with that person doesn’t mean that the relationship magically goes back to normal. Trust is broken and the way you see each other changes.
When the relationship is worth fighting for even in the face of the most hurtful acts, specifically in a marriage or a family, you may need help from a professional counselor to work through the feelings and distrust. That’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of courage that you’re willing to fight for what you believe to be sacred. In a marriage, two individuals become one unit and need to work through these things together.
Not Every Situation Needs Forgiveness First
But while forgiveness is beautiful, times may come to seek justice as well. I will never advocate that violence in a relationship go unpunished. You don’t have the right to physically abuse another human being. You should never feel that you have to stay in a relationship where you are being abused. Forgiveness can take place here, but your safety and dealing with the criminal aspect of the offense is the primary concern.
While I hope that situation doesn’t affect you, other times may come when the pursuit of justice trumps the sacrifice of forgiveness. That’s up to you as an individual. After all, true forgiveness is voluntary and the pursuit of true justice is still a noble cause.