I remember the day in 2005 a crazed, armed man named Charles Carl Roberts burst into an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, chased out everyone but 10 schoolgirls, tied them all together and prepared to molest them when the police showed up, leading him to open fire on them then kill himself. Five of those girls died. The aftermath shocked even more, but in a good way. Forgiveness literally gushed forth from the Amish community. At the memorial service, one of the victim’s fathers held Roberts’ weeping father in his arms. Friendships with the killers mother have flourished since then.
In these days when revenge is the relished main dish of so many films, videos, social media posts, and blogs, stories of forgiveness provide a needed change of fare. I like to read forgiveness stories because they acculturate me to the spirit and attitude I know God wants for me.
He wants it for you, too, so please read what I have to say here. I’ll share my thoughts in two sections, simply “Why?” forgive and “How?” to forgive. I pray you are blessed.
I was bullied as a child, physically and sexually assaulted on a playground by a group of girls while pretty much the entire school looked on. I still occasionally see the ringleader of that mob circulating around social media. Even all these years later I know I have the option of forgiving or not. So far I’ve chosen to forgive this person (who has never apologized to me), and I believe that in a small way the world is better off for it. Why and how have I done this?
I think the easiest way to answer this question is to observe what happens when people don’t forgive. For this we need look no further than this world, particularly the news. Many don’t realize that most of the social justice movements today, including #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, are underpinned by a philosophy that rejects forgiveness out-of-hand. For example, in a blog called “To Hell with Forgiveness Culture,” activist Sabine Birdsong said that we need to, “rewrite the outdated narratives of forgiveness . . . The pseudo-spiritual fairy-tale of redemption and forgiveness over the inherent right for people to not be abused.”
The belief is that forgiveness destroys justice while revenge upholds it. Is this true? Actually, no. In fact, rejecting forgiveness creates injustice. When we veer from God’s path of forgiveness, we venture into vengeance territory, and vengeance is not justice. The Word says, “Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God” Romans 12:9. Revenge inflicts pain for pain, but in a haphazard, anger-driven way. When we resentfully inflict pain on another, we are guided by hellish passions rather than holy principles. What if I sent a murderous hit mob to the home of my childhood bully? That would not reflect justice at all. The same is true for the social media cancel mobs. In a feeding frenzy of hate, theses masses pile on until, in some cases, the hated person has lost everything. The riots that erupted after the murder of George Floyd victimized people who had nothing to do with his murder! Vengeance is imprecise and disproportionate. It does not uphold justice. It trammels it.
Is it true that forgiveness dismisses justice? No. God, the great Forgiver, died on a Cross in fulfillment of the law’s just demand of death for sin. If Jesus could have forgiven without justice, why would He have subjected Himself to the torture of separation from God? “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne” the psalmist cried (Psalm 89:14). From a foundation of justice, God absorbed the cost of sin into Himself, extending mercy to the unjust.
On a practical level, we may personally forgive someone but still want justice to be done. Activist Rachel Denhollander forgave child sex offender Larry Nassar but also led the group of 156 victims who testified against him in court. She said to Nassar, “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so that you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me.”
The ideal justice is repentance. When the Holy Spirit breaks through to a conscience, wrongdoers themselves admit the wrong. Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted amnesty to apartheid war criminals if they agreed to confess to their crimes. Though the commission wasn’t perfect, it helped heal an impossibly ruptured South Africa. What we ultimately want as justice-seeking forgivers is for wrongdoers to pour forth the damning truth about their deeds. The informed forgiveness following this will heal individuals and communities. The opposite, “a root of bitterness,” a culture of revenge taking, will cause many to be defiled (Hebrews 12:15). What do we want for our families, our churches, our neighborhoods, our countries, and our world? We want healing.
A spirit of forgiveness from the wronged actually increases the likelihood of the wrongdoer taking responsibility. Forgiveness helps the forgiver, too, in hosts of realms, including possibly reducing the chances of revictimization. Why forgive? God has set an example for us in Jesus, and we follow Him. Plus, it’s better for everyone.
“If I forgive, he’ll do it to me again!” This common objection to forgiveness conflates forgiveness with trust. Many things, in fact, are wrongly conflated with forgiveness. Let’s define forgiveness by separating it from things with which it is often confused:
Forgiveness is Not Trust
Trust grows where there is a history of safety in a relationship. It forms where people are both willing to trust and to be trustworthy. If broken, trust can be rebuilt, but this shouldn’t be attempted without clear evidence of repentance.
Forgiveness is Not Reconciliation
Reconciliation is, like trust, something that occurs when those involved choose to pursue it. Jesus said to be reconciled to a brother (Matthew 5:23-24) when it is in our power to do so. In forgiving we may point ourselves toward reconciliation, yes, but it is not a given, for it involves both parties.
Forgiveness is Not Excusing
Some reject forgiveness as a form of excusing or minimizing the wrong done. In reality, the recognition of great wrong is built into the idea of forgiveness. It is because we can’t excuse a wrong that we forgive it.
Forgiveness is Not Forgetting
Forgettingis not a requirement of forgiveness either. Our stories shape who we become, and no one has the right to rob us of them. We should pray that we not be motivated by revenge, but warning others of the danger of an unrepentant person may at times be the right thing to do.
Forgiveness is Not Feeling
Feelings of forgiveness come and go. One moment we may feel soft and loving toward the wrongdoer; the next we may feel negative emotion overload. We should not be disturbed about flip-flopping feelings. We should do the right thing, cultivate the right attitude, and not identify too strongly with our emotions. Eventually they will follow our choices.
If forgiveness is not trust, reconciliation, excusing, forgetting, or feeling, what is it? The Lord’s prayer and the parable of the unmerciful servant present forgiveness as absorbing a debt (Matthew 6:12 and 18:21-35). We experience pain in our nervous systems. When another inflicts it, they cannot un-inflict it. The only “payback” is equivalent pain inflicted upon them. When we withhold that payback, we absorb the pain into ourselves rather than bounce it back to the wrongdoer. Forgiveness is essentially accepting the pain another has inflicted without then inflicting pain upon them.
With this working definition of forgiveness, how do we walk it out? Because a structured approach to forgiveness seems to secure better outcomes, it will be helpful to follow these steps:
It is true that Jesus forgave even as the soldiers nailed Him to the cross (Luke 23:34). Realism about our humanity, however, says that victims must distance themselves physically and/or emotionally from ongoing abuse before attempting the deep work of forgiveness. An abusive relationship disrupts the victim’s connection to God and consequently the ability to self-reflect. Boundaries and distance help restore sanity and perspective.
Survey the Damage
In order to forgive, we must know what we are forgiving. Victims often minimize and even deny harm done to them. In the forgiveness process, we must face all those suppressed realities head-on so that we can forgive intelligently.
Count the Cost
Forgiveness is a choice more than a mandate. Counting the cost reminds us of our freedom to choose. The cost of unforgiveness is always higher in the long run, but each individual must see this and decide for him or herself.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Notice the simultaneous nature of forgiveness. I don’t forgive first, then God forgives me in response—that would be legalism. But rather I find the wherewithal to forgive others as God forgives me.
Forgiveness supplied is the forgiveness we hold in our hearts for unrepentant people. Jesus said, “Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
Forgiveness applied is the forgiveness we actually bestow upon a repentant person. Jesus also said, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).
In either case, whether we hold grace in our hearts for the unrepentant, or bestow it upon the repentant, we have forgiven. Forgiveness can be accomplished alone, between the soul and God. It doesn’t require the right action of the one being forgiven.
Forgiveness is more of a lifestyle than a once-and-done event. While a formal, ceremonial-type forgiveness may be helpful, forgiveness is continually decisional. Chances are, even after the point we choose to forgive, we will need to reaffirm the decision. We should, in the spirit of sober self-awareness, be ready to revisit these steps over and over as needed.
I hope this has helped you fumble your way forward toward a life of sweet mercy to other human beings. Please know I don’t speak these words from a platform of superiority. I am fumbling right along with you, making mistakes, repenting, and accepting from Jesus another chance to love as He loved. Based on my recent study of the topic, though, I’m convinced that we need much, much more forgiveness and much, much more of the Jesus Who gives it to us.
Blog post by Dr. Jennifer Jill Schwirzer
 I recognize that these movements offer something to our society and have helped correct historic wrongs.