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Why Is Genuine Forgiveness So Difficult?


"To err is human, to forgive divine."

Is it true that forgiveness is only for those in the realm of the divine? Forgiveness is something all of us would like to receive but hesitate to give.

At first glance ‘forgiveness’ may seem like a ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ matter. However, there is a wealth of 'non-religious' thoughts and beliefs on this topic. It should come as no surprise as conflicts and misunderstandings are very much a part and parcel of everyday life, whether among family, friends, or work colleagues.

What is forgiveness?

A dictionary definition of ‘forgiveness’ is as follows;

  • “The act of excusing a mistake or offence" or
  • “To stop being angry about something or with someone that has done wrong” or
  • “To cease to feel resentment against an offender”.

Wikipedia offers the following definition;

“Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense and overcomes negative emotions such as resentment and vengeance (however justified it might be).

Forgiveness is both cognitive and emotional

From these definitions, we see that besides the rational aspect (excusing, stop, cease), there is also a strong emotional component (change in feeling and attitude, be it anger, resentment, vengeance).

Indeed, one description from a psychological perspective is “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness”.

Is forgiveness good for your health?

Another sentiment a secular view of forgiveness emphasises is that forgiveness brings emotional and even physical benefit to the one forgiving. Studies have shown that the ones forgiving are happier and healthier compared to less forgiving people, who reported a greater number of health problems. It is almost saying that it is good to forgive because it is the healthier option (like eating whole grain instead of processed food). Is that all there is to forgiving – good health?

But we all know, perhaps from personal experience, that forgiveness is not easy. The very thought of forgiving someone probably makes us feel uneasy. This doesn’t make one a bad person—just human.

Hardwired for revenge and retaliation?

According to experts who study human behavior, forgiveness is emotionally difficult because the urge to retaliate is very deeply rooted in evolutionary history. Evolution has endowed us with the psychological motivation to avoid being exploited by others, and that revenge is a universal trait of human nature, crafted by natural selection, that exists today because it helped our ancestors survive and adapt to their environment in the past.

Long ago, revenge was an essential behaviour to survive the harsh environment. Humans lived as nomads in small groups and were hunter-gatherers. Survival was the name of the game. Your own tribe had to kill or be killed. If your tribe did not retaliate when attacked, it would be viewed as being weak, or an easy target. In that situation forgiveness could prove to be fatal, and was simply out of the question.

So, this ‘beneficial’ human trait of revenge or retaliation slowly evolved to become hardwired into our brains, and revenge is now essential to what it means to be human. And today, even though we are not living as nomadic tribes, this adaptive evolutionary trait is still present as a feature of human nature, despite the problems it causes in our world now.

Is forgiveness intrinsic to human nature?

What about forgiveness? Is the capacity for forgiveness a built-in feature of human nature?

Again, researchers who study human behaviour suggest there is evidence that forgiveness is just as universal among humans as revenge is, and developed in the same manner. In a similar way to revenge, our ancestral humans gradually learned that there is great benefit and advantage in cooperation between groups. They figured that there is more to be gained in collaboration and working together instead of killing each other, and this trait of forgiveness and reconciliation became hardwired into our brains.

So, humans are constantly torn between these two human traits of revenge and forgiveness. Both emerged as adaptive solutions to problems that humans persistently encountered during evolution. Today our environment is very different and so are the challenges we face. How do humans deal with this conflict?

Forgive or exact retribution?

How do people decide if they will forgive or retaliate? Several factors are involved.

1. How much do we value the relationship that is at stake?

If this involves a long good close relationship, we are more likely to forgive. Resolving a conflict with a close friend or someone within your own group involves factors that are quite different than seeking to resolve a conflict with an enemy or stranger not within our circle.

2. What is the risk of being exploited or taken advantage of if we choose to forgive?

This in a way depends on how you perceive the offender you are dealing with. Is the offender a more passive person who is likely to forget the issue, or one who would likely see your forgiveness as a sign of weakness and take advantage of the situation. If it is the former, then one would lean more towards forgiveness, and vice versa.

Negative reciprocity

An alternative strategy is to employ 'negative reciprocity'. This is when an action that has a negative effect on someone is returned with an action that has an approximately proportional negative effect. The key word is ‘proportional’. Unlike revenge, which may be an over-the-top response, negative reciprocity is a relatively proportional response. It is a delicate balancing act: it seeks to end unjust or apparently inequitable behaviour, while repairing a relationship with the one who has wronged you. It is a kind of tit-for tat strategy.

Forgiveness is imperative for the Christian

Some of these ideas and concepts may be useful in trying to explain ‘forgiveness’ from a human perspective. It may also be helpful in a practical manner in the process of forgiving the offender. However, if we turn to the bible, we see that the foundation and basis for forgiveness is different.

Forgiveness is not an option for the Christian, rather forgiveness is a manifestation of our submission to Christ.

Matthew 6:14-15 says:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

If we receive forgiveness from God, we must give it to others who hurt us. We cannot separate receiving forgiveness from God and extending forgiveness to others.

Ephesians 4:32 says;

Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.

Our forgiveness of others is a consequence of receiving God’s forgiveness. This is the basis and foundation of forgiving others. The one who receives forgiveness must give forgiveness as well. An unwillingness to forgive becomes a serious stumbling block to spiritual growth. In fact, in the Lord’s Prayer, this principle is pre-supposed.

Matthew 6:12

And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors

We need to consider the manner which God forgives man and use that as our basis and pattern of forgiving others.

God takes the initiative in forgiving

Romans 5:8-10

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son.

When we were still helpless, while we were still sinners, while we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us and reconciled us. God did not wait for us to make some move or give some indication of our remorse. He took the first step in reconciliation. So too, we must be ready and willing to make the first move, without waiting for the other party to act. No tit-for- tat strategy, testing the water to see how the other party will respond. It’s not a negotiation.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, before the errant son could say or do anything, the father, who saw him at a distance, ran to him, showed him forgiveness, and greeted him with a gesture of reconciliation.

Luke 15:20

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.

The father did not say to himself, I wonder what my son wants now. Is he really sorry, or maybe he’s coming to ask for more money? Let’s wait and see what he really wants before I make my next move.

In like manner, we take the initiative by a willingness to offer forgiveness and acceptance even before the offender shows any sign of sorrow and remorse, with the hope that this will move the offender toward confession and repentance and reconciliation will be forthcoming.

Forgiveness is a decision of the will. Since God commands us to forgive, we must make a conscious choice to obey God and forgive. We may not feel like forgiving. The offender may not desire forgiveness and may not even be sorry. Ideally, the offender will seek reconciliation, but if not, the one wronged can still make a conscious decision to forgive.

When God forgives, He forgets

We may have heard this phrase before; ‘I can forgive but I can never forget’. Is that the way God forgives us? There are several passages that describe how God forgives us.

Isaiah 43:25

“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.

Hebrews 10:16-17

“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds. Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.

These passages make it clear that once forgiven, God does not remember our sins. However, God’s ‘not remembering’ is not what we usually think of as 'forgetfulness'. God is omniscient. He knows everything, and He forgets nothing. However, He can choose not to remember.

Choosing not to remember

In human relationships, we can choose to remember the offenses someone has committed against us, or we can choose to forget and let go. Forgetting in this sense is not acting as if the sin had never occurred, and we live as if we don’t remember it. We don’t actually forget the sin, it’s not that we are unable to recall the offense. We don’t have a recycle bin in our brain where we can dump all unwanted memories and click delete. We cannot selectively ‘erase’ events from our memory, but we can choose to overlook it and not bring it up again.

To forgive someone, we must often put painful memories out of our minds. True forgiveness prevents us from dwelling on past troubles. We make a conscious choice to let the past go and not repeatedly bring it up. It is easier said than done but maybe the next point will explain that there is a way to make it easier.


God has completely borne the cost of forgiveness

A very compelling reason why forgiveness is so difficult is because of the cost or price involved. In any wrongdoing, there is always a cost to pay, though we may not realize it. Forgiveness is hard because the one forgiving always ends up paying the price.

We’ve all been wounded physically, emotionally, or even spiritually. To forgive someone who has hurt you, who has wronged or betrayed you, costs you something. The cost is not always in terms of money. It can be damage to your reputation, hurt, pain. Real, deep forgiveness is not an easy thing to extend to others.

We may protest and object when we think about it: “What about the person who hurt me? Why should they go free? Isn’t it unfair that I should bear the entire cost and my offender is let off the hook - scot free – and gets to go about their merry way, while I suffer unfairly from the consequences of their actions?

We may think that God forgives us out of some sentimental emotion, but that is not what happens. God makes the choice to forgive. All sin is ultimately against God because it is God’s moral standard that is violated. He chooses to absorb the pain of our sin himself. He is the one who pays the price of our rebellion and insults to him. God lays the penalty of our sin on his own Son (Jesus Christ). When Jesus suffered the agony of the cross, he was taking upon himself the sin penalty we deserved – and not only ours, but the sin of the whole world.

We don't need to balance the scales of justice

Therefore, in forgiving others, we transfer the debt of sins from our account to God’s, as it were. We leave all judgement to God. We no longer have to demand ‘our pound of flesh’. We don’t have to try and balance the scales of justice. We leave all that to God. Christ has paid the price in full. We simply forgive and move on.

The truth of the matter is, Biblical forgiveness, as modeled to us by Jesus Christ, is radical and supernatural. It is unfair. It says to the offender, “I will cover the cost you owe me. The debt you have incurred—you are released from it.”

Forgiveness versus Reconciliation

Finally, we must not confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Reconciliation takes two people. Both must be willing to confess their wrongs and change their lives. Forgiveness only takes one person. We may never be reconciled to the person who hurt us. They may go on their way, oblivious to what they have done, or totally unwilling to apologize or reconcile. Forgiveness does not guarantee a change in the other person’s behavior.

Reconciliation is not necessarily the goal of forgiveness. In fact, in some situations, for example in an abusive relationship, it may actually be dangerous, especially where the other person is unrepentant and unchanging. But we can still make the choice to forgive. We can forgive someone even if we can never get along with that person again.

True biblical forgiveness is not easy. It is not something we can manage by our own strength. May the Holy Spirit to enable us to forgive others, as God in Christ forgives us.






© 2022 Ferdinand-J-K

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