Perhaps there is tension in the relationship with a spouse, a child, parent, or another special person in your life.
Maybe you feel badly about something you’ve done and wonder how to deal with the lingering guilt or unintended consequences.
Has someone wronged you and you struggle to move beyond the hurt and anger?
Or have you wronged someone else, possibly even God?
Regardless of the specific situation you face, there is good news thanks to a beautiful gift that is foundational to the Christian faith called forgiveness.
What Can You Do?
Good relationships require giving and receiving forgiveness.
To be human means messing up in one way or another. And those failures impact our relationship with God and others. That’s why forgiveness is an essential part of the Christian faith. Jesus did not come to create perfect people. He came to restore broken relationships.
Relationship with God – Jesus described His mission as a quest to restore the broken relationship between humanity and God. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) In Luke 15, Jesus told one of His most famous stories, commonly called the Parable of the Lost Son or the Prodigal Son. A rebellious child (representing us) rejected his father (representing God) causing a broken relationship, mutual heartache, and unintended negative consequences. When that rebellious child “came to his senses” and returned home, Jesus said, the father eagerly ran to his son to welcome him home and restore their relationship. That is exactly how God responds when we rebel, disobey, and mess up our lives.
Relationship with Others – The same story Jesus used to describe restoring our estranged relationship with God informs broken relationships with one another. In fact, Jesus directly linked the two when He taught His followers how to pray. “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive anyone who sins against us.” (Luke 11:4) Later He made an even stronger connection. “If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:15) Clearly, there is something extremely important about both giving and receiving forgiveness for those who follow Jesus Christ.
Obtaining forgiveness requires a very simple step. And that’s what makes it so hard!
You could try frantically to fix every consequence of your wrong actions or spend every minute of life wallowing in shame for disobeying God or mistreating others. There is nothing wrong with trying to correct our mistakes or feeling badly when we’ve sinned. But neither can restore a broken relationship. That only happens when we do something much less complicated but far more difficult. Forgiveness can only be received when we ask for it. And that’s the hard part since it requires admitting that we’ve done something that needs to be forgiven in the first place.
There is a small but vital step Christians call “repentance.” The word literally means “turn around and go the other way.” It requires “turning away” from that all-too human propensity to see yourself as the victim, or pretend nothing happened, or blame the other person for being overly sensitive. To restore the relationship, own the problem you caused (or contributed to) and “turn” back toward relationship.
From God – In I John 1:9, the Apostle John wrote “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Simply pray the following: “Dear God, I did NAME YOUR SIN, please forgive me for that.” Like the father of the rebellious child, He will. It’s that simple, and that beautiful.
From Others - The Bible instructs us to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) That commandment was given to those of us yearning for healing from the effects of broken relationship with God and others that can poison both our spirits and our bodies. But confession requires more than grunting a reluctant acknowledgement of hurt. It involves telling the person we’ve offended: “I need to apologize to you for DESCRIBE THE OFFENSE. I was wrong. Will you please forgive me?” They can be very difficult words to utter. But when we say them with sincerity, most people are eager to forgive and rebuild the relationship.
To free yourself, not to excuse them.
Christians are called to follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ who prayed “Father, forgive them” for those putting Him to death. They hadn’t asked for His forgiveness. But He gave it nonetheless. When we do likewise, we free ourselves from the toxic effects of bitterness and anger, trusting God to convict them and/or eventually set things right. “’It is mine to avenge. I will repay.’ Says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
We must be careful not to confuse the act of forgiving an offense with the process of restoring a relationship. One party can forgive, whether or not it has been requested. But it takes the willingness of both parties to restore a relationship.
God offers forgiveness to all, as should we. But the other party must receive that forgiveness – something they can only do if they acknowledge the need.
As the story of the Prodigal Son shows us, even God Himself cannot fully restore a relationship. He waited for the son to “come to his senses” so that they could embrace in full reunion.
Giving forgiveness doesn’t excuse wrong behavior. It simply frees us from the life-draining bondage of resentment.