Forgiveness is a tricky thing. As Christians, we know we are forgiven, and we are told to forgive in the same way. It’s easy to say, “I forgive you,” but it’s only real if it’s from our hearts.
Dallas Willard, in his book, Life Without Lack, said we make three errors when it comes to forgiveness. First, we tend to believe it requires reconciliation; second, we think we have to forget what happened; and third, we think we have to stop hurting. None of these are necessary.
We forgive by making the choice not to punish or seek revenge, which means we let people off the hook. It lets us off our own hook, too and frees us—from anger and bitterness—and allows us to love them the way God wants us to.
If we wait for reconciliation (which often never comes), tell ourselves we have to forget what happened (can’t do that) and wait to stop hurting (the pain might lessen, but will never go away), forgiveness will never happen, at least not in this life. Forgiveness is God’s way of life and his way to life (N.T. Wright) but doesn’t happen in our hearts without God’s help and much prayer. It is possible, even when it feels like it’s not, if we can avoid these mistakes and trust God to make it work.
“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NLT).
When my son was little, I often gave him one hundred kisses on his forehead. Sometimes as I counted them out, he’d start squirming, so I held him tight until I finished. At other times, we’d play the “I love you more” game, going back and forth until usually I won by telling him and later, my daughter, I loved them the most. Most parents love their children so much they would do anything for them. We would rather be sick than watch them suffer. We would take the proverbial bullet for them rather than watch them die.
Some believe God the Father of all humankind only loves his children after they declare, in acts of contrition and repentance, they love him too. But that’s not how it works with human parents and it’s not how it works with God. We love our children before they’re ever conceived and God loved every man, woman and child before the foundation of the world. He doesn’t wait for someone to say the “sinner’s prayer” or stop sinning or even understand what sin is. He loved us first, best and most.
When you believe God can’t love you until you repent, your theology (what you believe about God) says he can’t love us as much as we love our children. If my child said he or she hated me (which happens, especially with teenagers) or ran away, never wanting to see me again, I wouldn’t stop loving him or her. I wouldn’t turn off the porch light. I would never stop hoping for reconciliation and would do everything in my power to bring them back.
God did just that. He loved the world so much he became a human being and took the bullet for us. He has already forgiven all. Just as loving parents never give up on their children, God never gives up on any of his children. His love is stronger than we can imagine and he proved his determination to reconcile with us by going to the cross. He loves us more!
“Some people brought to him a paralyzed man on a mat. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, ‘Be encouraged, my child! Your sins are forgiven'” (Matthew 9:2, NLT).
An old movie called Love Story made this line somewhat famous: “Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.” After many years of marriage and two children, I believe that’s not true. Husbands and wives need to say they’re sorry when they hurt each other. It’s good for kids to apologize to their parents and siblings. Saying you’re sorry makes relationships work a lot better.
God likes hearing us say it too, but it’s not necessary to continually beg and plead for forgiveness. The paralytic in this verse didn’t even ask for it and Jesus forgave him, simply because of the faith of his friends. Before we ever asked for it, Jesus forgave us from the cross. It’s just not true that Jesus withholds his forgiveness—the first time we come to him or the thousandth time—unless or until we abhor ourselves in dust and ashes or perform bloody acts of contrition. As his beloved children, saying we’re sorry is more for our benefit than his. His love means we’re forgiven; our love back to him means saying we’re sorry (again) and thank you (again).