The change of years on the calendar is a unique time. It is a time of reflection on many things. We look back at the year behind us, our failures and hurts, triumphs and highs. We think about what we did right and what we need to do differently. It is also a time of looking forward.
We make resolutions, think ahead, consider our hopes, and how to work toward our dreams. It’s especially a time of gratefulness, that we have been blessed to see another year to completion and have breath and life in a new one. There is a sense of rebirth, of starting over. This year I’m especially thoughtful about the “blank slate” of a New Year, and how that translates to forgiveness.
2016 held some hurts among its many joys. The offenses were small, but I find myself stung from the pain nonetheless. As a follower of Christ, I know that I am called to total and immediate forgiveness, without hesitation and without fail. On top of that, I don’t want to bring the wounds of the past year with me into the new one. My heart is to forgive. I want to be ever growing in gentleness and humility, and overflowing with the grace of God, which he has so lavished upon me.
The problem isn’t in my desire to forgive. It isn’t a question of whether I should or shouldn’t. The only obstacle is in the practical application. How does one actually forgive? In the most realistic of terms, how do you go through the steps of forgiveness and have your heart and emotions come in line with your mind and your faith?
I’m sure there are many ways a heart can reach true forgiveness. But there are four practical realities that I have been led to in recent weeks, as I searched the Scriptures, and I wanted to share them for anyone, like me, seeking a clean slate in the New Year.
Reality No. 1 / You Have Been Forgiven Much
As He so often does, the Lord pointed me to Jesus as the answer to my questioning prayers. Jesus was God’s provision for our sin and the path to receiving His forgiveness. The words of Christ, so famously spoken on the cross, came to mind in an instant.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
I spent some time letting that sink in. “Father, forgive them.” He wasn’t just speaking about the people who were guilty of His murder. He wasn’t thinking only of his closest friends, who had just betrayed him. He wasn’t thinking only of the crowds—the same who had once gathered for healing, now gathered to jeer and mock. He was speaking of us—of you, and of me—even as He drank the cup of God’s wrath to pay for what He didn’t do.
When you consider the cost of your own sin, it puts what you have suffered in a different relief.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace. Ephesians 1:7
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Your sins—however minor or justified you’re convinced they are—sent a perfect sinless man to the cross. He endured the shame, and the torture, and ultimately death, to forgive you for them. That is the reality of what it took. How much less have I been asked to sacrifice, to show forgiveness to the one who sins against me? Forgiving someone else starts with understanding what it took for God to forgive you.
Reality No. 2 / They Know Not What They Do
Jesus continued with the words, “for they know not what they do.”
This statement is theologically and socially sticky, and I want to be very careful not to seem like I am excusing or enabling what has been perpetrated against you.
When Jesus said this, He wasn’t issuing a blanket “pass” for all the bad deeds humanity wants to heap up. This is not Christianity writing off sin with the lame excuse “he didn’t know any better.”
Of course, people know right from wrong, and they can and do choose evil. I want to speak carefully, because I know the unfathomable depths to which human depravity has sunk, and I cannot know or even begin to understand what it is to be a victim of it. I’m not in any way excusing the victimizer. What they did to you wasn’t ok. God proved that it wasn’t ok with Him by the punishment that Jesus received for it. If you are a victim, I urge you to seek godly counsel, and if you are still in any danger, get out of the situation immediately. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you keep letting someone hurt you. Forgiveness is not enabling. Get safe first. Call the authorities. After that, a pastor or Christian counselor can help you walk the complicated path of healing and forgiveness that God desires for you.
Because we acknowledge that humans have free will to choose evil, and Jesus is not excusing them from responsibility, it is almost strange that he says, “they know not what they do.” But this understanding may be the very key to softening your heart for another.
If you pay attention closely to the Gospels, you will see time and again the deity of Christ on display as he reads the minds of those around him.1 So I trust him when he says they don’t truly know what they’re doing. Humans are rarely, if ever, able to really stand in someone else’s shoes. Everything we do and say is born of our own experience, and colored by our own perspective, even despite our best intentions.
When Jesus said “they know not what they do,” He was acknowledging that unbelievers are blinded by the god of this age. 2 Corinthians 4:4 They are trapped in a state where they can’t know or see God’s plan or will, or be led by His Spirit. They are dead in their trespasses. Not hopeless, thanks to God’s grace, but for now, they are spiritually blind. As my pastor often says, “You wouldn’t slap a blind man.” We need to allow God to cultivate our compassion for people who are navigating this world apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They can’t see, and they know not what they do.
Believers also, though children of God, are still part of a fallen world. We are human and fallible. And though we are hopefully growing in sensitivity to our own shortcomings, we are no less able to fall prey to them. And when we fall, all the worse, as our bad choices tarnish the Name of Christ and His church in the eyes of the watching world.
Reality No.3 / Your Words Have Power
All throughout Scripture, the words of our mouths are intimately connected to the attitudes of our hearts. What you say about a person will have a direct impact on your ability to forgive them. If I complain about someone, it’s not helping me, them, or the situation. Of course there is a time to ask the right counselors for wisdom. But grabbing a girlfriend for a coffee and a bashing session isn’t a good plan. Our words have power, and one of my convictions is that they need to be righteous. If I can speak with the attitude of forgiveness I wish I had, I believe that my heart will soon follow my words.
A friend of mine embodied this in the midst of a painfully cruel divorce and custody battle. Though she was a victim of her husband’s lies on the witness stand, she determined never to speak an ill word to her son of his father. I’m sure that keeping silent to protect her son’s opinion of his dad was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do, but also one of the most important. It may temporarily make us feel better to build our case to a sympathetic ear, but ultimately it blackens the process of forgiveness and hardens our hearts. Let us speak the grace that we want to feel, while trusting God to fight for us in our silence. He IS a God of justice, He will surely bring it, and nothing escapes his attention.
Reality No. 4 / Apart from Him, I Can Do Nothing
So we’re on the path to practical forgiveness. We have accepted that our own sins were forgiven, and we have no platform to demand that others pay a debt to us. We have acknowledged that people who hurt us are blind to it in one way or another. We have resolved to guard our hearts by choosing careful words. These are important things, but they bring us to the end of our own strength.
The rest of it must be left with God through prayer.
Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
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We have to ask God to grant us a heart of forgiveness. Pray and ask Him to fight your battles. Ask Him for his matchless peace. His Word is a trove of promises—about His justice, His presence, His peace, His joy, His power—all of it unfailing, for the one who turns to Him in faith. Ask and you will receive a heart that overflows with forgiveness. There is no question that this is His will for you, and that He will grant it.
God wants what is best for you. If it were best to hold a grudge, or nurse wounds, or let roots of bitterness live in your heart, He would let you do it. But unforgiveness is cancerous to your soul, and He loves you too much to let you live with it.
This New Year, let us strive together for the blank slate of a resting heart, full of forgiveness. What healing it would bring to us, and to our world.