Christian Articles Archive

Don't Pay the Price of
Counterfeit Forgiveness

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

"There's no way I can forgive him for what he has done. This time he knew exactly what he was doing."

So often Christians can't or won't forgive. Often the reason is that they have accepted a counterfeit forgiveness. To grasp what true forgiveness is, we must examine these common counterfeits.

Counterfeit 1: Excusing

A speeding car driven by a drunk careens off an icy street and kills a twelve-year-old boy. If his devout parents believe they must excuse the driver because he was drunk, they will not forgive.

Excusing says, "I see you couldn't help it or didn't mean it; you weren't really to blame." That would be a lie.

Forgiveness is the opposite of excusing. It reaches beyond excusing. Forgiveness acknowledges that drunken driving is inexcusable but pardons the offender anyway.

Excusing has its place, however. Many times there are extenuating circumstances. When we discover the circumstances that motivated a person, our understanding enables us to make allowances for him.

But make no mistake, excusing is not forgiveness. As C.S. Lewis notes, such excusing "is not Christian charity; it is only fair-mindedness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you."

Counterfeit 2: Minimizing the Hurt

We often deal with petty injuries by telling ourselves it doesn't matter. A child breaks her aunt's teacup and is graciously told, "That's all right, dear, I didn't like that pattern anyway."

Maturity dictates we put our injuries into proper perspective; we must be slow to take offense. The danger comes, however, when we confuse minimizing the hurt with true forgiveness.

If our primary reaction when we're harmed by another is to tell ourselves feebly, It really didn't hurt that much, there are times it just won't wash. Rob may be able to overlook a bully punching him at the bus stop, but what does he do when gang members scar his face for life?

Unless we see the difference between acting as if the injury is minor, and pardoning one who has hurt us deeply, we will eventually find ourselves unwilling to "forgive."

Counterfeit 3. Blind Trust

"I've found drugs in Jim's room so often, I can't trust him, no matter how sincerely he assures me he'll stop. Does this mean I haven't forgiven him?"

Forgiving isn't the same as trusting. Even when Jesus' countrymen believed his miracles, we are told, "Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for ... He Himself knew what was in man" (John 2:24-25). There is a vast difference between forgiveness and trust; one is given, the other is earned.

To someone faced with a person who perpetually breaks his promise, C.S. Lewis prescribes forgiveness: "This doesn't mean you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every trace of resentment in your own heart--every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out."

Counterfeit 4: Forgive and Forget

A vague anxiety gnaws at a woman who was once assaulted. Her mind replays the crime over and over. If she cannot forget, has she forgiven?

I have wondered, When the books are opened on the great day of judgment described in Revelation 20:12, will my sins be recorded there? Has God suffered eternal amnesia? Is it impossible for Him to remember?

No. God chooses not to remember my sins. The New Testament twice cites Jeremiah 31:34 (in Hebrews 8:12 and 10:17), as if to emphasize the point: "I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."

"Not remembering" is by no means equal to "forgetting absolutely." It means not making an effort to recall something to mind.

God has not wiped out His memory banks concerning our sins; rather, He has chosen not to call them to mind against us again. I believe my sins are recorded in God's books, but over each one is written in bold red letters "Forgiven."

This distinction between forgiveness and still having painful memories is crucial. When we've forgiven, we choose not to call a person's sins to mind against him. Yet until God's healing is fully worked in our minds, the memory of the hurt and pain may overwhelm us again and again.

Each time, we must write "Forgiven" over the person who hurt us. Even though we must sometimes recall painful memories for them to be healed, we must refuse to allow the enemy the luxury of salting them with bitterness. In response to our prayerful determination, God our Father supplies the strength to resist the temptation to dwell on the person's sin.

Forgiveness doesn't require forgetting, only choosing not to call to mind repeatedly while God heals the memories.

The Genuine Article

"To err is human, to forgive is divine," Alexander Pope reminds us. So often we take our models for forgiveness from the counterfeits in the culture around us rather than from our Heavenly Father's true example.

Genuine forgiveness--pardoning an inexcusable, devastating injury--is a miracle. If we are to understand what forgiveness is, we must see it as God sees it.

God did not excuse our sins. If it would have been enough to cite our inherent weakness or some extenuating circumstances, the Father would never have sent His Son to suffer the torture of crucifixion. God does not pretend. Our pitiful pretense at independence from our Creator, our negligence, and our sins are inexcusable. The only rebuttal to sin is the bold, unilateral deed of the Offended One: "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18).

Neither did God meet our defiance by denying His hurt. The pain when we're deceived by a casual acquaintance is nothing compared with the pain of being betrayed by one we hold dear. Our Father refused to lessen His hurt by disowning His love for us. His love will not let us go.

At the bedrock of our faith lies this assurance: "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8, NIV). Forgiveness is the outworking of God's love.

A trivial injury or one that's excusable needs no forgiveness. Forgiveness is pardoning one who has truly wronged us, "Just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32, NASB).

We can't divorce God's forgiveness of us from our willingness to forgive those who have injured us. We pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12, KJV).

A Decision by Faith

What is forgiveness, then? A choice--a faith decision--not to hold a sin against a person any longer. It is not based on merit, but on grace. Its prototype is the cross. We dare not confuse it with emotion.

Although feeling will eventually follow if we maintain faith's resolve despite temptations to bitterness, the feeling is not the forgiveness. It may be agony even to think about forgiving a past injury, but God will gradually enable us if we let Him. And the very decision to forgive releases God's power to restore our damaged emotions.

True reconciliation is impossible without genuine repentance. Unless we acknowledge our sins, we cannot enjoy our Father's fellowship.

Then what can we do about the millions who never turn from their sins and never experience His forgiveness? If God doesn't forgive them, why must we?

God's love and His desire to show mercy are constant toward the unrepentant. It's His very commitment to show mercy that allows us and draws us to come to Him.

Jesus leaves no room for an unforgiving spirit, even if the offender never repents. He directs His disciples: "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:44-45, NASB).

The apostle Paul makes it clear that so long as we retain the right to vengeance, we can't really love our enemies (Romans 12:9). We must let go of the offense and let it be washed into the river of God's justice, that it may not pollute our springs. Paul concludes, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (vs. 21).

Christians must forgive. Jesus told the parable of a governor who owed millions to his king. But he forfeited the king's offer to forgive the debt by his own refusal to cancel a twenty dollar debt. As a result, he was imprisoned and tortured until he should pay the last penny. Jesus' application to his disciples is unmistakable: "So shall my heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart" (Matthew 18:35).

Centuries ago, George Herbert distilled the issue: "He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for every one has need to be forgiven."

No one said forgiving is easy. But we cannot be satisfied with quick counterfeits. Like our Father, we must face sins squarely and pardon them boldly, enabled by His grace.


This article first appeared in Moody Monthly, October 1985, pp. 106-108. Since then it has been reprinted by a number of English-language periodicals, as well as being translated into German.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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