We tend to think of forgiveness as something passive. A mere act of not holding something against someone, of not resenting someone. We think of this as painless, in concept, because we just let it go and stop holding on to what was forgiven. But, in practice, this is not so.
The example we have of forgiveness isn’t a passive example, but an active one. It isn’t a painless example, but one filled with tears, beatings, and blood.
12Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
Paul isn’t just telling us that because God forgave us that we should forgive others. This is part of it, but he is also telling us the manner in which we should forgive: as the Lord has forgiven us. The instrument of God’s forgiveness was the cross. He didn’t simply let our treasonous sins slide without penalty; He bore that penalty Himself. He bore the pain of our sin so that He could forgive us.
When we think of how God forgave us, we are now able to see that forgiveness is active, and will hurt. It will hurt us twice. Once, when we are sinned against. And a second time when we absorb the pain of that sin and don’t retaliate against the person who sinned against us. This goes against everything that seems normal to us. But so does the Gospel of the incarnate God stepping down from Heaven onto Earth to bear our sins upon His own back to achieve justification for the Father’s forgiving of sins previously passed (Rom. 3:25). Absorbing the pain of wrongs done against us is active because it takes work to not “repay evil for evil,” but to repay good for evil.
Forgiveness is also active in a different way. When we absorb that pain, it hurts, because that’s what pain does. Yet, Christ is not only our Forgiver, He is also our Healer. We have to actively hold back from reacting out of pain, and actively turn to Christ to heal us of the pain of being sinned against, and the pain of not retaliating to make ourselves feel better. It is also active in that we must pursue Christ as we are healing and forgiving, and not allow ourselves to look to creation (men, women, junk food, alcohol, drugs) as an idol of comfort.
Indeed, sometimes forgiveness will make us feel like we are with Jesus, on the cross. Beaten and crying. Vulnerable and bloody. Gasping for air while choking on our own blood. Spike-pierced hands and feet, with a stab wound puncturing our heart.
And, in that moment, we are. Forgiveness is all about crucifying one’s self and becoming more like Christ as we forgive.
And just as His death led to His resurrected life, our dying to self in forgiveness will lead to the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts.