The Cost of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is expensive.
Now that might sound a bit strange, especially to Christian ears. We might think, “Wait a minute! God’s forgiveness is free! If we have to do something or give something in order to earn it, then it’s not really forgiveness.” And this is true. Forgiveness is always free … for the person receiving it. This is necessary in order for forgiveness to be forgiveness.
But in order for something to be free for the person receiving it, the cost must be paid by the person giving it. This is true whether we are talking about God’s forgiveness or the forgiveness given from one human to another.
God’s forgiveness cost him the death of his Son. One way to understand sin is as a debt we incurred before God. We owed him … big time. And it’s a debt we could not pay. So God forgave us. But it wasn’t cheap. Sometimes we tend to think of God’s forgiveness as being easy for him. We think of God as the “North Dakota nice” guy whom you accidentally bump into at the grocery store. He smiles and says, “Oh, it’s no big deal.” He shrugs it off as something insignificant. But our sins actually cost God something. They cost him the goodness of his perfect creation. But God desired to restore and redeem his creation. So God doesn’t forgive our sins by brushing them off. He forgave them by dying for them. He bore the cost of the debt. Forgiveness means bearing the burden for what someone else did.
This is true for man’s forgiveness too. Suppose someone owes you a hundred dollars. What does it mean to forgive that person? Does it mean that you’re not mad at them, but they still owe you the hundred dollars? No! You can’t say, “I forgive you, but you still have to pay me back.” That’s not forgiveness. Forgiveness means they don’t have to pay you the hundred dollars.
You might still be angry. A hundred dollars is a big deal. Most of us can lose a hundred dollars and still survive, but we won’t be happy about it. It might mean eating off-brand cereal and ramen noodles for a while. When you’re on your hundredth pack of ramen noodles and getting tired of it, you might feel some anger toward the person who owed you the money, but you don’t take your anger out on them. You keep it to yourself.
Forgiveness doesn’t depend on our feelings. So we can’t say, “I’ll forgive you when I’m not mad at you anymore.” You can forgive while still feeling emotions of anger. And, often times, the act of forgiveness actually helps to subdue our anger. When we hear the words, “I forgive you,” come out of our own mouths, we remind ourselves that we have no right to be angry.
Even though we may be angry in the moment (because we are often too weak to control our emotions), forgiveness means we don’t make the other person pay for those emotions. So when we consider that we might have to eat our emotions too, we realize that forgiveness might actually cost us more than the initial debt. We accept all the consequences as our own. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we’re not angry anymore (though it does remind us we have no right to be angry). Forgiveness means we bear the burden as our own.
The basic problem is that we think of forgiveness as an emotional thing. It’s not. Forgiveness is primarily about our words and actions. But that does not exclude our emotions. Our feelings are still real, and it’s sinful to harbor feelings of resentment. Hopefully, when we forgive a person, our feelings will eventually get in line with what we have promised. This is a good thing, and it follows the pattern of God’s forgiveness. God harbors no feelings of resentment. His forgiveness is pure, so he looks upon us with compassion. The one who paid the highest cost and gave the greatest forgiveness is not angry about it. He is actually pleased to do this.
This definition of forgiveness (bearing the burden for what someone else did) also means that self-forgiveness is a logical impossibility. Sometimes you hear someone say (usually on a TV drama), “You can’t forgive the other person until you forgive yourself.” This is pure nonsense. It would be like transferring a debt from yourself to yourself. It’s meaningless. Forgiveness is always an act of love toward another person. So it’s not really self-forgiveness that we need, but God’s forgiveness. This is most glorious, because we will never find forgiveness in ourselves, but we will always find it in Christ. Christ’s forgiveness is always pure and complete. So when we feel guilt and shame over our sins, the best thing to do is confess it. You can even go to a pastor or another Christian to confess your sins against God. And then that person’s job is to declare Christ’s forgiveness to you. Christ declares sinners to be righteous. His blood has made atonement for sins. Even when we don’t feel forgiven, God’s promise is stronger than our feelings.
Forgiveness is expensive. It always has a cost. Remember the cost that has been paid for your forgiveness. This is the source and pattern for all other forgiveness.