It's an everyday word, but what does it really mean?
To forgive somebody is to pardon them for an offence or debt. In forgiving, you give up any claim on that person. Any and every claim; you even give up resentment associated with the offence. The indebtedness is total. There is no residual anger or indignation, and no punishment or restitution follows, since that would be revenge. (But if vengeance is your goal, then remember that forgiveness is the sweetest form of revenge!)
Actually, when there has been forgiveness, there is no need for restitution; in life's wonderfully weird way, in time your compensation will be more than enough. The past cannot be changed, the wrong has been done and even forgiveness cannot change the past. But it does enhance the future. Indeed, as the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu said: "Without forgiveness, there is no future."
So it's all pretty simple to understand, even if sometimes difficult to do with a smile. Difficult, because forgiving can be hard. It needs strength, as Mahatma Gandhi tells us. Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
So far, so good.
But there's one more thing. To be complete, the forgiveness must be accepted by the offender. It's a bilateral thing. If the forgiveness is not accepted then it's like sending an email to a blocked email server. If the transgressor acknowledges receipt of the forgiveness, then it is complete. They may go further than that and apologise, vow not to repeat the offence and offer compensation. But these are optional bonuses and should not be conditions on the forgiveness.
The process may be done in reverse order: The wrongdoer may apologise first and offer restitution as a way of asking to be forgiven. In this way, the forgiver knows that the forgiveness will be complete.
Apology and restitution were called 'optional bonuses' above, which is what they are. But there's another bonus that usually follows, and this bonus is enjoyed by the forgiver and the forgiven. After the pardon, both parties will be generally much happier. The opposite is also true: if there is no forgiveness then the resentment results in unhappiness.
All of the above is quite obvious. You knew this already, so what's the point of this page?
He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.
Saint Augustine (354 – 430)
What we're leading to is the reason why God will forgive us. Of course God wants to be happy. (If you were God, wouldn't you make sure you were happy?) One way to happiness, as explained above, is to forgive.
But as we've also explained above, for the forgiveness to be complete, it must be accepted.
Jesus was great in teaching us by example. Just look at his last words on the cross, where He asked God to forgive his executioners!1 He also gave us explicit instructions that we must forgive people who offend us.2 God is not going to forgive those people on our behalf. Just as only God can forgive sins against God, only humans can forgive sins against humans.
If you don't forgive those who have wronged you, the barrier between you will remain.
If you don't accept forgiveness from those whom you have wronged, the barrier between you will remain.
If you don't accept forgiveness from God, the barrier between you and God will remain.
The Bible includes several case histories of how people are forgiven, so let's start there.
In the well-known story of the Prodigal Son, he returns to his father for help and "...while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him."3
The phrase in that verse "his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him." could more efficiently be written as "forgave him" but it was clearly more than that. Dad was so pleased to see his son return that he ran toward his son to forgive him. He didn't wait for his son to come all the way home, he rushed out to meet him half way. He embraced his son (KJV and other translations say "fell on his neck") and kissed him. (We have another page on kissing where we describe how the modest physical activity of hugging and kissing is much more than just showing affection. It is a display of reckless abandon, of joy and love.)
And this is precisely how God forgives us. It's not a feeble OK, you're forgiven. It's a torrential outpouring of love.
That is how to forgive.
There is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love.
The Prodigal Son story is the reason we have chosen the cross symbol (above) to represent Forgiveness. The Prodigal Son story is about how God (Father) is more than ready to forgive sinners (us) with tremendous love. God will meet us half way; in fact God has already done that by sacrificing Jesus (see the meaning of the cross). We just have to take that step forward, admit we are sinners and accept God's forgiveness.