From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 13 – Some common errors and areas of confusion about what forgiveness is and how, and why, we are to do it
It may assist our understanding of how forgiveness works in its narrower and broader senses, to present a simple illustration. Imagine that you have loaned your lawnmower to your next door neighbor. However, you then discover that he has misused it, either carelessly or deliberately, and caused serious damage to it, rendering it useless.
Perhaps it has cost you £200 and he is not sorry for what he did, or bothered about how you feel. Moreover, he is refusing to repay you for the lawnmower, even though he is well able to do so. Let’s examine that scenario and see how you might forgive that person and what else you might, or might not, also do, over and above forgiving him.
I have deliberately kept the example mundane and homely because, for most of us, the things we have to forgive are not spectacular things like murders or armed robberies. They are usually smaller injuries, offences and rudenesses which occur in ordinary, day to day life. To begin with, we can say for sure that you have a clear duty to forgive your neighbour in the basic, narrow sense.
That is you would have to step aside, recuse yourself and leave it to Jesus to judge him for what he has done to your lawnmower and his subsequent refusal to repay you, or even to apologise. That is always your duty and you are expressly commanded to do that.
However, it might, or might not, be possible, or even appropriate, for you to go further than that and do any or all of the other things which we have looked at, each of which go beyond basic forgiveness. So, it may be that God also wants you to do some or all of these things. Alternatively, He might not.
What is more, even if He does want you to do them, it may be that He only wants you to do so up to acertain point, rather than to the fullest extent possible. Let’s therefore look at each of these possible extra steps that you could take:
a) to be at peace with your neighbour in the sense of not being angry with him, or in terms of not going to see a lawyer and suing him for the damage he did. Alternatively, you could actually choose to sue him and yet still have genuinely forgiven him, in the narrow sense of handing the judgment over to Jesus and, in the meantime, to the civil courts which God has put in place. You can do that provided you are not seeking to exact any vengeance of your own, and are refusing to allow yourself to hold a grudge or nurse any bitterness or hatred towards him.
b) to show mercy towards him by not requiring him to get what he deserves, for example by choosing not to make him pay for the damage. You might, or might not, choose to show such mercy to him, depending on the circumstances. Conversely, you might choose not to be merciful, and to insist, instead, on obtaining redress. That decision would not necessarily be inconsistent with forgiving him, in the narrow sense. In other words, if you choose to show mercy by letting him off, it would be something you were doing in addition to forgiving him, rather than being an integral part of the act of forgiveness in itself.
c) to show grace towards him by causing or permitting him to receive some benefit or privilege which he does not deserve. You might do that, for example, by allowing him to continue to borrow your new lawnmower, despite what he did to the previous one. You would be under no duty to show such grace towards him. It goes beyond basic forgiveness and it may, or may not, be wise. It would depend on all sorts of other factors such as the attitude he shows, whether he later apologizes, and what his circumstances are. It could even be that God wants you to give him an unusually large amount of leeway, because He wants you to try to build a relationship with that man so that you can perhaps reach him, or his family, with the Gospel. So, God might, or might not, want you to let him use your new lawnmower in future. But, either way, He will always want you to forgive him, i.e. in the narrow sense.
d) to forget the wrong done to you. Again, this is not required for genuine forgiveness, i.e. in the basic, narrow sense. It is a quite separate matter, which goes well beyond basic forgiveness. It may, or may not, be wise, or even possible, for you to forget what he did. There could be circumstances, for example if the damage was purely accidental, where you might feel it right, and feel able, to put the harm done to you entirely out of your mind. Then you could forget all about it, and treat your neighbor as if nothing had ever happened. Or, the circumstances could be such that you would not feel that that was appropriate, or even possible. For example, he might have done the damage recklessly, or even spitefully, and he could be wholly unrepentant. He could even be mocking you and laughing about what he did. It entirely depends. So, not forgetting the wrong done to you does not mean that you have not genuinely forgiven him. Likewise, if you do manage to forget it, you have gone a long way beyond what is required of you for basic forgiveness.
e) to trust him, either with your tools, or in some other way. Forgiving your neighbor does not oblige you to trust him, either now or in the future. Indeed, it might be very unwise, or even downright foolish, to trust him. He could be entirely unworthy of any trust, either in that area, or any other. God would, very probably, not want you to trust him, because the Bible does not tell us to trust others. On the contrary, the usual default-setting is that we should be cautious. Even so, He still commands you to forgive him, at least in the basic sense, but the resumption of trust is not required in order for genuine forgiveness to occur.
f) to be reconciled with him, such that you are back on friendly terms and in a full relationship, as if nothing had ever happened. Again, this may or may not be either appropriate or possible. As we have seen above, it depends on all sorts of other factors. What we can say for sure is that the issue of whether you have, or have not, become reconciled has nothing to do with whether you have genuinely forgiven him in the basic, narrow sense of the word.