The True Meaning of Forgiveness: Don’t Give Up


Has anyone ever done something so terrible to you that you labeled it “unforgivable?” Then, today’s blog is for you.

Forgiveness is one of the most challenging ideals that Jesus ever talked about. One of the reasons for that is we don’t know when we’ve done it or not. How do I know if I’ve forgiven someone? Is forgiveness something a person does or something a person feels? Does forgiveness require an action, like a handshake or a hug? Is repentance a prerequisite for forgiveness? Who is responsible for initiating forgiveness? Can I still feel the effects of someone’s sin even though I’ve forgiven them?

What we can say for certain about Jesus’ teachings is that forgiveness was absolutely a kingdom value. As Christ-followers, God expects us to embrace forgiveness, no questions asked. Whatever it looks like, forgiveness is essential for discipleship. We can see a prime example in Matthew 6:12, 14 and 15.

How do we unpack this complicated and profoundly emotional topic? Let’s do it in two parts. In part one, let’s address this question: Why should we forgive? In part two, let’s ask: How do I know if I’ve forgiven someone?”

Why Should We Forgive? Jesus Says So!

The direct answer is that Jesus tells us to. In His teachings, Jesus clearly instructs his followers to forgive. Forgiveness is the only part of his prayer in Matthew 6 that He immediately returns to. It’s that important to him.

Besides Jesus’ teachings, there are also His practices. Jesus is a forgiver. The most famous example comes from the cross, when he says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).” Now, if that’s not just about the most incredible act of forgiveness in the history of the world, I don’t know what is. It’s clear from Jesus’ life, in His teaching and practice, that when He says, “Forgive,” He means it.

Why Should We Forgive? It Affects Our Relationship with God

We should also forgive because it affects our relationship with God. If we forgive others, God will forgive us. If we don’t forgive others, God will not forgive us. Is anyone else a little stumped by that one? It’s confusing because it sounds like Jesus says we aren’t saved if we don’t forgive. That’s a thorny theological discussion.

Maybe exploring the different parts of salvation will help. There are three – justification, sanctification, and glorification. Justification is what Ephesians 2:8-9 outlines. The moment that you ask Christ to be your Lord and Savior, you are justified. From that moment, you can genuinely say, “I am saved.”

But there’s also sanctification. Sanctification is the process of becoming more and more like Jesus. It’s maturing as we walk with God. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to grow us as we listen and seek God’s way. Last is glorification. Glorification is when we are ultimately saved, and that process of salvation is finally complete. We call it glorification because it will happen one day in heaven, in glory.

When we refuse to forgive someone, it doesn’t change the fact that we are justified. But the moment I refuse to forgive, it begins to stunt my growth. It stunts my joy, maturing in the Lord, and the blessings the Holy Spirit wants to give me. From that moment, I lose my effectiveness in making a difference for Christ.

William Barclay says, “Human forgiveness and divine forgiveness are inextricably inter-combined. Our forgiveness of our fellow-men and God’s forgiveness of us cannot be separated.”

So, is there some connection between salvation and forgiveness? Yes. How does it play out? That’s trickier. I think the safest bet is to remember that forgiven people forgive people.

Why Should We Forgive? It’s Good for You

But the best reason we should forgive others is it’s the only way to be good to ourselves.

Do you remember a character from Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations named Ms. Havisham? She is one of the first characters that the young protagonist, Pip, encounters. Ms. Havisham’s entire life is dominated by one terrible thing that was done to her in her youth: her fiance abandoned her on their wedding day. At that moment, time seemed to stop.

She lives in a mansion that is falling apart because nothing in it has been touched, moved, cleaned, or altered in any way since that day. The wedding table is still laid out with all the goblets, plates, and napkins, untouched since that day. The food has now either decayed or was eaten by the rats since that day. She wears her wedding dress, not every now and again, but every single day since that day. With nothing but vengeance and pain in mind, she adopts Estella and raises her to be cruel towards Pip as some retrospective, retributive plot.

Why should we forgive others?

Because the person who is hurt the most by unforgiveness is the unforgiving one.

Otherwise, we will always live as if it’s “since that day.” Forgiveness is the only way to be good to yourself.

How Do I Know? 

Finally, the question that started it all and what a daunting question it is. So many people I’ve encountered wrestle with it. They want to forgive, but the pain of the past is just too real.

Jesus’s disciples recognized this in Luke 17:3-5.

“‘So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.'” The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!'” 

“Increase our faith.” Have you heard a better response to forgiveness? C.S. Lewis nails it when he says, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” Additionally, the kind of forgiveness Jesus teaches is extreme. Allow a slight paraphrasing:

“So, Jesus, if someone sins against me seven times but repents, I’m supposed to forgive them every time?”


“What if someone comes up and punches me right in the nose but then repents? I’m supposed to forgive them? Then, let’s say they do that six more times. Do I keep forgiving them?”


“You’re saying that if someone repeatedly hurts me, wounds me, wounds my soul even, but every time they say, ‘Sorry about that. I shouldn’t have done that to you.’ I’m supposed to say, ‘That’s okay. I forgive you?'”


“Do I look like some fool? What you’re asking is ridiculous. If that’s what forgiveness is, then you’ll have to increase my faith because I can do that on my own.”

Seven Means Boundless

That’s what really bothers some about what Jesus says here, the repetitiveness. Jesus asks us to forgive over and over and over again, no matter how many times we get hurt. It seems like it’s never-ending. At what point can I stop forgiving someone? The eighth time? The ninth? The tenth? Where does the buck stop?

And Peter picks up on it, too. In Matthew 18, he even asks Jesus directly, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” And Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” You may have heard it elsewhere said, “Seventy times seven.”

So, what is it? Seven times? Seventy-seven times? Seventy times seven? Why all the numbers? What do they all have in common? It’s that number seven. Seven is a highly significant number in scripture. Seven represents boundlessness, foreverness, or everlastingness, and perfection. Jesus is trying to get his followers to understand that forgiveness is a boundless endeavor, an everlasting process with no end.

How do I know if I’ve truly forgiven someone? There’s no answer.

There’s no answer because forgiveness is something that a person chooses to do every day. Each morning, we awaken to God’s fresh mercy, that’s the same number of mornings God asks us to give fresh mercy to others. And God never forgets to provide us with mercy. The book of Lamentations says, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).”

Forgiveness Is Not Cheap

Is forgiveness cheap, then? Do we stop feeling the pain of our past? No.

In 1974, Chris Carrier was abducted by David McAlister, one of his father’s employees. He was tricked into McAlister’s van, where he was stabbed repeatedly, shot in the head, and then left for dead. Without any physical evidence tying him to the crime, McAlister got off Scott-free.

Chris survived, but that’s not the only incredible part of the story. Later in life, Chris had the chance to meet McAlister. In September 1996, Chris received a call from the authorities informing him that McAlister, then a dying 77-year-old man in a nursing home, had finally confessed to the crime. The officer’s next question caught Chris off guard: “Would you like to meet him?”

Chris says, “I hesitated. Over the years, when I gave my testimony, people would ask what I would do if I could talk to the man who tried to kill me. I always said I would jump at the chance. It was here.”

Chris did visit McAlister, and in a profoundly moving meeting of humanity at its best, Chris told McAlister that he had forgiven him for what he had done. Then Chris went even further. He asked, “Can I come back and revisit you?” Chris met with McAlister several times. Less than a month after their first visit, Chris shared the gospel with David McAlister and decided to trust Christ with his life.

News channels around the nation pounced on the story. They asked McAlister, “What do you make of this Chris Carrier person? Is he crazy?” McAlister replied, “Chris Carrier is my best friend.”

Don’t Give Up On Forgiveness

How do I know if I’ve truly forgiven someone? There’s no answer to the question. But I know I am outside of the Jesus way when I give up and choose unforgiveness. The moment I say, “That’s too far. That’s unforgivable. I can’t get over what they’ve done to me.”

The disciples said, “Increase our faith. It’s too hard, Jesus. I can’t do it by myself.” Jesus says elsewhere, “If you have faith even as small as even this little ol’ mustard seed, you can do much bigger things than that.”

Ryan Chandler

Ryan Chandler

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