I have wrestled with this topic for years and have come to all sorts of conclusions along the way. Please, I'm searching for what others perceive is God's definition of forgiveness.

If we are wronged terribly by someone, is it "ok" if there is always a bit of us that is guarded when it comes to talking/thinking/interacting with that person?

We may not feel anger or wish them any harm, but as a human being it sometimes feels almost impossible to forget the hurt that has been caused by someone else.

  • Doesn't this require knowledge on what God wants in the first place?
    – Double U
    Jul 13, 2013 at 21:34
  • @DoubleU Not sure how your question applies. In that case, how could ANYONE ever be ABSOLUTELY certain of exactly what God wants, save the Holy Spirit speaking audibly to them? Mar 20, 2015 at 13:58

7 Answers 7


I'd like to offer a different interpretation on this. I'm not going to back it up with Bible verses, you can do the legwork yourself if you want to pursue the issue further:

What is forgiveness?

I'd say it is liberating someone from the the 'debt' of whatever offence they committed against you.

When should I forgive?

(Here we depart from the 'folk orthodox' position)

The question needs to be rephrased to "when can I forgive?".

And the answer is: when the offender has asked for forgiveness, and "brought forth fruits worthy of repentance". Forgiveness is a transaction between the offender and the victim; you can't perform that transaction with just one person at the table.

Note that we're talking big, soul-destroying offences here, not "he looked at me funny on Sunday morning". (Longanimity is not a word we use much, but Christians could do with learnin' up on it).

How should I forgive?

There are basically three cases. The first two pose no problem; it's the last one we may disagree on:

  1. Offence occurs, offender realises, asks forgiveness, makes reparation, you forgive*
  2. Offence occurs, offender oblivious, you approach them, offender realises, asks forgiveness, makes reparation, you forgive*
  3. Offence occurs, offender oblivious, you approach them, offender ignores you or worse: denies everything, blames you, etc.

What can you do in the third case? You can't forgive, but you don't want to carry the worry of that unpaid debt around with you all the time.

You need a professional debt collector. Hand him all the paperwork, and get on with your life. Like Jesus: "He committed Himself to Him who judges righteously".

This is where we make the distinction between 'forgiving' and 'letting go': find someone you can trust, tell them (or write them a letter) about the offence, tell them about the consequences, perform some symbolic act (burn the letter), pray, let it go*.

*I.e. your work starts here...

How can I forgive?!

The message of the Gospel is clear: as offence calls for repentance, repentance calls for forgiveness. There's no wriggle room.

But that doesn't mean instant forgiveness (which risks being as empty and meaningless as a flippant "sorry!"), nor does it mean that the offender has a "right" to be forgiven. There is nothing more perverse than turning a victim into an offender because of their 'unreadiness' to forgive (even more so if there is no repentance).

There are verses (forgive as you have been forgiven) which I believe can become more than trite platitudes, if you let them in. But ultimately, if you are in this situation, there's not much some guy pontificating on a website can do for you. You need a flesh-and-blood someone to see you through, someone you can trust to shut up and listen, to understand, to encourage.

That person may not be your pastor/priest.

What about reconciliation?

It seems obvious that in the case where the offender refuses to recognise the offence, reconciliation is impossible. But what about in the other cases? Should you forgive and forget? Can you forgive and forget?

I don't see how you could literally forget. What you can do is cease to ruminate - but that takes time. 'Letting go' is a first step, but there will probably be many lettings go.

As for real reconciliation, that will depend on many factors. I don't see how it can be considered an obligation: if trust has been betrayed, it can't just be turned back on. Whatever happens, I'd say that it is impossible for the relationship to go back to what it was before (if there was a relationship before), and again, it will take time.

All of this takes time, but time is standing still until you can forgive, or let go.


If you are reacting against this 'redefinition' of forgiveness, you may feel more comfortable calling my letting go 'forgiveness', and my forgiveness 'reconciliation'.

Some associated (googled) reading

  • Oh man, I wish I could click the up arrow more than once, thank you very much for your thoughtful answer! Mar 27, 2012 at 14:25
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    hesitant +1 - I agree with some of this... But I don't think that forgiveness needs to involve you approaching them when they are oblivious to how they have wronged you. Consider how Jesus forgives those who are crucify him: "Father forgive them, for the know not what they do"
    – user971
    Mar 27, 2012 at 19:09
  • @Eric, you may be right, but it is a rather exceptional circumstance, which merits more examination than a) space allows and b) I'm qualified to provide. But briefly: they obviously did know they were crucifying someone, they just didn't realise who. So you could infer that Jesus was just asking the 'debt collector' to bear that in mind...
    – Benjol
    Mar 28, 2012 at 5:03
  • @KodeKreachor, for many people this is a 'novel' understanding, but it is not completely off-the-wall. But don't take my word for it. If this topic interests you, you might want to familiarise yourself with the arguments from both points of view.
    – Benjol
    Mar 28, 2012 at 5:10
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    I know you started off with a claim you wouldn't give references, but they would make this answer much better than it already is :)
    – warren
    Oct 2, 2012 at 14:17

Jesus said to be "as wise as serpents, but as gentle as lambs.". Being a Christian does not mean checking our brains at the door when it comes to interacting with the world. Indeed, we are often called to be "discerning."

My interpretation of that word is this - forgiveness doesn't mean forgetfulness.

We can still be guarded when dealing with others, and if they are looking like they are truly changing, give them more trust. When John Mark left Paul, for example, Paul initially said not to trust him. It wasn't until the end of his ministry that Paul changed his mind, mostly on the evidence of a track record.

Forgiveness would imply giving people a chance to make amends - to be different - but it doesn't imply an open invitation for somebody to demand trust that is not warranted by their behavior.


My understanding of it is this:

Both emotions and the will are involved in forgiveness and resentment. We are not fully in control of our emotions (as part of our fallen nature) but we are fully in control of our will.

The exhortation to forgive others ("forgive those who trespass against us") is referring to the will. God will not ask us to do something impossible, like exert full control over our emotions. So you may indeed be guarded with someone who has hurt you in the past. But the question is whether you nurse the resentment or make a conscious effort to forgive.

Matthew 18:21-22 New American Standard

21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven."

I have heard this interpreted as not only applying to future wrongs the person does, but also to the same wrong over and over. Sometimes we have to make multiple efforts to forgive people because our emotions keep influencing us to resent the person. But Jesus is telling us to be persistent with ourselves.


This is far from a complete answer to "what is forgiveness", but just to address one portion of your question: I don't think that forgiving someone means that you cannot take steps to protect yourself from further harm. Like if my neighbor robs my house, forgiving him does not mean that I do not lock my doors, or that I trust him with my ATM card and password.

I think forgiveness does mean that I do not punish the guilty person or demand that he be punished, and that I do not repeatedly bring up the offense. Complete forgiveness would mean that you do not demand any penalty at all. A lesser forgiveness would be to accept whatever penalty or compensation has already been taken as sufficient.

For example, suppose your neighbor breaks into your garage and steals your lawnmower. You discover it was him. You confront him and he gives back the lawnmower and apologizes profusely. Forgiveness would be to accept his apology, not press charges, and never bring the matter up again. The greatest forgiveness of all would be to tell him to keep the lawnmower.


Forgiveness means not holding ANYTHING at all against them. It's 100%. You wish them the best, you hope they grow to know Jesus. You pray for them because you love them. This in fact is what we are commanded to do to even our worst enemy. The guy who raped and killed your daughter.

I am not able to do that myself, not even close. But that is what Jesus would do, and what we should aim for.

In regards to being "guarded". That is different. Jesus said "don't throw your pearls to the pigs". You got to know who the pigs are to beware of them. But just because you know someone is say, a murderer, doesn't mean you hate them or judge them as closer to hell than you yourself are. Imagine if you visited him in a cell, you might tell him, "brother, you got to stay in here cause you might kill someone". But at the same time your heart goes out to him and you put your arm around his back and pray with him.

  • Yes, we certainly should aim to be like our Saviour, no question there. However, because of our fallen nature, how can we possibly achieve the level of forgiveness that came so naturally to Christ? Mar 24, 2012 at 15:04
  • I would say they odds are near zero. But we are forgiven.
    – Hammer
    Mar 24, 2012 at 16:14
  • Nice answer, +1 :) Mar 24, 2012 at 16:22

"I am not able to do that (forgive) myself, not even close. But that is what Jesus would do, and what we should aim for."

I can not forgive of myself either, but I recently read a story about Corrie Ten Boom who harbors Jews away from Nazis during he holocaust, and she later met a Nazi and could not forgive him.

So, she prayed for Jesus to change her heart and enable her to forgive him. She was then able to forgive him from her heart as tears came to her eyes and forgiveness flooded her physical body.

"With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”


The answer to the question lies in the text "as God has forgiven you". That is, we forgive in the same way He does.

So, how exactly does God forgive us? Does He simply change His anger into something else, or simply cancel the debt? We can with certainty say He does not forgive us by "releasing" something like feelings or debts, or arbitrarily changing something; He forgives us only by executing His Son on the cross, so that He died our deaths.

If we are to forgive each other "as" God forgives us, then we must stop disconnecting this action in our minds from His action on the cross. The "as" shows grammatically that we are to forgive with the exact same means as God forgives. The difference is that when we forgive, we invoke His completed action; we do not declare our own. This is also how Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic; He invoked the Father's action on the cross that still lay in the future. Now we invoke that same action that lies in the past. For the sins of those who will never be part of God's kingdom, we invoke God's justice to be completed perfectly in the future.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE and thanks for a great first post! Please check out the tour page and How do I write a good answer?. It would help if you could add some references to scripture and maybe a link to something published that supports this interpretation. Thanks again. Oct 18, 2013 at 15:53
  • Thanks, and here are the Scripture references for my comment above: Colossians 3:12-17; Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12. As far as another source for this interpretation, I have not yet found one other than my own recent essay, which is circulating for critique. If you'd like me to send you a copy of this essay, leave me a post.
    – Lance
    Oct 18, 2013 at 19:57

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