Say you’re sorry to your sister. Now, say something nice to your bother and make up. Or vice versa. Variations of this scene play out in my house daily. They love each other, yet because they’re so close, they fight like cats and dogs. So, we have plenty of opportunities to work on apologies and forgiveness. As I’ve watched this dynamic play out time and again, I’ve begun to realize that while an apology is an action (even one I can force them to do), forgiveness is harder. It can’t be forced. It can’t be demanded. It can’t be done if your heart’s not ready and willing.
Forgiveness is a state of the heart
Forgiveness is more about the softening of our heart toward someone who’s wronged us, rather than any particular action or words. It’s a state of our hearts, a heart filled with love instead of bitterness. It’s a heart softened by God to love others as He loves us.
“So it is with the spirit of forgiveness; it ceases to be forgiveness if it is a matter of count and reckoning; it is a state of heart which will manifest itself naturally, and as occasion for it arises; and just as the sight of beauty draws forth admiration, and as the presence of suffering awakes compassion, so the sight of penitence, if you believe it to be genuine, calls forth the spirit of forgiveness, and you should no more ask, How often must I forgive, than how oftenest I love, or pity or admire?” (From a sermon on Christian Forgiveness by the Rev. Archibald Watson, 1880)
A heart closed to forgiveness allows bitterness to take root
When we don’t have forgiveness in our heart, we instead become filled with bitterness, rage, anger, and more. That unforgiveness takes root in our hearts and settles into our character. The longer it stays in our hearts, the harder it is to root it out.
Someone at work once falsely accused me something I absolutely didn’t do. I was hurt that she’d question my character in this way. I was angry and refused to speak to her for weeks. As time went on, bitterness began to set in. I’d moved beyond the initial issue and my innocence had been proven, yet now I was bitter and resentful. That’s a hard way to live, especially when it’s someone you have to see everyday. I knew I had to forgive her, but I also knew that was going to be difficult. Even though I said a public forgiveness, my heart was still angry and hurt. The harder work was the true forgiveness in my heart. It took weeks to let it all go, but when I finally did it lightened my heart.
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32 NIV)
Forgiveness is not action, but an attribute of our character
Apologies are something we do. They’re an action. Now, we may have some heart work to do in order to truly feel apologetic and repentant. Forgiveness is harder. It’s not an action, not just words we can say to someone. Rather, forgiveness comes out of our hearts and our character. We forgive because God forgives us – and He forgives us over and over and over.
“The forgiveness of others is not an act by itself, which can be separated from the Christian character, or added to it at will. It is part of that character and inherent in it. It comes of God and of the spirit God creates by His forgiving love.” (From a sermon on Christian Forgiveness by the Rev. Archibald Watson, 1880)
As we learn to live as Jesus teaches, we can begin to live with a heart for forgiveness. It becomes an extension of the love, compassion, mercy, and grace that we’ve received from Jesus and that we learn to freely give to others. Forgiveness can become a way of life if we’ll only let it.
Do you have bitterness in your heart? Do you have someone in your life you need to forgive? It’s not easy to forgive, especially those who have done horrible things to us or our loved ones. So, how will you begin to open your heart to forgiveness today? How will you accept God’s forgiveness, His mercy and grace? Then, how will you extend it to someone else?