Forgiveness may be at once both the most necessary of responses to the grace that God has bestowed upon us and the most misunderstood (and, consequently, the most neglected). I hesitate in even attempting to address the wonderful and mysterious world of forgiveness in such a short article because it is both very simple and very complex.
For example, the fact that Jesus commanded us to forgive notwithstanding, it is when we spend ourselves in this very activity that we most resemble our Father in heaven as well as find ourselves being groomed for full and unfettered fellowship with Him.
"Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. …Forgive your brother from your heart…. For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 18:21-22, 35b; Luke 6:14-15 NIV).
Frankly, Jesus Himself is the embodiment of forgiveness – literally! He not only lived forgiveness in the daily wear and tear of life, He demonstrated it perfectly in interceding for His haters and persecutors while dying at their hands.
"When they hurled their insults at Him (Jesus), He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him (God the Father) Who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23 NIV).
It is not an illogical assumption then to move on from His forgiveness for those who were physically involved in His suffering and crucifixion to the realization that we, too, are culpable (guilty) of His death because it was our sin (mine as well as yours) for which He laid down His sinless life as payment (restitution) to God the Father for the breaking of His holy Law. And if He, sinless and guileless, could pray, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34 NIV), then we can be expected to employ that same attitude towards others.
We do, after all, belong to Him once we have placed our faith in Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord. We are therefore intended to partake of His nature by submitting to the lordship of His Holy Spirit and allow Him to transform our character as well as our hearts.
We are consequently expected to forgive. This is where we must attempt to clarify what we mean by forgiveness. Forgiveness in the Scriptures had a strong connotation associated with financial dealings between people. If you borrowed money from someone, then you owed that person a debt. If you could not repay the debt, the one who made the loan could "forgive" that debt, canceling it so that recompense would not be pursued and the fact of owing him would not be held over your head. If the debt was not forgiven, failure to repay could result in imprisonment, slavery, or forfeiture of something very dear and near to either your heart or your survival (like your livestock, your land, or even your own children).
Forgiveness in the relational sense works pretty much the same way. When you have been hurt or "sinned against", then the one who has injured you has incurred a debt to you. This is why we often struggle with a temptation to "get even" or "settle the score" when someone hurts us (physically, emotionally, or materially). It is important that when someone has hurt us that we not dismiss it or rationalize it, but acknowledge it to the Lord, so that we can then forgive.
Some opinions on forgiveness argue that we pretend that nothing ever happened. That's not forgiveness in the biblical sense. Our Lord never dismissed sin as a trivial matter but in extending forgiveness to others, exhorted them to stop sinning and live transformed lives (see John 8:11 as an example).
If you have been hurt by someone, you are not called upon to willfully hand him the means to do so again when he will likely do so. Nor is it expected that if someone has fallen morally that we, in forgiving her, place in front of her again whatever it was that tempted her in the first place. It would be a bad idea, for instance, to have someone who has been convicted of embezzlement handle your money without very close monitoring. And it would not be wise to allow someone who struggles with narcotic addictions to have access to your painkillers. And forgiveness does not mean that we pursue relationships that are abusive or endanger our lives or the lives of our loved ones.
Forgiveness is simply the releasing of someone else from indebtedness to you. It is taking the position that the offending party is not going to be held to account for his or her actions (by you at any rate) and you will offer to him or her the same kind of love that Jesus has shown you. Forgiveness is when we let ourselves off the hook of trying to make others pay for their misdeeds or hurtful words. Instead, we just let it go.
Furthermore, forgiveness is something that we give even when it has not been requested by others. Note that Jesus sought forgiveness for those who had not sought such forgiveness. Forgiving others who may not care one bit whether or not we forgive them, is not about taking on an air of spiritual superiority, but is a matter of quietly releasing them from indebtedness to ourselves and entrusting their behaviors, attitudes, and actions to the Lord.
Forgiveness is, as you might have guessed, a key arena in which we employ faith in God. Forgiveness both frees us from a bondage to anger and hate, but also helps to move us "out of the way" of God's redemptive work in the lives of others. Forgiveness even allows us to be entrusted by God with a ministry of intercession (praying on the behalf of others) and might, perhaps, be the very means by which the seeds of God's grace can enter the life of someone else who needs God's help as much as we did before we were forgiven by God of our sin and given the prize of salvation.
"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Colossians 3:13-14 NIV).
Just so you know, forgiving others is not something that we can necessarily do on our own. When one has been deeply hurt, or hurt repeatedly over time, it requires more than an effort of our own will to disentangle ourselves from the complex web of emotions that are spun from our anger, grief, and fear. In other words, there will likely be occasions when you will need the help of God's Holy Spirit to be successful in forgiving others – even though you "try" with all your might to do so on your own. When in such straits, cry out to the Lord to deliver you from the terrible bondage of unforgiveness and trust that He will give you the same heart for others that Jesus has for us.