Forgiving Others Is Not All About You: When Forgiveness Mutates into Self-Help

We don’t need a psychologist to inform us that people who are charitable, caring, and compassionate generally rank higher on the happiness scale. We know people like this. And we’ve experienced it ourselves. We go out of our way to lend someone a hand or donate a little extra to charity, and what happens? We feel a rush of pleasure. We feel better about ourselves.

Helping others usually results in helping ourselves. This is part of Being Human 101.

But let’s imagine if this fact becomes the primary platform from which we urge people to do good deeds.

  • “Give money to charities so that you’ll feel better about yourself.”

  • “Shovel snow from the driveway of your elderly neighbor so that you can experience the sensation of being a great person.”

  • “Send flowers and a get-well card to your friend in the hospital so that you’ll be happy and realize what a caring person you are.”

If that strikes you not only as silly but self-serving, then you’re right. It is. If we go around doing good deeds with the goal of building ourselves up, feeling better about who we are, then our ostensible neighborliness is little more than camouflaged narcissism.

What’s surprising, therefore, is how this same basic mentality—as silly and self-serving as it is—has become crazy popular when speaking about forgiving others. Ask Google why we should forgive others and the thousands of answers boil down to this: for ourselves. For our benefit. For our well-being.

It’s usually expressed this way: Forgiving others is a gift we give ourselves.

But it’s not. @@Forgiving others isn’t a gift we give ourselves, but the gift that God in Christ gives to others through us.@@

What does it mean to forgive? For the Christian, it means simply this: to see all sins and all sinners in the crucified body of Jesus. And I do mean “all.” From the Nazi guard to the pedophile priest. From the petty criminal to the gossiping octogenarian. From the racist to the road-rager. All. None excepted. Jesus on the cross was all humanity compressed into one person. The one righteous man became all unrighteous people to atone for us all.

Just as we believe ourselves to be forgiven because God sees us in Christ, so to forgive others is to see them as God sees them in Christ. To forgive, in other words, is to put God’s eyes in our eyes and our eyes in God’s eyes. And those divine eyes see humanity only through the cross of Jesus.

For this reason, Paul tells us, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, to clothe ourselves with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12-13).

Note that last phrase: As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. It echoes the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Notice the order: God’s forgiveness of us leads directly to our forgiveness of others. 

But here is where something crucial emerges: the forgiveness we give is not truly ours. Forgiveness is not our personal possession. We don’t own it or control it or (worst of all) manipulate it. Forgiveness has one name written on it: Jesus Christ. He is the sole proprietor of this treasure because he is the sole cause of its existence. All true forgiveness flows from him for he is the one nailed to the cross of atonement. Absolution is the gold he mined on Calvary.

When we forgive, we do so as the Lord has forgiven us. The better we know ourselves, the deeper our awareness of the selfish, horrible, shameful thoughts and desires and words and deeds of which we are guilty, the more we know of what the Lord has forgiven us.

@@When we look over the vast sea of our own sin, it’s much harder for us to fixate on the puddle of pain, or even the lake of misery, someone has caused us.@@ Yet both—our wrongs and others’ wrongs against us—have all been poured into the mouth of God’s Son. He drank the vast sea of our evil just as he did the puddle or lake of our enemy. And not a single drop is left.

When we forgive, therefore, we forgive as those who have been forgiven. And it is not truly we who forgive but God in Christ who forgives others through us. We say, “Just as I have been made alive in Christ, so Christ through me passes on that life to you. Just as I have found new hope in my Savior, so he gives you new hope through my lips.” Far from doing this as a self-gift, the Father, in the Spirit, bestows this gift of Jesus on others who likewise need to hear such life-changing news.

Does forgiving others make us feel good? It might. If it does, thanks be to God! That’s a great comfort and source of joy.

But it also might hurt like hell. It might hurt like death to forgive. That’s no surprise, for forgiveness means something has to die. Our resentment. Our grief. Our revenge. Our desire for a pound of flesh. Our plans to keep throwing sins into the face of others. They all die in Jesus, as do we, that we might emerge into newness of life as those who know we are forgiven, and likewise forgive others.

Forgiving others isn’t all about us. @@Just as God in Christ did not absolve us for his own benefit but ours, so he passes on that same absolution to others through us for their benefit.@@

 O Lord Jesus, our great Absolution, may it ever be so among us, your beloved and forgiven children.


*I’d like to thank my friend and brother in Christ, Tim Rake, for his Facebook note, “The Feeling of Forgiveness,” that gave me the idea for this post.