We’ve tried to ask for forgiveness, asked for it, or are looking for a way to ask for it in a similar way in which we sinned against others.
But for whatever reason, there are those who withhold forgiveness. That explains why my post on “5 Reasons People Won’t Forgive You” is the most read post on my blog. If you are in need of forgiveness and can’t understand why someone won’t forgive you, go read that one.
Here, I want to address how to forgive someone who is asking you for forgiveness. There are a lot of possibilities wrapped up in this, so let’s look at as much as we can.
1. Do your best to take their apology at face value.
This is tough, but use your common sense. If someone borrowed your favorite shirt and got tomato sauce on it, asks for an apology, offers to have it dry cleaned, they’re probably being sincere.
But what about more serious sin? Like adultery? Or someone who lies to you all the time? That’s tough. I deal with this frequently when I’m counseling fallen pastors and their wives. The fallen pastor will cheat with someone and then in a week say to his wife, “I’m so sorry, please forgive me.” Well, guess what, dude? She’s not ready to forgive.
But he’ll make it worse. He will say things like, “The Bible commands you to forgive me. You’re not in the will of God.” Don’t do that.
Both people in the transaction of forgiveness have a tremendous responsibility. The person who has sinned has to get their heart right. There has to be repentance (different than remorse or “feeling sorry I got caught“). But as the person who is doing the forgiving, that’s out of your control.
“Most people who are repentant and asking for your forgiveness have been dwelling on this moment for a long time. They need your forgiveness like a thirsty dog needs a drink of water. They need to hear those three words, ‘I forgive you,’ desperately.”
So what do you do? A couple of things. You can understand that there are people who may feel remorse but don’t understand that their apology is not sincere. You can tell them, “I understand that you’re apologizing to me and I appreciate it. But we are known by our fruits in our life. Please allow me time to heal emotionally and I will allow time for God to work repentance in your life. He will bring both of us to a place where we can finish the transaction of forgiveness on His time. I’m not withholding forgiveness. But I can tell you that I am storing up grace for the day when I can forgive you wholly and completely.” Or something like that.
You can also be honest with the person and tell them that it is difficult for you to process forgiveness because of the hurt. That you are working on it, earnestly and prayerfully. Ask them for patience and encourage them to look up stories of people who have endured the same kind of pain you’re going through. Ask them for empathy.
2. It’s okay to draw boundaries.
If a person has hurt you in the same way before – repeatedly – realize that forgiveness can happen, but you may need to draw a boundary.
I had a counselor tell me once that boundaries are good because they keep us from slamming the door completely. I was having trouble with a person who I believed I hated. The counselor said, “You know, God draws boundaries. He drew boundaries for the Israelites at Sinai. Some could go to the foot of the mountain. Others could go on the mountain. Moses could go to the top. Jesus had followers who could listen to his teachings. He had twelve disciples who heard more. Then he had an inner three who heard exclusive things.”
He said, “We need to be careful about shutting anyone out of our lives completely. If you cut this person out of your life completely, you will shut out any chance for the restoration of God in their life or a miracle of reconciliation in your life. So draw a boundary. Tell them that they can be part of your life. But in your life, restrict them to certain areas. Don’t tell them everything. Don’t allow them access to all areas of your heart.”
He was right. Never shut the door on someone – always leave it open just a little and allow God to do what He will do.
3. When forgiving, always be gracious.
Sometimes, someone will come up to you and ask for forgiveness for something you didn’t even know they did. Be gracious. Make sure they understand they have your full forgiveness.
Other times, you will know why they are apologizing. You’re ready to forgive and reconcile. (Trust me, it will feel great when you’re done). Guess what? Be gracious. Make sure they understand they have your full forgiveness.
What I’m saying is – most people who are repentant and asking for your forgiveness have been dwelling on this moment for a long time. They need your forgiveness like a thirsty dog needs a drink of water. They need to hear those three words, “I forgive you,” desperately. So make it clear.
Realize that at some point, we will all be standing in the need of someone’s forgiveness. In fact, we have already been there. Christ forgave us a debt we could not possibly repay. That’s why Paul tells us in Colossians 3:13 to forgive as Christ has forgiven us.
Ray Carroll is the author of “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World,” which answers many of the questions I get asked on a weekly basis.
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