Exploring Forgiveness Part 1

by Susan Bowman

Part 1: Why Is It So Hard To Forgive?

There are some common church teachings that I hate hearing taught. This is mostly for two reasons. One, I have heard the subject taught over and over and I still don’t understand it. Or, two, I come away from hearing the teaching feeling hopeless and condemned. Here’s an excellent example of a number two that was e-mailed to me recently from someone with whom I’m praying. Now this person was horribly, indescribable abused by her mother. Here’s the condensed version of the sermon she heard. “If you’re anxious and fearful then you are sinning.” She wrote in her e-mail that she was in big trouble if fear and anxiety are sins.

Here’s what I wrote back. Is it a sin to be nauseated, to run a fever, to bleed from a cut? Aren’t these symptoms of a greater problem? To me, fear and anxiety are simply symptoms. Usually they are symptoms of a broken heart. Thank you, Jesus, for giving me the ability to feel fear and anxiety, so that I can know that something is wrong, and I can seek you for wisdom and healing.

I hope you hate accusing sermons that increase our burdens as much as I do. Isn’t life hard enough?

The other kind of sermon that I hate to hear is the one that leaves me feeling confused and somehow lacking because I don’t comprehend what it appears everyone else understands. Communion is one of those subjects that I just don’t get. I’m supposed to listen to the last supper story, eat a tiny dry cracker, drink a sip of juice and instantly be physically healed or super cosmically connected to Christ. It doesn’t work for me. I partake and feel nothing different at all ever. And for my Catholic friends (I was raised Catholic, by the way) I don’t get the Eucharist deal either. I understand both of these rituals intellectually and I am well versed in the blood covenant, so don’t e-mail me any explanations, please. What I am saying is that I don’t feel, get, understand them in my inner being. I eat and drink and nothing changes on the inside where it matters. It’s as if some essential component to the teaching is always left out.
But my all-time favorite sermon topic to hate is the one on forgiveness. (Although I must admit that submission runs a close second.) I have been taught to forgive so many times I lost count waaaaayyyy back somewhere. I think this topic distresses me the most because it both confuses me AND makes me feel helpless and condemned.

This is what I have been taught about forgiveness. I had better forgive OR

  1. I’m in trouble with God BIG TIME! (*mutters* Not to mention in trouble with all my know-it-all brothers and sisters in Christ. Bless their darling hearts.)
  2. The torturers are going to get me.

Now, I don’t want to be in trouble with anyone and I sure don’t want the torturers to get me, so I’m motivated to forgive, but I CAN’T!!!! It feels so unfair that I have to forgive my abusers. It’s even worse that I have to forgive myself. (Whoa! Maybe I have I can avoid self-forgiveness. Let’s see here. If I can’t forgive my dad then … I don’t have to forgive myself because I’ve failed God. Woo Hoo!)

Then there is the added confusion of the “You Haven’t Really Forgiven Unless You Have Also Forgotten” sermon. This sermon is often delivered by abusive people to the person they abuse, thus ensuring that the abusee will hang around, trying to be a “good Christian,” while the abuser continues to abuse. Then, if someone from the pulpit teaches you to forgive and forget, you get a double whammy! This demonic teaching is specially designed to keep God’s beautiful people in abusive relationships through guilt!

So why is forgiveness so hard? It doesn’t line up with God’s loving and awesome character that he would make forgiveness mandatory AND too hard to accomplish. And yes, I have found forgiveness too hard to accomplish even with His help. (I’m aware of the Not by power, Not by Might, but by His Spirit teaching,” also the often given advice to just Let Go and Let God, as well as the ever popular Just Leave It on the Altar jingle. Don’t want you to think I haven’t been taught.)

Our Design

Here’s the tool God gave me to make forgiveness doable. After years of field testing it continues to work for me and for others. The problem with accomplishing forgiveness with the understanding most of us have been given is that we do not feel like the issue is settled. I’m saying that deep on the inside we feel like something remains unfinished or that we have been cheated in some way.

Here’s why we feel this. Because we are the image of God, justice is written into our spiritual DNA. We automatically, innately require that justice be done. This is good. This reflects our Father in us. In another words, when my dad violated me he became my LEGAL debtor. Did you catch that? It’s a legal debt he owes. I am genuinely owed by him.

So now my innate need for justice is activated. I know in my inner being that he owes me big time. And I am not going to let that debt go until I KNOW that it is paid. Guess what? I am acting like the image of God! The problem is this. There is no way my father can ever repay his debt. Think of me trying to wring a million dollars out of a homeless person. It’s futile. But regardless of how futile it is, I will try to wring payment out of my legal debtors until the cows come home. I cannot help it. It is how I am designed by God Himself!
So what can we do? Forgiveness is required, and it is probably the most powerful spiritual weapon in our arsenal. But I can’t wield it. My very design prevents me from forgiving debt without knowing deeply that the debt is paid in full, preferably with interest.

The Tool

Now I will close with prayer. Bow your heads. Joking!!!!!! Have any of you ever cosigned a loan for one of your kids? If your child defaults on the loan, you are legally responsible to pay that debt. Here’s what Jesus did for us. He cosigned my dad’s loan. He made himself legally responsible to pay any debt my dad owes. He did this for all of humanity as part of our redemption. God knows that we cannot accomplish forgiveness unless we are sure that our legal debts will be paid. So, in Christ, He became responsible for all of our debts. I can let go of the stranglehold I have on my dad because I know that Jesus will satisfy, completely satisfy, any debt that I am owed. Isn’t that sweet?

Using our sanctified imaginations, let’s all go to the cross of Christ and stand there with those who do owe us legal debts. Let’s ask the Lord to help us release our debtors, knowing that He Himself took responsibility for the debts of humanity so that He could pay all the debts that are owed. And let’s be really bold and ask for interest on those debts. And since we are already here, why don’t we ask Him to pay the debts that WE owe to others?


Lord, help me release this one and that one, those who hurt me, took advantage of me, misunderstood me. They can never pay the debts that they legally owe me. And, to be honest, I can’t pay the debts that I owe others. But here, on this cross, You cosigned all our debts, taking legal responsibility for them. I ask You to pay off the debts owed me. And You can slip a little interest in there too. Amen

For the scriptures under girding this teaching go to Part 2: Forgiveness as a Legal Transaction.