Brothers and sisters in Christ, would we look at Jesus hanging on the cross in excruciating torment, gasping for every agonizing breath, pierced through, covered in blood and bearing our offenders' sin along with ours, only to say, "It isn't enough! It is NOT finished. There is still more to be accomplished, a greater payment yet to be rendered. You did not complete the work or satisfy the debt!"...?
For here is the thing: if we don't believe that His sacrifice was enough to sufficiently pay the debt for everything they have done to us then how can we ever possibly believe it was enough to pay for all we have done to Him? And if we don't believe that then how can we be saved?
This is certainly not to say that the process of working through all the issues of forgiveness is not an extremely steep and difficult climb or that it does not take time. It is! It does! Sometimes it takes years to reach the top, where we are completely set free from the pain and emotional struggle of it. But the choice to forgive, the decision to actually begin the process and step onto the path is not optional for any true disciple of Jesus Christ, for He has clearly called us all to take up our cross and die daily and to count ourselves dead to sin already. We have been commanded and empowered by Him to forgive, and He Himself will work it fully in and through us if we will only yield to Him.
But when we refuse to forgive, we are only digging through the trash heap and holding ourselves prisoner within it, yet somehow convinced we will find gold there. Do we not understand how ludicrous this is? We are beloved and royal children living as self-defeating street urchins—fists up, ready for a fight and buried up to our necks in a back-alley dumpster looking for rotten scraps. The King is calling, "Come out of there, beloved child! Come home to Me and feast!" But we respond, "No, not yet! There are still more *****, decaying bags in here to scavenge through. I haven't checked that dark, rat-invested corner yet. There may be something good in there for me!" What?! Are we insane? Stop digging, let go of the bag, let Him lift you once and for all out of the dumpster and come home! Realize who you are and Whose you are!
Authentic and heart-changing forgiveness begins when we look honestly and humbly at the offense, call it what it is without minimizing it or making excuses for it, feel the full weight of the painful debt incurred against us by the offender, realize that it is simply not within his power or means to ever sufficiently pay us back in a way that could restore us to wholeness (even if he desperately wanted to), and then look fully to Jesus, trusting Him to bear the entire weight of it for us and to provide complete payment for all of the damages done to us.
It comes when we decide to give the debt 'note' fully over to Him, transferring it to Him, like a mortgage company transferring (for their own protection and profit) a high-risk house note to a different lender and thus releasing the debtor from any further obligation to re-pay us, breaking the chains of our previous expectations off of him and putting them all onto Christ. And when we do, we will find that in the transfer we come out far richer than we were before the offense was even made and the debt ever incurred.
In forgiveness we have to both lay down something and take up something, for our heart refuses to ever walk away with nothing to cling to. We have to hand our offender's heavy debt completely over to the One Who willingly carried it on Himself, along with every one of our own sins and sorrows, all the way to the cross, nailing it there and paying it in full, and then we have to receive afresh the gift of His infinite fullness in exchange.
With every offense (small or great) there arises a subsequent path of forgiveness. The greater the offense, the steeper and longer the climb to get to the end; but the steeper and longer the climb, the more spectacular and rare the views along the way and from the top. Whenever someone hurts us, we can either stay in the barren valley with the offense, miserably imprisoned by it and trying hard to keep our offender chained to it as well, or we can kick loose the chains and set out on the less-traveled mountain trail leading to freedom, healing and rest. The trailhead is the cross, and Jesus is waiting to meet us there. All we have to do is take the first step onto the trail and begin to walk it with Him as our intimate Companion and determine (and keep daily determining) to stay on it as long as it takes and one step at a time with Him as our faithful Guide, for He will certainly lead us all the way to the summit.
And we will certainly need an all-powerful, all-knowing and ever-present Guide on such an adventurous trek, as this trail is ever-winding, full of dangerous switchbacks, difficult ascents and narrow, hidden passes; but the scenery will be breathtaking and the fellowship life-changing. As we travel further and higher our perspective will dramatically change along the way, and the offense back down in the valley will become smaller and smaller in the distance until we can barely make out more than a shadow of it for all of the beauty surrounding and enfolding us. It is not necessarily that the memory of it will ever completely be forgotten so much as it will be brilliantly reframed by an exceedingly better and higher view.
At the end of the trail there lies a secret alpine garden, lush with various kinds of healing fruit that rarely grow ripe on the lower slopes of the mountains and do not grow at all in the valley of unforgiveness. Their taste, fragrance and restorative powers are beyond anything that might be understood or even imagined by those who have never dared nor sensed the need to venture any further than the foothills. Nevertheless, the garden is always open and the fruit readily available to any and all who would choose to make the glorious journey together with their LORD...and none who do will ever be sorry they came.
So why do we so often struggle to do it?
I think when we look honestly and microscopically at hindrances to forgiveness it is idolatry that stands out as the most culpable suspect. For when we forget that everything we need and most desire is found in Christ and that everything we have comes from His loving, wise and faithful hand and then someone else fails to give to us what we are so firmly convinced we need from them or takes from us what we are so sure we require, it is easy to feel justified in withholding from them our complete pardon.
It is idolatry as well which blinds us from seeing how deeply and desperately we ourselves depend on God's mercy. For when anything becomes more important to us than intimacy with Christ, we are quick to overlook our own grievous impediments to that intimacy and therefore quick to overlook Christ's unequivocal command to forgive as we have been forgiven. So then we cannot fairly approach forgiveness without humbly keeping ever before us the awareness of our own stubbornly idolatrous tendencies which seem to be always lurking under every prickly bush.
Another common but still idolatrous stumbling block is our failure to grasp and cherish God's absolute sovereignty over us, which then causes us to unduly credit our offenders with power they do not actually have—the power to ruin our lives—and to mistakenly think that by refusing to forgive we can somehow regain from them the stolen upper hand, either by trying to pay them back with evil or by trying to force them to pay us back with good, emotionally holding them prisoner and refusing to unlock the door until we have sufficiently punished them or until they have sufficiently 'blessed' us. This is a prideful self-worship which pre-supposes that our lives and their avenging are best and most safely kept in the control of our own hands and that we are entitled to more 'good' than God Himself is willing to bestow on us. It is also a dangerous exalting of others which wrongly assumes that they have within themselves the ability to grant us enough 'good' to ever fully settle their deficit account and satisfy our wounded hearts.
When we forget who we are and all we have in Christ, idolatry can also lead us into a more subtle, less honest and in some ways more damaging form of unforgiveness, one that often masquerades convincingly for a time as forgiveness but is far from the real thing. For if our offender himself is the idol whose love and approval we think we cannot live without we may be very quick to make shallow, insincere and enabling offerings to him, trying desperately to quell any conflict and to ingratiate ourselves to him (wanting to retain peace with him at any cost so that we might retain a piece of him and determining to think well of him in the hope that he might think well of us). We will call it forgiveness and think it truly is but wonder why the issue never seems to be quite settled in our heart, why he never seems to be able to meet the standard of the 'high place' on which we have erected him and why we always seem to be trying to charge his offenses against us to everyone else's account.
As long as our 'pardon' is rooted in fear of rejection, resentment and abandonment (or in any other insecure human emotion), it cannot qualify as genuine forgiveness or obedience to Christ and therefore cannot bring any measure of real peace or lasting resolution to our hearts or to the relationship. It will only keep us locked up within our own limited and easily drained ability to love, suffocating both ourself and our offender, causing resentment on both sides and robbing us of the joy of entering into a deeper love that can only come from trusting in and drawing upon the overflowing fountain of Christ's love. True forgiveness will always extend out of that flow of intimacy with Him and out of genuine worship of Him, for we can only walk like Him when we walk closely with Him and crave Him above all else.
Also it should be noted that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness of an offender depends only on your relationship with the LORD. But true reconciliation with an offender is very much dependent on their repentance. But whether or not they ever repent, whether or not we ever find true reconciling peace and healing WITH them, we can find peace about them and love them from a distance, as we let Jesus heal us on that journey and fill us with His love, peace and joy.