Forgiveness is defined as “the wiping out of an offense from memory; it can be effected only by the one affronted. Once eradicated, the offense no longer conditions the relationship between the offender and the one affronted, and harmony is restored between the two.”1
The forgiveness process on the other hand is how we forgive. We often like to jump directly to forgiveness immediately after an offense but it is not that simple. Forgiveness has a process and without this process, I would argue, true forgiveness is not possible. The process of forgiveness is broken into 5 stages. Those stages are
The forgiveness process has to always start with an offense. Without an offense, there is nothing to forgive, therefore is no forgiveness process. Now the offense could be something as simple as someone forgetting your birthday/anniversary or as complex as someone cheating on you or gossiping about you. The offense is always the first stage of the forgiveness process.
“26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.”
The next stage is anger. This is our immediate and human response to an offense. When we find out someone was stealing from us, gossiping about us, or even lying to us we are immediately filled with anger. This is our emotional reaction to an offense and is not necessarily wrong. However, in Ephesians, we see that we should not let the sun go down on our anger. We should not live in our anger and we should not let it grow. Yes, we will immediately feel angry but we should work through our anger and into the other stages of forgiveness.
“28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
After anger, comes a stage I think most people would like to forget about or skip over. It is the confrontation stage of forgiveness. Now confrontation tends to make some people very uncomfortable and if that is you we can just call this the “Conversation Stage”. The goal of this stage is to make known to the person who offended you that they have offended you. We can very easily rationalize in our minds that “They should know they hurt us” however they may not realize they hurt you or may not know how deeply it has hurt you. No matter what the offense we are still called to bring our hurts and the offense to the offender and make it known to them. This can be a very uncomfortable and vulnerable stage but it is a necessary stage in the forgiveness process. During this confrontation, we must take Paul’s words into consideration “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29)
“31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
The fourth stage of forgiveness is the examination stage. This is the stage where you look in at yourself and out at your relationship with the offender. You will ask questions like
The goal of this stage is to recognize and remove the bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice we have against this person.
“32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
And the last stage is forgiveness. This is not a one-and-done decision but a constant decision we need to make to forgive our offender. As we see in Ephesians we are called to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgive others. How and why should we do this? because God has forgiven us. We can forgive because God forgave first. God gives us the ability to forgive but that does not mean it’s easy. The forgiveness process may take days, months, or even years. We may wish we can go directly to the forgiveness part but forgiveness is a process and we must follow that process.
1. David Noel Freedman, ed., “Forgiveness,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 831.