For many years, I was a part of a team that conducts revival meetings in local churches across the United States.1 I remember one particular church where the Spirit of God moved in an unusual way, bringing many church members to brokenness and repentance. During the course of those weeks, a doctor fell under intense conviction and finally confessed to his wife his most devastating, well-kept secret: he had been carrying on an adulterous relationship with a nurse in his office.
Maybe you’ve been where this wife found herself. Maybe you are there. And the shock, betrayal, disgrace, and selfishness of it all still make your insides hurt.
I suppose none of us can ever quite know how we’d react initially to that kind of revelation. This man’s wife didn’t know either. Of course, the shock was huge and the pain gut-wrenching. But somehow, as she struggled to process the revelation of her husband’s infidelity, she found herself inexplicably overwhelmed with the awareness that she must forgive him. It wasn’t that she was living in some dream world of self-denial, but as she later recounted, “How could I not forgive him, when God had forgiven me so completely?”
Incredibly, carried by the grace of God, she even sat down later and wrote a note to the “other woman,” assuring her that she had been forgiven. The very next day, the woman showed up at her door and exclaimed through her tears, “Because of your forgiveness, I have come to know the Lord.”
How can that happen in real life? With real people with real feelings?
Maybe the better question is not “how?” but “why?”
The answer is not some sort of superficial, sentimental response we’re supposed to be able to muster up toward those who have hurt us. It’s not blithely shrugging off the offense as if nothing had happened.
In his classic devotional book My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers reminds us that at the crux of the whole issue of forgiveness is the cross of Christ. There is no forgiveness possible apart from the cross—and the cross is no trifling matter.
It is shallow nonsense to say that God forgives us because He is love. . . . The love of God means Calvary—nothing less; the love of God is spelt on the Cross, and nowhere else. The only ground on which God can forgive me is the Cross of my Lord.2
We tend to forget that. We somehow have the idea that God has forgiven us purely out of His kindness, just because He wanted to. Forgiveness is what we sort of expect from a God who wouldn’t mind going out of His way to be extra nice to us.
But it makes a huge difference when we realize the ground on which our forgiveness was procured. If we are to forgive others as God has forgiven us, we need to understand how He forgave us.
Calvary required an agony we cannot fully comprehend. On the cross, Jesus took our sin upon Himself, enduring the wrenching consequence of broken fellowship with the Father—the One He adored, the One from whom He had never experienced a moment’s separation. That is impossible for us to fully grasp.
We can at best only imagine what the Father and Son must have endured when, for the first time ever, the cost of our sin interrupted their eternal fellowship.
But it is from this “tremendous tragedy,” Chambers writes, that our forgiveness is won. “To put forgiveness on any other ground is unconscious blasphemy.”3
Those are strong words. So are these: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses. . . . For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 1:7; 2:14).
Forgiveness isn’t meant to be free and easy. It is hard. It is costly. It is painful.
But this is the only way it can be real—real like God’s forgiveness of us is real—real enough to truly change us.
Nancy Leigh DeMoss and Lawrence Kimbrough, Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008).
We have just released a new Bible Study based on Nancy Leigh DeMoss’s book, Choosing Forgiveness.
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
Choosing Forgiveness, Lesson #1
What Happens When We Refuse?
Choosing Forgiveness, Lesson #2
The Promise of Forgiveness
Choosing Forgiveness, Lesson #3
The Art of Forgiveness
Choosing Forgiveness, Lesson #4
What True Forgiveness Is — And Isn’t
Choosing Forgiveness, Lesson #5
Returning a Blessing