What Is Forgiveness?

What Is Forgiveness?

Should we really forgive and forget? What does that even look like?

“Welcome, Death Eaters,” said Voldemort quietly. “Thirteen years . . . thirteen years since last we met. Yet you answer my call as though it were yesterday . . .We are still united under the Dark Mark, then! Or are we?” . . .

One of the men suddenly flung himself forward, breaking the circle. Trembling from head to foot, he collapsed at Voldemort’s feet.

“Master!” he shrieked, “Master, forgive me! Forgive us all!”

Voldemort began to laugh. He raised his wand.


The Death Eater on the ground writhed and shrieked. . . . Voldemort raised his wand. The tortured Death Eater lay flat upon the ground, gasping.

“Get up, Avery,” said Voldemort softly. “Stand up. You ask for forgiveness? I do not forgive. I do not forget.1

We read this excerpt from one of the best-selling books of our time—Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—with a delightful shudder. The morbidly narcissistic character Lord Voldemort fits every requirement of an antagonist: insatiable power-lust, perverse drive for immortality, tyrannous cruelty.

We love to hate Voldemort.

Yet even as we denounce Voldemort’s evil display, something about his actions speaks a question to our subconscious. We know he’s the bad guy, but something at our core is rattled by Voldemort’s dramatic exhibition.

We wonder, Can true forgiveness exist? What would that even look like?

An Impossible Ideal?

We’ve heard that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”2 All that we experience on earth and through history seems to confirm that. Hitler, Stalin, Robespierre, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Pol Pot—all notorious for their merciless abuse of power—provide more than enough reason for us to resist the idea of absolute authority and question the existence of universal ideals.

Our experiences with those who abuse their authority definitely influence our perceptions, but it doesn’t take such a heinous level of wickedness to chip away at our ideals. Our idea of forgiveness can become sullied even through everyday encounters. Mom couldn’t get over your choice to spend time with friends instead of coming “home” for the holidays; your friend resented you for forgetting his birthday; that woman in the Lexus shouted obscenities at you when you merged onto the interstate.

The way we define forgiveness becomes increasingly associated with those who imperfectly express it. We see all around us an attitude of un-forgiveness—or begrudging forgiveness at best. This broken version of forgiveness is the only one we know, and frankly, it leaves us cold. We quell the inner ideal of true forgiveness and turn to cynicism.

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”3

An unfortunate but natural side effect occurs when the attributes of powerful, evil men are ascribed to a powerful, holy God. We think God is angry with and disappointed in us for our transgressions, like our fellow humans so often are. We are sure that if a personal God exists, he will certainly make us pay for what we’ve done.

And we’ve heard passages in the Bible that seem to confirm this conclusion. Romans 6:23 says succinctly, “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 3:23 tells us clearly that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Well, that certainly doesn’t look good for us, does it?

Even apart from biblical teaching, many of us learned while very young that failure to obey authority figures resulted in consequences—sometimes extreme and even painful ones. As we grew up, we learned the reality that natural consequences occur as a result of our careless choices. When something goes wrong, eventually somebody has to pay.

Great Debt, Greater Payment

The verses we read above declare unequivocally that all people are unable to stand spotless before a holy God—no mere human can attain that level of perfection. We are all sinners. With sin, it is as though an infinite chasm has opened up between God and us—there’s no filling it, no paying off the debt we owe. We are like delinquents thrown into debtor’s prison, and from within prison walls, the debt that had been difficult to pay becomes insurmountable.

Christians believe the solution to this problem is simple and greater than we could have ever dared hope. The solution can be found in what Christians call the Good News—the plan of forgiveness and redemption that God designed before the dawn of time.4

If we read a little further in Romans chapter 3, we see that the passage doesn’t stop with sin. Read in full, Romans 3:23–24 states: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” And Romans 6:23 has more to say as well: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

To the Christian, sin and death are not the final words. Remarkably, the very one to whom we owed our debt, God, has given us a gift. As we look carefully at these verses, we see four important words that give us clues to what this wonderful gift is: justified, grace, redemption, life.

On the cross, Jesus suffered and died, bearing the punishment that we deserve for our sins. He did all this so that we—if we put our trust in him—will be credited with and redeemed by his perfect obedience. This is what Christians mean when they say things like “Jesus paid it all.”

God’s plan generously restores us to relationship with him and grants eternal life to those he has marked as his own.

Paid in Full

The brokenness we feel between ourselves and others, the chasm opened by sin between us and God, can only be spanned by true forgiveness. Not tit-for-tat treatment, not striving to offset the debt we owe with years of good deeds, but the kind of forgiveness that forgets.5

Perhaps you have never experienced this kind of forgiveness—a self-sacrificing, debt-paying, relationship-restoring forgiveness that comes from a place of unconditional love. For even our best efforts to forgive in our human relationships only feebly point to that ideal for which we long.

God is holy, yes. Ultimate, even, with ultimate power. That very power was put on display through his willingness to sacrifice, taking the consequences we deserved in order to make full forgiveness and restoration possible. Only he can supply ultimate forgiveness, the kind that your heart—and mine—craves.

No other will satisfy.

  1. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (New York: Scholastic, 2000), 648–49, emphasis mine.
  2. Quote by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902). The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, wrote this in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887.
  3. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” sermon given at Enfield, Connecticut, July 8, 1741.
  4. Theologian, writer, and teacher Jack Miller used to say, “Cheer up! You’re a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.”
  5. See The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Psalm 103:12. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
  6. Photo Credit: Aleshyn_Andrei / Shutterstock.com.