Pre-forgiveness Is Essential Before You Can Genuinely Forgive

Pre-Forgiveness Prerequisite Before You Can Genuinely Forgive

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Have you ever granted forgiveness to someone who hurt you? Did you mean it? Did you really mean it? Or did you say, “I forgive you,” because it is the Christian thing to do? I’m not asking this question with a cynical eye. I’m asking because I know from personal experience there are times we can mouth the words “I forgive you,” but the heart can be far from genuine. We can succumb to Christian speak to smooth over the situation, but our internal logic says we have more heart work to do to be right with God and the person we supposedly forgave.

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Forgiveness Illustrated

Will you take my little test on genuine forgiveness? After you forgave the person, were you able to talk about the hurt in such a way that communicated you were no longer managed by those hurts—whether you were speaking with God, yourself, or the offender? A sign of complete biblical forgiveness is when you can be offended, grant forgiveness, and talk about what happened to you without being controlled by the actions of those who hurt you. Though granting forgiveness can be a better version of how our culture works through their relational problems, it can be no more effective if the forgiveness is not complete. A struggle to be genuine with the offender does not mean your forgiveness granting was not real, but it could mean your forgiveness is incomplete if you cannot genuinely let it go.

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Genesis 50:20).

The speaker in this verse is Joseph, the son of Jacob. He is talking to his brothers, who initially tried to kill him but changed their collective minds and sold him to a ragtag group of slave traders. Joseph spent thirteen mostly horrible years away from his family while being accused of a crime he did not commit, which landed him in jail. During jail time, he was betrayed by those who could help him. It’s hard to understand what happened to Joseph. Any of those incidents during his thirteen years would be enough to ruin his thoughts about God and life for the rest of his life. When we break into the story at Genesis 50:20, he finally has a chance to let his brothers know what he thought about their transgressions toward him. After thirteen astonishing years, Joseph has his first opportunity to face the instigators of his hardships. His response was forgiveness. Amazing grace. Joseph was ready for the moment. The Lord prepared his heart to grant the long overdue forgiveness to his persecutors.

What Is Pre-forgiveness?

In this story, we don’t see the prerequisite heart work necessary for Joseph to be willing, gracious, and genuine to forgive his offenders. He had to do business with God before he could do business with his brothers. Missing this essential step in the forgiveness process means missing the opportunity to go the distance with someone who needs your forgiveness. This step is crucial because it gives you time to perceive the Lord’s thoughts—as much as His thoughts can be ascertained—about what happened to you (Isaiah 55:8-9). You must reasonably establish a theologically precise understanding of God in your mind while convinced He is working good (Romans 8:28) in your life—even if it is in ways you did not expect or have not perceived up to this point in your narrative. This process to forgiveness is the prerequisite work of pre-forgiveness.

When bad things happen to me, I can only process and accept them correctly after I have gained sovereign clarity on my troubles. Joseph had sovereign clarity. Do you have sovereign clarity on the disappointments in your life? When you review the movie of your life, can you see it with sovereign intentions? Suppose you cannot trust God’s good work on your behalf. In that case, you will be a candidate for harboring bitterness, anger, anxiety, discouragement, criticism, resentment, cynicism, and even hate toward those who have hurt you. Not anchored by God’s sovereign care of your life will make you like a kite in the wind. The Lord must be your anchor point as sin angles to capture you. Here are a few ways sin tries to snare its prey after someone does a dastardly deed.

  • Our emotions enslave us as we continue to dwell on the offending person’s actions.
  • Our thoughts fixate on the hurt and what the person did to us.
  • We struggle to process the nature of our relationship with the person.
  • Our attitude toward the offender ensnares us.
  • There is a relational awkwardness between us and the offender.
  • Our hearts swirl in fluctuating desires as we try to gain clarity from the Lord.

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Pre-forgiveness Illustrated

Mable’s husband committed adultery. It was the most devastating news of her life. It took many months of biblical care, among many friends, in the context of her local church to help her walk through the crushing anguish of her heart. She called it her nightmare from Hades. When Biff repented, he eventually returned to Mable to ask for her forgiveness. His repentance was genuine; God changed Biff’s heart. What he did not know is that Mable had already done business with God. She was ready to grant forgiveness. Her brand of forgiveness was more than her Christian duty. It was a God-centered, grace-empowered, gospel-motivated forgiveness. Mable was like Joseph. When the time came for forgiveness, the hard work of pre-forgiveness was over, and she was willing to grant genuine forgiveness.

The incredible power of the gospel was working in her heart. Mable had prayed for nearly fifteen years that God would complete their marriage. They had sex while dating, and though she never felt right about marrying Biff, it seemed like a better option than staying single. Mable was lonely. After their marriage, she became lonelier. Because of Biff’s ongoing bouts of anger, their three sons rebelled against God. Biff and Mable were also struggling financially. They professed to be Christians though their church commitment was nominal. In God’s autonomous and non-manipulatable timeframe, He answered Mable’s fifteen-year prayer request to fix her marriage.

What did He do? He blew it up. God dropped a bomb in the middle of their marriage and blew it to smithereens. It’s impossible to adequately describe the devastation on Mable and the children, especially if you have not lived it. From all perspectives, it made no sense. To find good or God in their mess was an incredible leap in human logic (1 Corinthians 1:25). As the numbness began to wear off, Mable began to seek God’s thoughts on what was happening in her life, marriage, and family. That was when she came to the story of Joseph. Mable learned that God not only worked in the present, but He planned for the future.

Living in God’s Story

Joseph and his family could not know that there would be a famine in the land, and the sovereign Lord needed someone in Egypt to set up things so that He could preserve the nation of Israel. As you know, God was not just doing this for the nation of Israel or Joseph’s family. He did this because of His promise to Adam (Genesis 3:15) and Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). Humanity needed a Savior (Galatians 4:4), and that Savior would come through Jacob’s lineage. The bomb the good Lord dropped on Jacob’s family flung Joseph to Egypt. According to God’s predetermined plan, He scripted bad things into Joseph’s life. Tossed in the crucible of suffering is what Joseph and Mable believed the Lord was up to with them, which motivated them to give up trying to control their respective stories while humbly stepping into God’s story.

Joseph and Mable had sovereign clarity. It did not mitigate the pain or the dysfunction, but it did give them hope. After they had come to that place in their understanding, they were ready to move forward with God’s new plans for their lives. The situation became less about what was happening to them and more about what God was doing through them. When you think through your disappointments, are you more aware of and affected by what God is doing, or are you more aware of and impacted by who did what to you? Can you humbly let go of the narrative you have been holding to and grasp the script God is writing for you? Perhaps you can do as Joseph did, as he shared three things with his brothers: What God did was for good. What they did was evil. God’s good trumped their evil.

Therefore, he could forgive his brothers for what they did to him. What controls your heart: What God allowed, or what the offender did? Where do you put the accent mark: On the good of God or the evil of a person? How you answer those questions will determine the depth and quality of your forgiveness. If you cannot get to where Joseph was, you cannot release those who have sinned against you. One of the ways you can check your heart regarding your forgiveness of others for what they did to you is by how you think about what they did to you and how you talk about them. Proper thinking about personal suffering is where the gospel must have a more incredible grip on us than what others have done to us. One of the ways we can practicalize the gospel is how we perceive the offenses of others in light of our transgressions against the Lord.

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Restoring Relationships

The cross of Christ has a way of downsizing the violations of others by giving me a proper perspective on my actions against God. If the same gospel that saved my soul cannot overcome the disappointment of others, the “gospelization” of my heart is not yet complete. Forgiveness flows out of a softened heart. The longer you stand before the Holy Lord you offended, the better it will go for you when you stand before the one who offended you. If you have done this well, you are in an excellent place to forgive the person who hurt you. The power of the gospel makes forgiveness real and practical.

Forgiveness is typically not the most challenging aspect if you have wrestled through pre-forgiveness. Note how Joseph was ready to forgive his brothers. He had thirteen years to figure this out with the Lord. I am not suggesting you need thirteen years to figure it out, but you must understand this concept—no matter how long it takes. If you do the hard work of pre-forgiveness, it will not be as difficult when the time comes for forgiveness. However, if it is hard, you must spend more time before the Lord because some residual anger toward Him and others is likely operating in your heart. We are all sovereigntists. Whether we consciously think about it or not, we all know that there is a god that ultimately controls everything. We call Him Jehovah.

Therefore, if you cannot forgive others for what happened to you, you must resolve the underlying issue between you and God first. Once you have sovereign clarity and can freely forgive the person who hurt you, you will be able to go beyond the hurt by genuinely reconciling with the offender. Freedom to forgive is the best part, but it gets better. When Lucia and I make up in the way I have described here, we begin discussing the sin that separated us. The evil that enslaved us is now serving us. The sin becomes a practical working illustration we can talk about to grow and mature to the point where we reduce the amount of future sinning against each other. It should not be difficult to speak of sin if the power of the gospel has neutralized it. Killing it is vital because revisiting our past sins in non-punitive ways is essential to learn from our mistakes.

Call to Action

Here is the biblical linkage to maturity in a meaningful relationship:

  1. Pre-forgiveness: When you allow God to adjust your heart so you can forgive.
  2. Forgiveness: When you genuinely grant forgiveness to someone who hurt you.
  3. Reconciling: When sin no longer separates you from the other person.
  4. Maturing: When you neutralize the sin so you can discuss it with the hope that you don’t do it again.

Just as Joseph could talk to his brothers in a non-punitive way about what they did to him, you should be able to have similar discussions with your friends who sin against you. God answered Mable’s prayer by blowing up her marriage, and she had enough sovereign clarity to accept and respond to her marital disappointment. That was seven years ago. The God-glorifying marriage she and Biff have today has swallowed those dark days, transforming them into a gospel tapestry. Though she was the one who was offended, she had a significant role to play in the restoration of her marriage. It began with the preparatory work in her heart. She was ready to forgive.

  1. Has someone sinned against you? What did they do? How do you believe God intends to bring glory to Himself and restoration of the offender with you?
  2. Are you able to forgive if they were to ask for your forgiveness? If not, you want to think through and apply what you have read to prepare your heart to forgive either attitudinally or transactionally.
  3. If you are ready to humbly forgive, whether they ever ask you to forgive them, you are free from their sin. There will be some situations where the offender does not seek forgiveness, but that should not hinder you from having a heart of forgiveness, freeing you from the offenses whether they are ever free.

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