Over the past year, I’ve observed that my son becomes panicky after he asks for forgiveness. If you don’t immediately assure him that you forgive him, he gets upset. He quickly becomes distressed and cries out, “You don’t forgive me!”
I do find it endearing that children are much more open about their emotions compared to adults. When my son feels this hard emotion, he expresses it openly and in an impassioned way. As best as I can put words to the state of his little heart in these moments, his cry is “Are we okay? Are we okay?” When you have sinned and ask for forgiveness, the reality is you are indebted to the other person. The relationship is vulnerable at that moment because of your offense. You are at their mercy. And even at five years old, my son can sense that vulnerability, and he wants reassurance that all is okay between us.
I can certainly relate to the distress he is feeling, though as an adult it doesn’t tumble out of me in a frantic manner. It is an uncomfortable feeling to know you have done harm to a relationship. The time between your confession and the other person extending forgiveness is also quite uncomfortable. And sometimes we do have to wait. Sometimes it’s because the person is not ready to forgive; they explain that they need more time. Sometimes the person might just be so angry that even offering three words of grace, “I forgive you,” is too high of a wall to climb; it just seems impossible given how they’re feeling. Or sometimes someone may even decide to be stingy and withhold forgiveness for longer periods of time. They relish the power that it affords them to keep the other person in their debt.
None of these are advisable responses, of course, and if we were having a conversation together, I’d want to consider how to move toward a gracious response when someone is in your debt! But these reactions are common and don’t surprise us. The problem is that we can start to think that maybe God is like us.
Does God, like us, struggle to extend forgiveness when we ask him?
Does he get caught up in his anger, like we do, and withdraw from us?
Does he get frustrated by our repeated, selfish offenses against him and feel it’s necessary to put some distance between us, even for a little while?
The answers to these questions are no, no, and no. And while these are certainly the correct answers, we need to be reminded again and again—lest we slip back into thinking that God struggles even just a little bit in the ways we struggle to extend forgiveness. Because if he does, then we have good reason to be distressed indeed. But he doesn’t struggle like we do. Instead, he comforts our anxieties with words like these:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Faithful and just to forgive. There’s no sense of him hesitating, is there? Instead, we sense that he stands ready to receive us. How is that possible? How can he faithfully forgive us, and justly forgive us, each and every time, with no holding back, with no hesitation? John tells us a few verses later that he can do it because Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:2).
Your sins are already atoned for. Jesus positioned you to be received by the Father by offering himself as the penalty for your sins. Jesus’ sacrifice opened the door for you, and as you confess your sins, the Father welcomes you into his arms. And it’s not just forgiveness you receive. He purifies you from all unrighteousness. He invests in you—fully. There is no hint of stinginess. We make that move toward the Lord with our confession, and he takes it from there. He is committed to us for the long haul. You are forgiven by a faithful and just God. You are purified by a Father who will not waver in his dedication to making you righteous.
Is any distress still lingering in your heart? Maybe an image will help.
The prodigal son decides to return home (Luke 15:11–32). He is ashamed and rightly so; he dishonored his family and made a mockery of his inheritance. Even so, he wonders if his father might receive him as a servant. He doesn’t expect to be a son again. How could he even hope for that after what he has done? But a servant’s life is better than living like a pig among pigs. So he heads home. His father, it seems, is watching for his possible return. It’s as if he’s hoping his wretch of a son would come back. When he confirms his son is approaching, he runs to him—eagerly. The son confesses his sins, which is good and right given how he’s harmed the relationship. Will the father forgive him? Imagine this picture: the son confesses, and the father forgives him, though he doesn’t actually say the words because he’s already moved on to planning. What is he planning? Excitedly, he makes immediate plans for a feast. He directs his servants to get the ring, the fattened calf, the shoes, the robe. It’s all for the son who he has, indeed, received back as a son—not as a servant! The father is jubilant. Celebratory. His son has returned to him! Can you picture the father’s joy? Can you imagine his smile?
Remember that smile next time you confess your sins to your Father. Your welcome is immediate, and it is guaranteed. With joy, with a smile that covers his face, hear him say, “We are okay. We are more than okay.”