The definition of forgiveness is pardoning someone. Pardoning means excusing a person from the obligation of paying back a debt that they have accumulated. When Jesus spoke of forgiveness, he often used the image of debts to describe the nature of sins (Matt. 6:12; 18:21–35). When someone seriously wrongs you, there is an absolutely unavoidable sense that the wrongdoer owes you. This wrong has incurred an obligation, a liability, a debt.

Anyone who has been wronged feels a compulsion to make the other person pay down that debt. We do that by hurting them, yelling at them, making them feel bad in some way, or just waiting, watching and hoping that something bad happens to them. Only after we see them suffer in some equal way do we sense that the debt has been paid and the sense of obligation is gone. This sense of debt and obligation is impossible to escape. Anyone who denies it exists has simply not been wronged or sinned against in any serious way. Forgiveness then, at its core means to give up the right to seek repayment for this debt from the one who has harmed you. 

To understand this it helps to think about how monetary debt work. If a friend breaks your lamp and if that lamp costs fifty dollars to replace, then the act of lamp-breaking incurs a debt of fifty dollars. If you let your friend pay for and replace the lamp, you get your lamp back and he’s out fifty dollars. But if you forgive him for what he did, the debt does not somehow vanish into thin air. When you forgive him, you absorb the cost and payment for the lamp: either you will pay the fifty dollars to replace it or you will lose the lighting in that room. Therefore to forgive is to cancel a debt by paying it or absorbing it yourself. From this perspective, forgiveness is a form of voluntary suffering. 


Someone always pays every debt. This is the case in all situations of wrongdoing, even when no money is involved. When you are sinned against, you lose something—perhaps happiness, reputation, peace of mind, a relationship, or an opportunity and there are two things to do about a sin. You make them suffer or you refuse revenge, forgive them and then you suffer. In all cases when wrong is done there is a debt, and there is no way to deal with it without suffering: either you make the offender suffer for it or you forgive and suffer for it yourself.

If we can’t forgive without suffering, how much more must God suffer in order to forgive us? If we unavoidably sense the obligation and debt and injustice of sin in our soul, how much more does God know it? On the cross we see God forgiving us, and that was only possible if God suffered.

On the cross God’s love satisfied his own justice by suffering, bearing the penalty for sin. There is never forgiveness without suffering, nails, thorns, sweat, blood. Never. This is important to understand – if you do not suffer – you cannot forgive.