Last week, I attempted to explain the difference between forgiving and excusing. I claimed that excusing another person is claiming that he or she never owed you a debt whereas forgiving another person is acknowledging that he or she owes you a debt, but you release him or her from the debt. But we’re still left with an unanswered question: Is it better to forgive or excuse another person? Let’s take a look.
A Case Study
A few years ago, I was hurt very bad by one of my closest friends. He first manipulated me, then he abandoned me, and lastly, he talked smack about me behind my back to some of my other friends. One moment he was in my life, by my side as my closest friend, and the next moment he was not only gone, but worked the rumor mill 24-7.
During my initial evaluation of the data I had gathered about my friend, I concluded that everything he had done seemed extremely well-calculated, leading me to draw the conclusion that he must’ve intentionally hurt me. Therefore, I concluded that my friend owed me a debt for which I wanted compensated.
The compensation I wanted from my friend was a sincere apology accompanied by a sincere promise to never do it again. I thought that would’ve been sufficient repayment for the debt he owed me. But he didn’t apologize. So I was left with three options: (1) hold my friend hostage as my slave for the rest of my life (since the debtor is always slaves to the lender), (2) conclude that my friend didn’t intentionally hurt me, or (3) release my friend from the debt. I started with the first option.
The Problem with Holding Your Offender Hostage
Since I believed my friend owed me a debt, I decided I was going to figuratively hold him hostage until he repaid it. But the longer he didn’t repay me, the angrier I became with him. I began to observe myself talking negatively about him to other people in the same way he was talking negatively about me. Whenever someone would mention his name, my teeth would clamp together, even grind sometimes, and my blood would begin to boil. And I hoped that I wouldn’t cross paths with him around town because, well, I have hockey player instincts.
I thought I needed to receive a full payment from my friend in order to move on with my life. But after months of waiting, he didn’t repay the debt. To this day, I still haven’t received an apology from him.
Has this happened to you? Some people spend their whole lives waiting for another person to repay a debt that’s never going to be repaid. Maybe some people in your life will give you what you feel is adequate compensation for the debt, but most won’t repay it for whatever reason. Some of them may not even realize they’re indebted to you.
The Problem with Excusing Your Offender
When I finally got tired of being angry all the time, I decided to try excusing him by concluding that he didn’t intentionally hurt me. The further I traveled down this path, the smaller the debt appeared until I no longer believed he owed me a debt. This approach certainly solved my anger problems and led me to no longer seek compensation from my friend. But it gave me a new set of problems. What if I discovered more evidence in the future which supported my original theory that my friend had intentionally hurt me? Would I once again get angry and seek restitution from him?
Although I did learn more information about what my friend was saying and doing from time to time for a year after he initially hurt me, I didn’t hear much after that. And since we no longer had contact with one another, it was highly improbable that more information was going to surface which would sway my conclusion. But what would’ve happened if we had continued to remain in contact with one another? For example, what would’ve happened if he’d been a family member or a coworker? If my response was grounded in on ongoing process of figuring out his intentions, then theoretically, every new piece of data I collected on a daily basis could’ve led the pendulum to constantly sway back and forth like Delirium at Kings Island. One day I could’ve concluded that he intentionally hurt me while the next day I could’ve concluded that he didn’t intentionally hurt me. If this was the way I had continued living, I’d have been a psychotic mess! After months of behaving like this, I begin wondering if there was a better way to live my life than to ride Delirium every day.
Forgiveness as an Overflow of Joy
I once owed a huge debt. To put it allegorically, I owed a googol amount of money. That’s a lot of debt! A lifetime of wealth-building achievement similar to that of Bill Gates wouldn’t even put a dent in that debt. As of 2016, Bill Gates had accumulated a net worth of 75 billion dollars. That’s 75 with nine zeros after it. A googol is a 1 with a hundred zeros after it. Even if I was as rich as Bill Gates, I’d have a very long way to go in my repayment program.
To whom could I have possibly accumulated such a large debt? To God. I didn’t literally owe him a googol worth of money, but the debt I had accumulated and continue to accumulate due to my sins is so great that I can’t even count it, let alone do anything to repay it. And there’s no option to apply for scholarships or loan forgiveness from outside sources. My consequence is to receive God’s divine wrath for eternity. Frankly, I’m screwed!
But God chose to release me of my debt, not by overlooking or excusing it, but by offering himself as a substitution in my place. Jesus, who was fully God and fully human, suffered the divine wrath that I was supposed to receive. Did he do it because I was worthy of it? Not at all; I did absolutely nothing to earn it. Remember, even my best attempts at trying to repay the debt couldn’t even put a dent in it. Nonetheless, God chose to release me by paying for my debt.
Let’s say, like me, you have accumulated a huge debt which you couldn’t repay. But your lender chose, out of his own will as opposed to you doing something to earn his favor, to release you from the debt by paying for it himself. How would you feel about that? Would you experience intense joy? That’s exactly what I experienced when God revealed to me that he had released me from my debt.
The joy I experience daily due to the work God has done for me overflows to the point where I can’t help but release other people from the debts they owe me. This is what led me to forgive my friend. I didn’t forgive him because I felt obligated to forgive him or because I wanted to feel better about myself; it just happened. That’s what the overflow of joy in us which comes out of God’s forgiveness does to us: It causes us to do crazy things like release people from the debt they owe us, even though those people don’t deserve to be released from their debt.
I don’t get angry anymore when I hear my friend’s name. I no longer try to figure out whether he intended to hurt me or not. I no longer talk negatively about him to other people. And I no longer feel like he owes me a debt. If I run into him someday, I’ll probably go out of my way to greet him with a huge man hug.
I have concluded that by far, it is much better to forgive another person than to excuse the person. When we excuse another person, it’s all based on our perception of their intentions, which is as volatile at the stock market when we are around that person on a regular basis. But when we forgive a person, it’s just something that happens out of the overflow of joy we’ve experienced in being forgiven. We don’t even have to decide whether we want to forgive the person; it’s just what we do. It’s only when we recognize how unworthy we are to be forgiven that we are able to forgive the people in our lives who are also unworthy to be forgiven.
 A googol is 10100. That's a lot of zeros!
 “Forbes 2016: World’s Top 10 Billionaires,” CBS News, n.d., accessed June 28, 2017, http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/top-10-richest-billionaires-world-forbes-2016/.
 See Romans 3:25.
 See Jeremiah 25:15-16 and Matthew 26:39.
 See Ephesians 2:8-9.
 See Romans 9:11-13.