I like to make lists. I have lists of chores to accomplish, lists of funny things my kids say, even lists of stories to tell my mom the next time she calls on the phone. My brain simply records information in an itemized, enumerated fashion, making me, I’m afraid, a walking outline.
There is one list, however, that I record better than all the others. This list is lengthy, and I add to it frequently. It’s my list of wrongs. Or more specifically, wrongs that others have committed against me. Did someone disappoint me? I’ll remember it. Has a friend betrayed a trust? I won’t let that go—it’s on the list.
A few years ago, my list wasn’t just a mental account. I was dealing with anger toward a friend, and my pastor advised me to write down an actual, on-paper inventory of the grievances I held. Obediently (and a little excitedly), I pulled out my yellow legal pad, printed my friend’s name in large capital letters across the top of the page, and began to detail every offense she had committed.
And on and on went the list—3, 4, 5…—until I’d recounted everything. The final tally: 47. Forty-seven injuries and complaints, some major and some minor, dating back nearly a decade.
That legal pad log reminds me of another list-keeper: Javert, the cold-hearted, vengeful inspector in Victor Hugo’s famous novel Les Miserables. Javert devoted his life to chasing the story’s protagonist, Jean Valjean, because of crimes Valjean committed years earlier. Claiming to seek "justice," Javert mercilessly hounded a man he could’ve forgiven and set free. Like me, Javert didn’t let things go.
And yet, unfortunately for list-keepers, the apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth that "love keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Corinthians 13:5). Check it off, erase it, throw it in the garbage. Paul also told the Ephesians to "be kind and compassionate toward one another, forgiving each other" (Ephesians 4:32). In order to follow Christ, said Paul, I must not keep track. I must forgive.
Forgiveness isn’t natural—at least, not for me. Canceling a debt that someone else incurred simply isn’t "the norm" for anyone. In his years pursuing Jean Valjean, Javert couldn’t bring himself to pardon the guilty man. Ultimately, Javert’s life was destroyed by his unwillingness to erase the list. What possible good can come from harboring resentment? None. Only destruction. It’s best, then, to forgive, no matter how unnatural it might seem.
Secondly, forgiveness isn’t fair—but forgiveness is better than fairness. Would I really want to be treated "fairly," that is, as my sins deserve? No! Far better to erase the wrong than to "make a list and check it twice." "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13). Forgiveness refuses to keep record; it refuses to be fair.
Forgiveness also isn’t easy—far from it. As I struggled to forgive my friend for those 47 offenses, at times I was too hurt and angry to even look over my list … let alone "overlook" the list! I prayed repeatedly that God would help me to truly forgive every injury. And yet, for many weeks, the pain remained just as raw every morning. Had I not really forgiven her, then? Perhaps. Or, perhaps forgiving and healing are just two separate acts. Forgiving takes a choice, but healing takes time—and the deeper the wound, the longer it takes to heal. It’s possible, then, to truly forgive someone, and still be hurt by what they did.
But why forgive at all? If forgiveness isn’t natural or fair or easy—if it only comes with great difficulty, over time—why should I forgive? After all, those 47 wrongs weren’t my fault, so why should I let them all go? Paul answered the question of "Why forgive?" in the rest of his instruction to the Ephesians. "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other," he wrote, and then continued, "just as in Christ, God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32). Why should I forgive? Because God forgave me.
It’s simple, really. I forgive because I’m forgiven. Perhaps, then, the unforgiveness in my heart is a symptom of a larger problem: that I have forgotten just how much forgiveness God granted me, and at how great a price! Indeed, how many yellow legal pads would my offenses fill? I shudder to imagine. And yet, the King graciously forgave them all. How, then, can I not forgive others? (Matthew 18:21-35)
In Les Miserables, a merciful bishop was "kind and compassionate" to Jean Valjean. Rather than count his theft against him, the bishop forgave the offense and set Valjean free. Because of the kindness shown to him, Valjean in turn showed kindness to others. He traded crime and deceit for generosity and truth. Jean Valjean forgave others because he never forgot the forgiveness he had received.
"Another story must begin," sang a grateful Jean Valjean in the Les Miserables musical. In the same way, another story begins when I accept God’s forgiveness to me. The gospel is, in essence, the hope of another story—a new life and a new heart. In Jesus, my new life is both transformed and characterized by forgiveness: I’ve been transformed by God’s forgiveness toward me, so I should now be characterized by my forgiveness toward others.
On my own, it isn’t hard to remember offenses, or even count them on a legal pad. Hurtful words, heartbreaking upsets, disappointing deceptions—my mind can recall all these with ease. But such a list has no place in the heart of a Christ-follower. In Jesus, I must forgive much, because I’ve been forgiven much.
Today, I will start a new list—one that could undoubtedly fill too many legal pads to count. I will record the Lord’s kindness to me: His mercies, His faithfulness, His compassion, and the benefits of His saving grace. Here is a list worth keeping:
"Praise the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins…
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us." (Psalm 103:2-3, 8-12)