How to Forgive: 4 Things to Know About Burying the Hatchet

The concept of burying the hatchet is a helpful image of of forgiveness. 

I can imagine an Indian chief and a Colonel in the U.S. Cavalry meeting upon a hill on the southern plains. The Indian wielding his tomahawk and the officer, his pistol. 

Both parties represent warring factions that have been inflicting wounds upon the other for years. But the moment has come for peace.

This is why the ceremony upon the hill would be such a critical factor in the process. After all, simply shouting I forgive you across the valley would accomplish little.

Words tend to be cheap and easily spoken.

But actions.

We even have a saying, “Actions speak more loudly than words.”

This is why the burying of the hatchet is such a visually appropriate image forgiveness. The Indian chief buries what he could use against his rival and the officer buries his own instrument of death which could be used against the tribe.

The power of forgiveness that leads to peace does not merely rest in the words “I forgive you,” but with in the actual burial of the offense.

But this burial business is easier said than done.

The temptation for the chief would be to bury his hatchet with the handle exposed above the earth, still within reach. Just in case. The same would be true for the officer.

It isn't difficult to see how risky the proposition of forgiveness is. If I put my weapon down, it leaves me exposed and vulnerable to attack.

Consider how this plays out in ordinary, everyday relationships. With tomahawks and pistols as metaphors, a husband and a wife wield similar weapons with their words--words that go deep, inflicting pain and damage not just on the surface but down to the soul.

Few weapons are more deadly to a relationship than the hateful barbs of a well-aimed word of condemnation, reminding the perpetrator of their offense. The deepest damage is done when the words strike at the very identity of the guilty.

It is not that the deed was bad, but you are bad. You are to be despised and detested. You. You are the object of my most severe contempt. The words may not include “hate,” that they communicate it, nonetheless.

If arguments, whether physical or verbal, continue to be fueled by my past resentments and offenses, I can be sure that genuine forgiveness has yet to be extended or experienced because the hatchets and pistols have never been buried. Or they have only been buried halfway, with the handle sticking out of the ground.

But halfway forgiveness is half-baked forgiveness. It is worthless and powerless.

Thankfully, this is not how God forgives.

He buries the hatchet completely.

In 1 John 4:9-11, the apostle says, 

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

In this passage we discover four aspects of forgiveness that are essential to grasp if we are going to express forgiveness to others as it has been given to us--the kind of forgiveness that has the power to reconcile and restore the most broken of relationships.

1) Forgiveness is an expression of love. 

While it is common to consider love primarily as an emotion, biblically speaking, love primarily is an action. It is not something we feel as much as it is something we do. Yes, there is emotion associated with love. Of course. Love is both a noun and a verb.

Love as a noun is the disposition of the heart to bless someone by doing good to them. Love as a verb is the expression of that act of blessing. Sometimes there is intense emotion associated with both.

But not always the emotion we’d expect. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, I’m not sure he is demanding we feel affection but that we engage is some action of blessing: feeding, clothing, praying for… and forgiving, which is exactly what he did for us in the great act of blessing in the cross.

This is why John says, “God showed his love.” He didn’t just use words. He did something to bless us. He forgve us. But how? By sending his son to die so that we could live. It was an atoning death, covering our sin, guilt, and shame so that we can be reconciled to God as Father without fear.

In his forgiveness, he buries our sin like a hatchet and promises never to dig it up and use it against us again. This is how forgiveness is an expression of love.

2) Forgiveness requires initiative. 

Forgiveness doesn't just happen. If I wait for the forgiveness feeling to rise up within me in order to genuinely forgive someone, then I will be waiting a long long time. I will be waiting forever. Most relationships don't have that long.

In 1 John 4, we see god the father taking the initiative to do what was necessary in order to secure our forgiveness. A debt existed. As a just god, he cannot just turn a blind eye to the offense. The law demands justice.  The debt must be paid and the sentence served.

Rather than waiting for us to either earn forgiveness or deserve it, god took action, intervening on our behalf to do something that would pay the debt and serve the sentence.

He buried the hatchet in the cross. We didn't deserve it, couldn't earn it, but God did it. He took the initiative to express big love of forgiveness.

3) Forgiveness is costly. 

Remember, words are cheap and easily spoken. It may be difficult to say I forgive you, but genuine, hatchet burying forgiveness is profoundly costly. After all, the debt had to be paid my someone. In forgiveness, it is the offended not the offender who pays the debt.

So how do we pay the debt? We give up our right to use a former offense against the person who committed the offense. In other words, we bury the hatchet completely, refusing ourselves access to the handle ever again.

It is buried. It is over. The offender is now safe.

This is how God forgives us, which also is the model of how we are to forgive one another. Has john wrote, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

Because of the great cost involved in forgiveness, it is my opinion that those who are offended should not be too quick with their words. If I am going to forgive someone, I need to be prepared to take my shovel and dig a hole so deep that when I bury the sin and cover it up, I will not be able to go dig it back up.

After I have done the hard, costly work of burying the hatchet, I need to make sure the person who has sinned against me knows that it has been buried and will not be brought back up again against them.

This confirmation of forgiveness may begin with the words, “You are fully forgiven. I have buried the hatchet.” However, I suggest, from personal experience and in light of how God confirms to us the objective status of forgiveness, that we go beyond words to some kind of objective affirmation of relational restoration.

This may be done with a hug or by spending time together (rather than the non-forgiveness of the silent treatment). Whatever it is that would show the offender they really are, existentially forgiven, make it clear that the offense has been buried. It is in the coffin.

Just like ours was nailed to a cross.

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4) Forgiveness brings life and restores joy. 

This is the best part about forgiveness, where the difficult process of burial leads to new life and restores joy to the relationship.

Isn’t this the way of the gospel? Like a seed planted in the ground , death brings life. The burial of sin germinates into renewal. The dark night of sorrow is met with a morning of joy.

What if this could happen in your marriage? With your kids? A friend?

First it needs to happen to me with God in Jesus through the cross, where I become the one who is forgiven. Fully. Without limit.

Only when I become the recipient of such love and mercy will I be able to express it to someone else. But when I see myself as the object of extravagant grace, I begin to see the opportunity of forgiveness as gloriously evangelistic. As a primary way I can share the gospel to by giving God’s grace with someone else.

Rather than seeing the process of forgiveness as something to avoid, it becomes something to pursue!