What’s the big deal about forgiveness? Should people who do bad things be forgiven? Can the hurt be too deep to forgive? Maybe you have tried but just can’t forget. There is a difference between forgive and forget.
Over my life I have talked to many who choose to hold onto a grudge and refuse to forgive hurt. The typical response to the person who has not forgiven is “You don’t understand.” We attempt to justify our anger or hurt. I use the words interchangeably because the root of anger is hurt.
I have spoken to people who have been physically abused, sexually abused, emotionally abused, rejected, betrayed, lied to, stolen from or hurt in every way imaginable that have chosen to forgive. Unfortunately I have also seen people who make a decision not to forgive. The latter suffer the consequences. Whether it is health issues, anxiety, stress, relationship problems, etc. the payment is high. I know this first hand because I have been unforgiving before.
Once someone in my life had a melt down over the fact that I called her ex to ask about his cancer diagnosis and treatment. I called him after feeling prompted for three weeks by the Holy Spirit. I am a believer in the power of intercession and believe God wants me to pray for him. The person (his ex) told me in a video that she cannot have a relationship with anyone who has a relationship with him. I love her but will not succumb to that demand. My relationship with God is more important than her feelings. I told my husband it feels great to feel so healthy emotionally and spiritually that I don’t even feel hurt by her behavior. The fact is I feel very sorry foe her and burdened for her because of how this will impact her life. The irony is, she is estranged from her son due to unforgiveness and it is not her choice, but his. He will not forgive her for past hurts.
What does the Bible say about forgiveness? Quite a bit. In fact, forgiveness is a dominant theme throughout the Bible. But it’s not uncommon to have many questions about forgiveness. The act of forgiving does not come easy for most of us. Our natural instinct is to recoil in self-protection when we’ve been injured. Our human nature is to hold a grudge. We don’t naturally overflow with mercy, grace, and understanding when we’ve been wronged.
Is Christian forgiveness a conscious choice, a physical act involving the will, or is it a feeling, an emotional state of being? The Bible offers insight and answers to our questions about forgiveness. Let’s take a look at some of the most frequently asked questions and find out what the Bible says about forgiveness.
Is forgiveness a conscious choice, or an emotional state?
Forgiveness is a choice we make. It is a decision of our will, motivated by obedience to God and his command to forgive. The Bible instructs us to forgive as the Lord forgave us:
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13, NIV)
How do we forgive when we don’t feel like it? Forgiveness is not an emotion but a decision.
We forgive by faith, out of obedience. Since forgiveness goes against our nature, we must forgive by faith, whether we feel like it or not. We must trust God to do the work in us that needs to be done so that our forgiveness will be complete. Our faith brings us confidence in God’s promise to help us forgive and shows that we trust in his character:
Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. (Hebrews 11:1, NLT)
How do we translate our decision to forgive into a change of heart?
God honors our commitment to obey him and our desire to please him when we choose to forgive. He completes the work in his time. We must continue to forgive by faith (our job) until the work of forgiveness (the Lord’s job) is done in our hearts.
My mother was a beautiful example of living a life of forgiving others. In fact my father was physically abusive to her and she never held a grudge against him. In my 20’s I struggled with forgiving him and in fact sought out a Christian counselor to help me in my journey. Regardless of his actions (abusive alcoholic) by the grace of God I chose to forgive him and show him honor.
And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. (Philippians 1:6, NLT)
How will we know if we have truly forgiven?
Lewis B. Smedes wrote in his book, Forgive and Forget: “When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself.”
Bitterness is the result when we choose not to forgive someone. What we often don’t realize is that not forgiving someone is a poison that hurts us and those we do care about. Holding onto anger will impact every aspect of your life whether you realize it or not.
We will know the work of forgiveness is complete when we experience the freedom that comes as a result. We are the ones who suffer most when we choose not to forgive. When we do forgive, the Lord sets our hearts free from the anger, bitterness, resentment, and hurt that previously imprisoned us.
Sometimes forgiveness is a slow process and a therapist is needed. If you are struggling with forgiving someone I encourage you to invest in yourself and pay for counseling. It will be money well spent.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22, NIV)
Jesus’ answer to Peter makes it clear that forgiveness is not easy for us. It’s not a one-time choice, and then we automatically live in a state of forgiveness. Essentially, Jesus was saying, keep on forgiving until you experience the freedom of forgiveness. Forgiveness may require a lifetime of forgiving, but it is important to the Lord. We must continue forgiving until the matter has been settled in our heart.
What if the person we need to forgive is not a believer?
We are called to love our neighbors and our enemies and pray for those who hurt us:
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48, NLT)
We learn a secret about forgiveness in this verse. That secret is prayer. Prayer is one of the best ways to break down the wall of unforgiveness in our hearts. When we begin to pray for the person who has wronged us, God gives us new eyes to see and a new heart to care for that person.
As we pray, we start to see that person as God sees them, and we realize that he or she is precious to the Lord. We also see ourselves in a new light, just as guilty of sin and failure as the other person. We too are in need of forgiveness. If God did not withhold his forgiveness from us, why should we withhold forgiveness from another?
Is it okay to feel anger and want justice for the person we need to forgive?
This question presents another reason to pray for the person we need to forgive. We can pray and ask God to deal with the injustices. We can trust God to judge that person’s life, and then we ought to leave that prayer at the altar. We no longer have to carry the anger. Although it is normal for us to feel anger toward sin and injustice, it is not our job to judge the other person in their sin.
A few months ago someone told me that he cannot forgive someone who had an affair. It wasn’t his marriage but yet he will not forgive the person. My thought was GOD WILL NEVER ASK YOU TO FORGIVE MORE THAN HE HAS FORGIVEN YOU FOR. How can we ask God for forgiveness of our sin when we refuse to forgive someone? According to scripture, not forgiving someone will also keep our prayers from being answered.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37, (NIV)
Why must we forgive?
The best reason to forgive is simple: Jesus commanded us to forgive. We learn from scripture in context to forgiveness that if we don’t forgive, neither will we be forgiven:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-16, NIV)
Life is beautiful when we forgive.