Forgiveness is a decision or choice (not a feeling) you make to pardon a wrong for hurt that was done to you. It is giving grace or mercy to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Once you do this, it is in the past, and no longer held against the person.
This is the forgiveness that God has given to us. He gives us grace (Rom 3:24)(Rom 11:6)(Acts 15:11)(Eph 2:8)(Eph 1:7) even when we don’t deserve it. In addition, when He forgives our sins, He does not remember them (Isa 43:25), and puts them as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12).
*** Note: I do not believe God literally FORGETS our sins (He is omniscient: all-knowing), but rather, He chooses not to ever bring them up against us again. The same standard applies to our forgiveness. Remembering the offence does not mean we have failed to forgive it (forgetting the offence is VERY unlikely to happen in severe cases), but we choose not to bring it up again or hold it against them. Actually, forgetting the offence can be unwise in some cases, i.e. if a man has molested or raped you, that man needs to be forgiven, but it doesn’t mean you should put yourself in a position where it can happen again.
There is a wonderful parable that Jesus told in (Mt 18:21-35) that helps us understand God’s forgiveness of us. In it Jesus spoke of a man who was forgiven of a large debt that he owed, then that man went out and did not forgive a debt owed to him that was rather small in comparison. When the person who originally forgave the man of his debt found out, he was very angry and handed him over to torturers until he paid all that was owed. Jesus said in verse 35: So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one of his brother their trespasses.
The man with the large debt is us owing a great debt to God, and He forgives us when we ask. The man then failing to forgive the smaller debt is us failing to forgive a much smaller debt someone owes us in comparison to that which we owe God. We fall so short of a perfect God that any wrongs done to us pale in comparison to the wrongs we have done to God. In fact, we fall so far short, Jesus had to come and give His life to make payment for our sins, so that we might be forgiven. This example should give us perspective. Think about it. If God has forgiven us for our thousands (maybe millions in my case) of sins (sins of commission AND omission), shouldn’t we forgive the few sins that someone has committed against us?
The goal of all Christians should be to become more and more like Jesus. While on the Earth, He led a life of forgiving people over and over (He was even accused by the scribes and Pharisees of committing blasphemy for forgiving sins Lk 5:20-25, Mk 2:1-12, Mt 9:1-8). In fact, on the last day of His life, He was beaten, whipped, ridiculed, tortured, and finally nailed to a cross. And, what were some of His dying words? “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
Jesus also gave us the model of the perfect prayer: The Lord’s Prayer. He said, “And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Lk 11:4)(Also see: Mt 6:12). I learned this as, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How many people pray this prayer without even thinking about what they are saying? I DID! Isn’t it a bit scary to think that there are thousands of people making this PROMISE to God that they have “forgiven those who have trespassed against them” when they actually haven’t? (I’ll tell ya, God showed me this in this study, and I immediately asked for forgiveness for doing this in the past…) If you think about it, it is actually the only promise we make to God in the Lord’s Prayer. We are told in the Bible that when we make a vow or promise to God, He expects us to keep it (Eccl 5:4-5)(Deut 23:21-23). Have you made this promise to God?
In (Mt 6:14-15), Jesus follows with, “For if we forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (15) But if we forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. This is a POWERFUL statement! God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others! Does this mean that if we don’t forgive, then we can’t go to Heaven?
God’s forgiveness is not contingent on our doing something to earn it, including forgiving someone (that is why it is called grace). Our forgiveness of others should be the same. As I have spoken of in other places on this site (See: Q: #142.), I believe we cannot go to the Father in prayer until we are in Jesus. We can see in (Mk 11:25-26) that Jesus says, “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought (anything) against any(one): that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. (26) But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
Notice two things Jesus is saying here. First, He is speaking about those who pray to the Father, which I believe is Christians. Secondly, He is saying that those who are praying to the Father can have their prayers hindered by unforgiveness (sin separates us from a close walk with God: Isa 59:2, Ps 66:18, Jn 9:31, 1 Pet 3:12, Prov 15:29). (See 2 paragraphs down for an example of this.)
This being said, I see this as saying that a Christian CAN struggle with unforgiveness. HOWEVER, we should keep in mind that (1 Jn 3:9) says if we practice sin, it shows that we don’t know Jesus. The Bible also tells us that repentance is a key to salvation (Lk 13:3,5)(Acts 3:19)(2 Cor 7:10)(Acts 11:18). If a person is UNREPENTANT, and UNWILLING to forgive someone for a wrong or hurt that was done to them, isn’t this practicing sin? Does that person TRULY have a relationship with Jesus? I will leave it at that for you to consider.
Let me share a little example I felt like God showed me a while back about how sin can separate us from God and hinder our communication with Him.
Picture a long, narrow corridor with a large room at one end of it, and many doors between it and the other end of the corridor. God is in the large room, and the doors in the corridor represent sin. We are in that corridor, and when we sin, a door closes between us and the large room. We can still talk to God, and hear Him through the door to the large room, but it is a little harder. In addition, the more we sin, the more doors that close between us and the big room where God is, as we move farther and farther down the corridor. Eventually, we have so many doors between us and the big room, that we basically cannot communicate with God at all.
So, how do we open these doors to get closer to the big room? Confessing and repenting of our sins! When we do this, our communication with God remains strong, the doors are opened, and we are never far from the big room at the end of the corridor. (Jesus, who lived a perfect, and sinless life never had ANYTHING separating Him from that room, and was in PERFECT fellowship with the Father at all times. This is why I believe that the most painful thing in Jesus’ life on this Earth was when the sin of the world was laid upon Him on the cross and He said, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me”? [Mt 27:46] The sin of the world broke that perfect communion He had with Father, and He keenly felt it.)
Unforgiveness ultimately does FAR more harm to you than it does to those who you fail to forgive. Frankly, I would be willing to guess that in a large number of situations, the offender who hurt you rarely, if ever, even dwells on what they did to you. However, a day rarely goes by that YOU don’t remember it! Do you realize what this is doing? Your unforgiveness is pretty much giving the offender control of your life! That sure doesn’t sound pleasant, does it?
Unforgiveness towards that person will begin to affect all areas of your life, including relationships with your parents, spouse, children, people at work, and most importantly GOD. It will make you bitter and resentful, and begin to eat you up inside. The “root” of bitterness and resentment will grow deeper and deeper; and the deeper it goes, the harder it will be to remove it from your life. (Picture how hard it would be to uproot a newly planted tree as opposed to one that has been taking root for say 10 years.)
(Heb 12:15) calls bitterness just that, a root that grows, and (Eph 4:31) says we are to get it out of our lives. If we continue to hold on to unforgiveness, it gives Satan a stronghold in our lives (2 Cor 2:10-11).
There also appears to be a pretty solid link between unforgiveness and one’s physical health. Unforgiveness can result in depression. It can lead to heart disease. There are even some cancer doctors who say that a large majority of their patients have a strong case of unforgiveness somewhere in their past!
Can’t you kind of see a connection with that? Isn’t unforgiveness kind of like a “cancer” that rots your insides? Wouldn’t it save your life to have that cancer removed? Could it be that your ailment stems from unforgiveness? Wouldn’t it be better to live your life with forgiveness rather than unforgiveness?
I once heard a Bible teacher compare unforgiveness to carrying around a large sack of potatoes. Not only do you have to carry that burden everywhere you go, but eventually the potatoes rot, and you are carrying around a big, smelly, unpleasant sack of mush.
Unforgiveness is also partly based on pride. It is saying that we deserve something because of the wrong done to us. “I deserve to be happy.” “I deserve to be loved the right way.” “I deserve to see this person pay for what they did.” The Bible tells us that we are to die to our wants and needs (Gal 5:24)(Col 3:5)(Eph 4:22). God is to be our focus in all things, not ourselves. God hates pride, and a prideful attitude hinders our walk. We are told to be humble, for God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6)(1 Pet 5:5-6), and the humble will be exalted (Mt 23:12)(Luke 14:11, 18:14)(James 4:10). Forgiveness takes humility.
Let me also take a moment to discuss one other aspect of forgiveness, and that concerns those who can’t forgive THEMSELVES. It is said that if someone can’t forgive themselves, they can’t forgive others. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but nonetheless, I suspect it certainly makes it more difficult. Condemnation for sin is not from God, and frankly, unforgiveness towards ourselves is just as sinful as unforgiveness towards others. It needs to be confessed and removed from our lives. As we said earlier, when we confess our sins, God removes them as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12). God loves each of us unconditionally, in spite of what we do, and we should love our neighbors as OURSELVES (Mt 19:19)(Mt 22:39).
SO, what are some steps we can take to forgive others if we are struggling with this?
The Bible tells us to bless our enemies:
(Mt 5:44) But I say unto you, …bless them that curse you…
(Rom 12:14) Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.
(1 Cor 4:12) …being reviled, we bless…
We can bless people in a number of ways. We can bless them in prayer, as we will discuss below, and we can also bless them with our actions. Let me give you an example of this in my own life.
(Rom 12:21) tells us we should “overcome evil with good,” and (Rom 12:20) precedes that by saying, “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in doing so thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.”
Have you ever done wrong to someone, and then they show you nothing but kindness? It gives you a horrible feeling inside, it makes you feel guilt and remorse for what you did. When I was in college, before I became a Christian, there was a guy who lived next to me who had stolen my wallet. I knew he had taken it, but I could not prove it. The wallet was a present from my mother and I was pretty upset. Well, shortly after he had taken it, he had a serious health problem and asked me to drive him to the emergency room. I took him and waited most of the day for them to treat him and release him. A few days later, he showed up at my door with the wallet in hand saying he had found it on the bathroom floor, with no money in it. He said someone must have taken the cash and dumped it… This is an example of how kindness can convict a person and aid in the forgiveness process.
(Mt 5:44) also says that we are to love our enemies and pray for them. This is certainly not an easy thing to do if we have been hurt in the past, but it is necessary. When we pray for our enemies (those who have hurt us), we are interceding on their behalf and asking for God’s favor to be upon them. Ask God to forgive them. We have some great examples of people in the Bible doing this.
Stephen: (Acts 7:60) His last words as he was dying at the hands of those who had stoned him to death were, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
Paul: (2 Tim 4:16)(NASB) “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them.”
Moses: (Num 12:13) When Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because he had married an Ethiopian woman (racism), God gave Miriam leprosy. Moses interceded on her behalf to God saying, “Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.”
Jesus: (Lk 23:34) As we spoke of earlier, when He said on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
We can also pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them of their sin, and bring them to a point of repentance. If the offender does not have a personal relationship with Jesus, share your testimony with them and tell them how Jesus can change their life. You can even use your forgiveness of their sin against you as a springboard to show how they can be forgiven of their sins through Jesus Christ. Forgiving others is a mighty testimony of how God is working in our lives.
In addition, we can do something to show them we love them. We can give them a present, help them with a task they need help with, or just give them a kind word or encouragement.
As I write this, I have seen two amazing examples of selfless, unconditional forgiveness.
Recently, a crazy man went into an Amish schoolhouse and started shooting little children, killing five. It was a horrific crime that stunned even the most hardened people. However, what stunned people even more was that the Amish people reached out to this man and FORGAVE him. It was an act of forgiveness that was just beyond the comprehension of most people. Can you imagine doing this? What an AMAZING testimony and witness to the world.
Another example was on a Christian t.v. show I saw recently. It was the story about a man who killed another. The killer was caught and sentenced to prison. In prison, the killer became a Christian. The brother of the man who was killed was also a Christian, but he HATED that man in prison. The anger and hatred consumed him for a long time. Finally, when he decided he could take it no more, he knew that he HAD to forgive that man. He went to the prison, met the man, and forgave him. They both wept profusely and embraced. They now meet on a regular basis and pray together. You could see the relief, joy, and peace in the man who had forgiven.
The story also had an amazing impact on others who saw it. One lady who was watching had the same situation, where she held unforgiveness towards someone in prison who had killed her loved one. She took the same steps of forgiveness, and her life changed as well.
Finally, you should keep in mind that no matter how hard you try, you CANNOT CHANGE A PERSON, including those you hold unforgiveness towards. While it is possible that you might coerce someone to change their outward actions, you cannot change them on the inside. Change by coercion only brings resentment in the one you are trying to change. Allow God to change the them on the inside, and when they are changed on the inside, there will be a resulting change in their outward actions. This is the kind of change that can last.
Remember that hurting people hurt people. The person that is hurting you almost certainly struggles with unforgiveness themselves. Love them and forgive them. Keep in mind that the Bible says “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor 13:5 – NIV). Make forgiveness a lifestyle, forgiving instantly so that it has no chance to take root. Do not let the sun go down on your anger (Eph 4:26-27). Forgiveness takes strength, and God can give you that strength. If you take these steps, your life CAN be changed for the better.
I will close with some other good Bible verses for you to remember.
How many times Jesus told us to forgive:
(Mt 18:21-22) Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? (22) Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
[Forgive as many times as you would like God to forgive you.]
(Lk 17:3-4) Take heed to yourselves; If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. (4) And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.
Some other places Jesus said to forgive:
(Jn 20:23)(NASB) If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.
(Lk 6:37) Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.
Other verses about forgiving others:
(Eph 4:31-32) Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: (32) And be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.
(Col 3:12-13) Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; (13) Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
(Rom 12:17-21) Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. (18) If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. (19) Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord. (20) Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in doing so thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. (21) Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.