The act of forgiving others is essentially the act of pardoning an offender. In the Bible, the Greek word translated “forgiveness” literally means “to let go”, as when a person does not demand payment for a debt. Jesus used this comparison in his parable of the unmerciful slave (Matthew 18:23-35) as well as when he taught his followers to pray “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is in debt to us” (Luke 11:4).
The Bible teaches that unselfish love is the basis for true forgiveness, since “it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Forgiving others means letting go of resentment and giving up any claim to be compensated for the hurt or loss we have suffered.
Why is forgiving others important?
Colossians 3:13 states, “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Forgiveness is at the very heart of the gospel. When we sinned against Christ, He loved us enough to die for us.
In the same way, we are commanded to forgive those who do wrong to us. And not just those who are asking for forgiveness, or those who are first-time offenders or whose wrongs seem forgivable. Jesus famously told Peter in Matthew 18 to forgive someone “seventy times seven” times and he makes the sobering statement that if we do not forgive others, our Father in Heaven will not forgive us (Matthew 6:15). So, first and foremost, forgiving others is obedience.
Forgiving others is also important so that we do not grow bitter. Scientists say that resentment is the unhealthiest emotion there is – it hurts us far more than those who have affronted us or anyone else. The Bible tells us this in Hebrews 12:15, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it, many become defiled;”.
As we release unforgiveness and all the bitterness and anger that comes with it, we are freed to live and serve with real peace and joy and grow in spiritual maturity.
What forgiveness is not
In Rick Warren’s well-known book, The Purpose Driven Life, he explains that many people are reluctant to show mercy because they don’t understand the difference between trust and forgiveness. Forgiving others must be immediate, whether or not a person asks for it.
Trust, on the other hand, has to do with future behavior. It must be rebuilt over time and requires a track record. He explains, “If someone hurts you repeatedly, you are commanded by God to forgive them instantly, but you are not expected to trust them immediately, and you are not expected to continue allowing them to hurt you.”
Forgiveness isn’t just sweeping things under the rug and saying, “Thanks for letting me know; just don’t let it happen again.” Forgiveness is not forgetting – depending on the situation, it may require a time of healing.
However, if you hold on to the transgression like a trump card and play it every chance you get, you can be sure that unforgiveness is still present. This goes against Jesus’ “seventy times seven.” After all, God has forgiven you more than you will ever have the opportunity to forgive someone else.
How to forgive
How then do we achieve this “letting go” – which can feel like an impossible task? Even if we desire it, our emotions can rise at the least expected time and overwhelm us with anger and pain. In our own strength, forgiving others in the way we have received God’s forgiveness is quite impossible. But, with God, nothing is impossible, and with His Spirit inside us, we can go through a process that leads to true forgiveness.
8 Steps to Forgiving Others
Here are eight steps that counselors agree on as a solid foundation for Biblical change. If someone’s actions or words have significantly hurt you, working through these stages with a Christian counselor can be helpful. Having someone to speak to about your feelings, who will gently nudge you towards God’s word, can guard against stagnation, and those bitter roots that Hebrews 12 warns about.
1. Acknowledge the pain.
Some people never get past go, as working through pain can only happen once you admit you have been hurt. And acknowledging it can intensify the feelings. Tears, feelings of resentment, and even hatred are a good indicator that something is wrong. Don’t numb yourself or “stuff” the emotion as that cuts off the process of forgiving others before it has even begun.
2. Think through things.
Try writing down what happened in a journal or share with a trusted Christian friend. Admit that what happened makes you feel sad or angry and be honest about what emotions are rising up in you; even if it epitomizes unforgiveness and you think you shouldn’t feel that way.
3. Imagine being on the other side.
Think about a time when you have been in the situation of asking for forgiveness; how did it make you feel? When have you wronged another person, and did they extend forgiveness to you, or withhold it? The Bible directs us to do to others what we would have them do to us (Matthew 7:12), so it can be helpful to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment.
4. Remember God’s forgiveness.
Reminding ourselves of the debt that God forgave us in Christ when we certainly didn’t deserve it, can help us forgive others. If we have been forgiven so much, how then can we hold onto grievances committed against us? This is another step in the process and does not mean that you must be ready at this point to voice your forgiveness to your offender. This may not ever be possible, as the person may no longer be living. You can still forgive someone without that forgiveness being accepted.
5. Reflect on our Biblical command.
Jesus stressed the importance of forgiving others on many occasions and even included it in the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Pray that this would hit home in your heart; that your decision to obey would force your emotions to catch up.
6. Let go of the hurt.
The devil is an expert at getting a foothold when we have chosen to forgive but the wound is still sensitive. Don’t allow yourself to replay the offense over and over; let go of the pain and determine that you are going to choose to move forward. This is where prayer is essential as on our own, we are tempted to wander back to unforgiveness.
7. Continue to forgive.
Forgiveness is more than just saying a prayer and moving on. It is a serious decision that you make repeatedly. The process will most likely be uncomfortable and painful, but it will always be worth it in the end.
8. Pray for the person who hurt you.
In Matthew 5:44, Jesus commands us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Ask God to reveal his love to your offender in your heart, and for him to dissolve negative emotions. Is there any more powerful witness of God’s transforming grace than someone who can display true forgiveness to the “unforgivable”?
With promises found in scriptures like Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all this through Him who gives me strength”) and Romans 12:21 (“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”), we know that we can depend on God to give us the grace to live out the definition of forgiveness. Make the right choice – start a journey of forgiveness today, praying for the Lord to equip you for this arduous and yet eternally rewarding task.
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