Because Christ forgave us. God the Father ‘made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Where is the justice? The cross makes forgiveness legally and morally right: ‘For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all’ (Romans 6:10).
Forgiveness is required by God. As soon as Jesus spoke the amen to His model prayer–which included a petition for God’s forgiveness–He commented: ‘If you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions’ (Matthew 6:14, 15). We must base our relationships with others on the same criteria on which God bases His relationship with us: love, acceptance and forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35).
Forgiveness is necessary to avoid entrapment by Satan. I have discovered from my counseling that unforgiveness is the number one avenue Satan uses to gain entrance to believers’ lives. Paul encouraged mutual forgiveness ‘in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes’ (2 Corinthians 2:11). Unforgiveness is an open invitation to Satan’s bondage in our lives.
We are to forgive like Christ forgave in order to keep our hearts from bitterness. Paul wrote: ‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:31, 32).
Your act of forgiveness will set the captive free, then you will realize that the captive was you!
What Forgiveness Is Not
Forgiveness is not forgetting. People who try to forget find that they cannot. God says He will “remember no more” our sins (Hebrews 10:17), but God, being omniscient, cannot forget. “Remember no more” means that God will never use the past against us (Psalm 103:12). Forgetting may be a result of forgiveness, but it is never the means of forgiveness. When we bring up the past and use it against others, we haven’t forgiven them.
Forgiveness does not mean that you must tolerate sin. Isabel, a young wife and mother attending one of my conferences, told me of her decision to forgive her mother for continually manipulating her for attention. But Isabel tearfully continued, “She is no different. Am I supposed to let her keep ruining my life?”
No, forgiving someone doesn’t mean that you must be a doormat to their continual sin. I encouraged Isabel to confront her mother lovingly but firmly, and tell her that she would no longer tolerate destructive manipulation. It’s okay to forgive another’s past sins and, at the same time, take a stand against future sins. Forgiving is not a co-dependent activity.
What Forgiveness Is
Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person’s sin. Forgiveness is costly; we pay the price of the evil we forgive. Yet you’re going to live with those consequences whether you want to or not; your only choice is whether you will do so in the bondage of bitterness or the freedom of forgiveness. That’s how Jesus forgave you–He took the consequences of your sin upon Himself. All true forgiveness is substitutional, because no one really forgives without bearing the penalty of the other person’s sin. We are all living with the consequences of another person’s sin: Adam’s.
Suppose that someone in your church says, ‘I have gossiped about you. Will you forgiven me?’ You can’t retract gossip any easier than you can put toothpaste back into the tube. You’re going to live with the gossip this person spread about you no matter how you respond to the gossiper..
Forgiveness does not demand revenge or repayment for offenses suffered. ‘You mean I’m just supposed to let them off the hook?’ you may argue. Yes, you let them off your hook, realizing that they are not off God’s hook. You may feel like exacting justice, but you are not an impartial judge. God is the just Judge who will make everything right (Romans 12:19). Your job is to extend the mercy of forgiveness and leave judgment up to God.
Forgiveness is a choice, a crisis of the will. We choose to face and acknowledge the hurt and the hate in order to forgive from the heart. Since God requires us to forgive, it is something we can do. (He would never require us to do something we cannot do.) But forgiveness is difficult for us because it pulls against our concept of justice. We want revenge for offenses suffered. But we are told never to take our own revenge (Romans 12:19). ‘Why should I let them off the hook?’ we protest. You let them off your hook, but they are never off God’s hook. He will deal with them fairly–something we cannot do.
If you don’t let offenders off your hook, you are hooked to them and the past, and that just means continued pain for you. Stop the pain; let it go. You don’t forgive someone merely for their sake; you do it for your sake so you can be free. Your need to forgive isn’t an issue between you and the offender; it’s between you and God.
How to Forgive from the Heart
Here are 12 simple steps you can use to walk through the process of forgiving someone who hurt you in the past.
- Ask the Lord to reveal the names of the persons who offended you and the specific wrongs you suffered by praying the following:
‘Dear Heavenly Father, I thank You for the riches of Your kindness, forbearance and patience toward me, knowing that Your kindness has led me to repentance. I confess that I have not shown that same kindness and patience toward those who have hurt or offended me. Instead, I have held on to my anger, bitterness and resentment toward them. Please bring to my mind all the people I need to forgive in order that I may now do so. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.’
- Face the hurt and the hate. If you are going to forgive from your heart, you must let God search the depths of your heart. If your forgiveness doesn’t visit the emotional core of your past, it will be incomplete. This is the great evangelical cover-up. Christians feel the pain of interpersonal offenses, but we won’t acknowledge it. Let God bring the pain to the surface so He can deal with it. This is where the healing takes place.
- Acknowledge the significance of the cross. It is the cross of Christ that makes forgiveness legally and morally right.
- Decide that you will not retaliate by using the information about the offender’s sin against them (Luke 6:27-34).
- Decide to forgive. Forgiveness is a conscious choice to let the other person off the hook and free yourself from the past.
- Take your list of names to God and pray the following:
‘Lord Jesus, I choose to forgive [name the person] for [what he or she did or failed to do] because it made me feel [share the painful feelings; i.e., rejected, dirty, worthless, inferior, etc.].’ After you have forgiven every person for every painful memory, then pray as follows: ‘Lord Jesus, I choose not to hold on to my resentment. I relinquish my right to seek revenge and ask You to heal my damaged emotions. Thank You for setting me free from the bondage of my bitterness. I now ask You to bless those who have hurt me. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.’
- Destroy the list. You are now free.
- Do not tell the offenders what you have done. Your forgiveness is between you and God unless the offenders have asked you for forgiveness.
- Do not expect that your decision to forgive will result in major changes in the other persons. Instead, pray for them (Matthew 5:44). Try to understand the people you have forgiven. They are victims also. Freedom is a result of forgiveness in you. In time you will be able to think about the people who offended you without feeling hurt or anger.
- Thank God for the lessons you have learned and the maturity you have gained.
- When appropriate, accept your part of the blame for the offenses you suffered.
- Confess your failure to God and to others (1 John 1:9) and realize that if someone has something against you, you must go to that person (Matthew 5:23-26).
(Adapted from “Daily in Christ” and “The Steps to Freedom in Christ” by Neil T. Anderson, Freedom in Christ Ministries) Adaptation reprinted by permission with thanks to Donna Wright.