A student asked me this the other day. Pretty much a tough question to answer other than giving the obvious “forgive as you have been forgiven” and “70 x 7.” It’s difficult because letting someone off the hook goes against our nature as humans. We want justice and revenge. We want to be right and to receive compensation. We want others to pay for wronging us. Yet the very reason Christ came to die was to win the power of forgiveness for us. Plain and simple, if we want the victory of the Cross in our lives, we MUST forgive others. “In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part” (Matthew 6:15).
But every now and then, a situation arises where even the fear of not being forgiven isn’t enough to prompt us to do the right thing. Our refusal to forgive leaves an open wound in our soul that festers into bitterness, resentment, and can lead to depression.
WHY DO WE HOLD ON TO BITTERNESS?
- We set conditions for reconciliation: they have to understand what they did and apologize, begging on their knees. Until that happens, “I’m keeping them in the emotional prison of my heart!”
- We think we’re hurting the offender by cutting them out of our lives. The longer we resent them, the more they’ll hurt. #onlyhurtingourselves
- Strangely, it brings comfort. Resentment to an extent gives us a false sense of security because of the walls we put up. We start to relax because we’re no longer in a position to get hurt again.
- It excuses and justifies us. We constantly remind ourselves of the offense which empowers our negative behavior.
- It feeds our need for attention and pity, to be portrayed as the victim so others will feel sorry for us. This will also win people to our side, against the offender.
- The depth of the wound makes us think it’s impossible to move on. It hurts, it’s bleeding, and we can’t make it stop.
SO HOW CAN WE START THE JOURNEY TO FORGIVENESS?
- Focus on what we can control. Their responses and reactions, or lack of are not our problems. We can’t control others but we can make decisions and master our emotions. “A person without self-control is as defenseless as a city with broken-down walls” (Proverbs 25:28).
- We must reclaim our lives. Resentment can be very debilitating, preventing us from living our lives, and has the potential of destroying our relationship with God and others. Forgiveness is not just to release our offenders but to release ourselves as well. We need to fight for our peace of mind and emotional health. No, it’s not easy. But we have no choice. Be determined! “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their own sinful selves. They have given up their old selfish feelings and the evil things they wanted to do” (Galatians 5:24).
- Stop rehearsing the pain. They did this. They did that. “I can remember it like it was this morning.” How could they do that? What kind of Christian would treat someone else that way? Don’t dwell on the offense. It cuts the wound deeper and deeper. We must take control of our thoughts and focus on what God is doing! “Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ – that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective” (Colossians 3:2).
- Stop speaking badly about the person. Snide remarks, sarcastic biting comments, even character assassination. They might be the source of some humor and even momentary relief, but they will hurt more than help. We’re only feeding it. “What dainty morsels rumors are — but they sink deep into one’s heart” (Proverbs 18:8).
- Remember how much they mean to Christ. They bear the image of God. Not only does God hurt for us, He hurts for the other person because of our vengeful thoughts and unkind attitudes toward another child of His. “See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for he allows us to be called his children, and we really are!” (1 John 3:1).
- Ask God for His grace to obey Him. This maybe the most obvious but sometimes the last resort. Or, because the pain didn’t leave right away, we try other means of dealing with bitterness. Remember. It’s His idea. If God calls us to forgive others, He’ll help us to obey. For our own good, and the good of the person who hurt us, we simply must forgive. Just as we trust God for our salvation, we have to trust him to make things right when we forgive. He will heal our wounds so we can move on. “As we know Jesus better, his divine power gives us everything we need for living a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3).
Charles Stanley tells us: “We are to forgive so that we may enjoy God’s goodness without feeling the weight of anger burning deep within our hearts. Forgiveness does not mean we recant the fact that what happened to us was wrong. Instead, we roll our burdens onto the Lord and allow Him to carry them for us.”
Casting our burdens on the Lord: that’s the key to relief, obedience, healing, and the secret of how to forgive. We must depend on Him not ourselves. The proper response to the original question: “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am” (Philippians 4:13).
Here’s some additional thoughts on forgiveness:
Erasing the Sting of Offense
Ten Measurements of Our Character When We’re Offended