We teach little children to say “I’m sorry” and “You’re forgiven.” They hug and go off to play again. (That’s reconciliation at its finest.)
With adults, it’s not always so simple. Forgiveness is a challenging virtue into which we grow. Sometimes we need to let go of hurt. Other times, we don’t understand the nature of forgiving. We think it’s too hard and will hurt us. Actually, just the opposite is true.
As well, we may expect forgiveness to lead to reconciliation—restoration of relationship. That may or may not occur. It depends on circumstances—what we’re ready for, what’s good for us and others.
To live more like Jesus, let’s explore each of those issues.
Jesus taught us to forgive “70 times 7 times,” or continuously. He also instructed us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (from the Lord ’s Prayer, in Matthew chapter 6).
He’s punctuating the point: It’s not good for us to hold on to grudges, letting others’ mistakes fester in our minds.
Remember this scripture? “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).
Unforgiveness is the plank. It keeps us focused on someone else’s shortcomings; we can’t see our own. Holding a grudge is, simply put, a sin.
Jesus is serious about forgiveness. His compassion for us is strong when we are injured, maligned, or disregarded. He is available to heal us and work in our favor.
Still, Jesus doesn’t want us tripped up by the sin of unforgiveness—which breeds anger, bitterness, and contempt. These things block the very healing we need.
Living without forgiving is like deciding to continually participate in the event that caused the pain in the first place. We relive it, failing to move forward. Jesus wants better for us. He wants to help us forgive.
If those truths seem hard to swallow, be encouraged. God wants what is best for us. And he has plenty of grace to help us forgive.
What is Forgiveness?
When a person is ready to forgive, what does that look like? Consider what can be learned from the Bible and personal experience:
- Forgiveness is a decision. It is setting one’s mind to release a person (or group of people) from guilt for harm they have done. Forgiveness does not change what happened. However, it is deciding to leave the past in the past.
- Forgiveness is a gift I can give to myself. It releases my soul to let go of a wrong committed against me. I can receive peace! One who forgives is actually healthier and happier than one who holds a grudge.
- Forgiveness is a gift to others. If we are to truly love as Jesus loves, then we love our enemies. Forgiveness does that. We release others into God’s care, exactly where they need to be.
- Forgiveness is an act of compassion. By forgiving, we place a high priority on unity in relationships. Sometimes, God calls us to forgive and also walk away—for our health or the health of others. This still demonstrates compassion, as we leave others in God’s hands.
- Forgiveness is an act of faith. We do it that God is in charge of what happens to the other person. We can also believe that our Father is a righteous, just judge who stands up for our needs. We aren’t weaklings when we forgive; we are strong in the Lord! Psalm 91:2 reminds us: “You are my defender and protector. You are my God; in you I trust.”
Grace to Forgive
Forgiveness is an awesome demonstration of Christ-like love. It amazes us when an individual can forgive someone who has committed a crime against them…or when a prodigal son or daughter has been welcomed back into the family. These are big “God moments.”
But what if we can’t muster the will to forgive?
One solution is for us to pray, “God, change my mind.” Inability to forgive can be caused by pent-up anger, a need for justice or retaliation, judgment, and even bitterness. Allowing God to cleanse those things from our souls allows us to subsequently forgive.
With God’s help, we can even “forgive and forget.” Memories of how others hurt us in the past don’t cause pain anymore. The memories may even fade away completely.
In the process, we learn wisdom for future interactions, establishing healthy relational boundaries, if needed. We learn what we need and decide how we will allow others to treat us. Two helpful books on this subject are:
- Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend: https://www.boundariesbooks.com/
- Keep Your Love On by Danny Silk: https://lovingonpurpose.com/
Forgiveness is not a “free pass” for someone to tread on us again. God wants to help us restore damaged relationships, if possible. Healing can be instantaneous or take much time. (See the testimony below, “A Father-Daughter Reconciliation.”)
Sometimes the answer is “stay apart.” I know three people who God called out of relationships. One was a serious dating relationship, and the other two were marriages. After much prayer and waiting, the people involved felt God had released them to leave unhealthy and unchanging relationships.
One of the people, now divorced for four years, has made peace with her former husband and even entered a friendly relationship with his new wife. Now that’s forgiveness!
God may even suggest we stay apart from friends. A person I know faced serious judgment about her life decisions from two deep, long-time friends. After listening to their viewpoint, praying, and attempting to reconcile the relationship, she decided that trust had been broken. The friendship needed a hiatus. Happily, these individuals now have a pleasant rapport. They’ve agreed to set aside the issues that once divided them.
In another scenario, attempts to reconcile a severed relationship were met with silence. The other party did not wish to reengage. Reconciliation was not possible, period.
Are you facing any relational rifts like these? After forgiving those individuals, ask God to show you his wisdom. He will teach you the way of love, whether it means cozying up to others or maintaining your distance. Following God’s lead is worth it. He’ll either lead you to relational peace with those people—or peace despite loss of the relationships. He is so proud of you for forgiving!
Freedom in Forgiveness
Congratulations for choosing to enter into Jesus’ way of love through forgiveness. You’ve chosen something pure, beautiful, and permanent.
Each time God forgives us, he literally forgets what we’ve done. The God who knows all chooses not to remember our transgressions.
Holy Scripture reminds us:
- “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).
- “He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12).
With God’s grace, people can forgive like that too. It begins with the decision to forgive. God will help with the rest.
Testimony:A Father-Daughter Reconciliation
Twenty-eight years went by without me seeing my Dad.
Today I see him once a week.
When my parents divorced, so did Dad and I (in a manner of speaking). Dad and I both made mistakes in relating to one another. We stayed in our corners…not sharing a conversation, a meal, or big life events for almost three decades.
How could I have missed out on all that time? I had a desire to forgive Dad, and for him to forgive me for my mistakes. I wanted to fully reconcile. I had even prayed about it.
Dad recalls during this period that we talked on the phone a bit, wanting to get back together. But we were stuck thinking about our past problems.
I remember it that way too. I had been having some bad dreams, regrets about the relationship, and hurts that wouldn’t go away. It didn’t seem like it would be possible to cozy up to Dad while those things were in my mind and heart.
For a long while, I focused on my husband and raising two children. I worked several jobs, in and out of the home. I nurtured a relationship with the Lord. Once, a prayer partner and I joined hands to ask for reconciliation with Dad. But nothing happened for years.
Fast forward to me in my mid-40s. God stepped in with this reassurance: I’ve heard your prayer, and I’m going to answer it. First, I have to get you ready. Let’s let go of some things.
Layers of bitterness, fear, and defensiveness started to come of my heart. At a church retreat, God even directed a friend to strategically pray for my relationship with my Dad. I felt lighter right away—like a daughter, not an orphan!
God did something major that day. I no longer carried anger from the past. I felt love…and I knew it would only be a matter of time until Dad and I were reunited.
Second, God reassured me that he was working—but I would have to wait. God was getting Dad ready, just as he was working on me.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have been jumping up and down with excitement for what God was about to do.
One day, I just felt ready.
It began with a tentative phone call to Dad…some talk about the weather…lots of steering around uncomfortable subjects…and finally the agreement to meet at a diner halfway between our homes.
“I was very nervous,” Dad says. “I wanted to meet up with you and I remember driving down. The closer I got to that diner, the more nervous I got.”
I was nervous too. It melted away when I looked at his rich brown eyes. They looked like mine!
“Dad, I have your eyes,” I gushed. I hadn’t seen his eyes for years.
“I know we hugged after we ate,” Dad recalls, “and when we left each other we hugged and kissed. I told you I loved you. I said, ‘We gotta do this again.’”
From there, we navigated our relationship differently. Dad notes, “We decided we weren’t going to bring up old things. We were just going to forget about it and go on with the new day as best we could.” We also agreed to address problems if they cropped up.
It worked! Dad and I went from not knowing one another to sharing about the weather to talking about deep issues. It was like getting to know each other all over again!
Soon, my husband and I were visiting Dad. Our teenage kids met their Pop Pop. My heart opened more and more to this amazing man who brought me into the world, raised me, and loves me today for exactly who I am! It is truly a picture of the heavenly Father’s love for me.
Dad and I can’t get those lost years back, but I no longer feel the need to. Thanks to God, we are happy moving forward. My relationship with Dad person is infinitely stronger than ever before. We share conversations, board games, silly jokes, Mexican food for lunch, and impromptu sessions of “Name that Tune.” (We both love music and are known to tear up over patriotic, romantic, and poignant classical songs.) We talk about our hopes and dreams, debate about world events, and just enjoy daily life. Our relationship is rich.
Because of forgiveness, God brought beauty from the ashes. I am forever grateful. Dad is too, and urges that others not wait too long to reconnect with their own flesh and blood. Says Dad, “Do it as soon as you can.”
Prayer: I Want to Forgive
The following prayer is a guide—a starting point for those who wish to forgive. Use it in full or in part. Pray it all at once or a bit at a time. If God is working in one area, “park” there for a while (even days or weeks) so that Holy Spirit can do the work needed in your life. Be blessed!
You are full of mercy and compassion. Please put a desire in me to be that way, too. Teach me how to forgive. Show me step by step. (Stop to listen to Holy Spirit’s voice. What is he telling you?)
I trust you to take care of my needs and to “right the wrongs” against me while I release those who hurt me to your care. I ask you to bless those people, and to bless me right now. (Pause to bless others and receive your blessing.)
I invite you now to cleanse me of bitterness, grudges, pain, distrust, or anything that has prevented me from forgiving. (Pause while Jesus does some heart cleaning. You may experience gratitude, burdens lifting, tears, pictures in your mind, or other responses as this occurs.)
Lord, release wisdom to me. Should I repair this relationship? Should I distance myself? What is healthy for me and the other(s) in this situation. Please give me grace so that your will is done. (Again, stop to listen. God will give you clarity, maybe even a “first step.”)
Today, I shed the burden of unforgiveness and step into freedom, in Jesus’ name. (End by thanking and praising God!)
Photo of children holding hands by Annie Spratt on Unsplash