This piece is directed toward Christians. While there are many wonderful people who have not accepted the claims of Jesus Christ on their lives but with strong characters are able to do amazing things, for lesser people like me, some actions are totally beyond our capability and could only be done by means of the power He brings into our lives. As shown in John 15:5–17, for example.
"I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing… If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you… These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full… You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another.”
John 15:5, 7, 11, 16, 17
Forgiveness is one of those actions.
Perhaps the first memory I have of an experience relating to the topic of forgiveness is when I left school, age 15, to become an apprentice piano tuner. The firm that employed me said I would be given experience in three different departments - musical instruments, electronic organs and the piano workshop - and then I would be able to decide in which I would prefer to remain.
This made sense to me, so I happily started off in the musical instrument department, which mostly meant selling instruments in the shop and watching the manager of the department undertake various repairs on different ones and occasionally having a go myself. However, after 18 months I had spent just three days in the piano workshop doing a few cleaning jobs, had the occasional trip out with the organ repairer and the rest of the time done nothing but selling things.
Finally my patience ran out and when I challenged the managing director, he said they had no work in piano reconditioning, so the music department was really the only option. Furious, I immediately left my employment there and spent the next 18 months drifting through three different jobs, none of which was suited to me, but torn apart by resentment and bitterness. Almost every night when in bed I would imagine myself going to the place and setting fire to it, burning it to the ground. I dreamed up all sorts of ways I could get revenge on the managing director who had betrayed me and destroyed all hopes I had of the career on which I had set my heart.
Brought up in a Christian home and having asked Jesus Christ to become my Saviour at the age of six, I never knew a life away from God; but this period of my life was the time when I lost interest and, partly blaming Him for my troubles, I moved away from Him.
I don’t remember now when the resentment finally left me; but I guess the starting point was when, aged 18, I rededicated my life to God and He turned me around. That year I started training as a piano technician as a ‘late improver’ at the only other piano shop in Derby where I lived, and I ended up in charge of their piano workshops when the man to whom I was ‘apprenticed’ sadly died.
Some years later, to my great shock, the piano shop that had been the cause of my earlier troubles closed down, and Harry, their managing director, came to work as manager of the piano showroom in the shop where I now was running the workshop. I would now have to work with the man whom I had spent hours dreaming of how I would get my revenge on him! To this day I do not remember the moment when I forgave him for what he had done to me at such a vulnerable time in my life; but I do know that, released from the anger and bitterness, when he joined the company where I now worked I was able to have a friendly relationship with him until my family and I left Derby to live in Dorset.
I realise that my experience was very minor in comparison to that of others: perhaps an innocent young girl beaten, raped and filled with bitterness at her perpetrator; a toddler tortured and killed, whose parents and other relatives are then torn apart with hatred for the murderer; a child ill-treated by parent(s); a sibling bullied by a brother or sister; relatives of those killed at the hands of religious extremists; and so on.
In some ways the actions of Christians, especially Christian leaders, which have caused intense pain and mental anguish, although not as dramatic or physically visible as the previous examples, can be just as difficult to cope with when the perpetrator is someone who one would expect to be the last person to act in such a way. Indeed, devastation has frequently been the result of a leader of a church trampling over individuals in the belief they are serving God by so doing, when in fact the top priority in God’s economy is not building big churches or raising up impressive ‘ministries’, but “love one another.”
This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
Of course, the foundation of this problem is the misunderstanding that such leaders are there to rule, when their true function is to serve. More on this on my page on church leadership. Equally difficult to take, though, is the experience of church leaders when they are attacked or unsupported by church members. Whichever church we join, it is essential to support, respect and pray for its leadership, because, as in every other area, what we do for them we do for God.
Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.
1 Timothy 5:17
Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.
Nevertheless, whatever the action and whoever does it, God’s method of us responding to it is always the same: forgive! To the Church at Ephesius, He says:
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
For anyone who has been hurt, the most likely response to this is that it is both unreasonable and impossible: they have been treated badly, wrongly and unfairly, and the person who mistreated them should not be allowed to get away with it scot free. So let us first look at what forgiveness does not mean.
Forgiveness is not…
Pretending it doesn’t matter
If it hurt you then it matters very much; but this is a different subject and its importance is unaffected by how you respond to what happened. God is very clear in His word about the way He expects we humans to act toward each other, and when we act differently He views this very seriously. He also loves you passionately, and looks at actions taken against you as though they had been taken against Him (see later about this).
And the King will answer and say to them, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.' … Then He will answer them, saying, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.'
Matthew 25:40, 45
So giving forgiveness is not saying what happened is unimportant or can be discounted.
Forgiveness is not saying it wasn’t wrong
Whether something someone else did was right or wrong is determined not by us, our actions or our reactions, but by what God has said. It makes no difference how it affected you or how you respond to it now: if it conflicted with behaviour that God expects, then it was wrong. So offering forgiveness is not an admission that what has taken place was ok. It wasn’t! Forgiving someone does not magically transform wrong actions into right ones: they remain just as wrong after they are forgiven as they were the moment they were perpetrated.
Forgiveness is not letting them off the hook
Forgiving someone does not exonerate them for what they have done. Once again this is a totally different subject and they will have to account to God for their actions, just as you have to do for yours:
But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.
Every action we all take is actually three-way: it is against (or ‘for’ if it is good) the person directly affected; it is against society; and it is against God.
There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?"
Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight— that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge.
So, for example, even if a victim forgives her rapist, he still has to answer to the law of the land and pay the penalty, and will have to face God and answer to Him too.
Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
2 Corinthians 5:10
And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
One reason it is important that crime receives a just penalty (thus paying the dues to society) is that it eases the way for the victim to forgive; but we’ll look at this in a little more detail in the next section.
Forgiveness is not an emotion
The fact that all you feel is hurt, anger, etc., has nothing to do with forgiveness. You may think you can’t forgive because what you feel is the opposite. However, forgiveness is not an emotion but an action. For an example of this, Jesus said,
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends.
We think of love as being primarily an emotion, but at the moment a person is dying in the act of protecting his friend, he certainly does not experience a ‘cosy feeling’. The greatest form of love is not feeling but action - an act of will; and in the same way, the greatest form of forgiveness is not feeling it, but doing it.
It is perfectly understandable why a person hurt by the words or actions of someone else would not want to forgive them, but rather would want them pay an appropriate penalty for what they have done. However, choosing not to forgive is a two-edged sword and there are inevitable consequences when so doing.
For example, a person in the early stages of smoking or taking their first ‘fix’ of drugs may see nothing wrong in the resulting pleasure this brings; but years down the line they are destined to a life of ill-health and addiction; and while the intensity of this result may be a bit of a lottery, it is certain their physical welfare and, if nothing else, their bank balance, will be less than it would have been.
Likewise, refusing to forgive and holding resentment, while a natural reaction and an understandable means of coping with unfair treatment, carries with it consequences that may not be immediately apparent. So:
Unforgiveness is locking in the pain
It means the situation has not been resolved and therefore it is rehearsed in your mind over and over again, day after day. The hurt you experienced when it happened therefore is repeated over and over, day after day. It never goes away, no matter how many years pass by, and every time it comes to mind the perpetrator hurts you all over again. It is perfectly understandable and reasonable that you feel anger, hurt, bitterness, etc., but the unalterable law of the universe is that you reap what you sow. Every repetition of the incident(s) in your mind sows more pain for tomorrow.
Unforgiveness is letting them off the hook
Never take revenge, my friends, but instead let God's anger do it. For the scripture says, "I will take revenge, I will pay back, says the Lord."
Romans 12:19 (GNB)
So taking revenge is not letting God’s anger do it! If you insist on holding on to grudges and wanting to take your own revenge (even if it is only in your own mind) you are in some way hindering God from dealing with the wrong doing. If you want to take matters into your own hands, this is a perfectly natural reaction, but as Christians we need to live by faith and believe that what God has said He will do. His retaliation for the wrong done to you will be far more potent than anything you could do; but in order for Him to do this He needs you to release the wrong doer into His hands, and the only way to do this is to forgive them. So forgiveness is a step of faith that says,
“I know God knows what has happened to me and I know He will deal justly with the perpetrator and heal my spirit and soul (my mind, my will and my emotions) so I can carry on in my life free from it all.”
If the offender is incapable of repentance, then he/she will experience the full force of God’s wrath on judgement day. But what if they do repent? Doesn’t this mean they will be forgiven and therefore get off scot free? If they are capable of repentance, then your forgiveness creates a win/win situation:
You are released from the pain and hurt of the situation.
You will receive an eternal reward for obeying God in spite of what you really wanted to do.
God loves them as much as He loves you. He hates the sin but loves the sinner. You will have the satisfaction of knowing you have fulfilled His purpose for your life and hearing Him say to you, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!” (Luke 19:17)
Your forgiveness initiates a spiritual law that has released them to come to repentance.
You have gained a brother/sister who will be eternally grateful to you for your loving response.
There are no grudges carried over into the eternity ahead; but we will all know as we are known. When we all understand everything - past, present and future - the comparatively tiny problems we caused each other in this life will dissolve away in the light of God’s love filling us.
The passage in Romans, from which I quoted earlier, is an important one; so here it is in full:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay," says the Lord. Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head."
Romans 12:14, 17–21
Christianity is not an easy option! Contrary to the silly claims made by some that it is a religious crutch for those who can’t cope with life, it is ‘going against the current’, ‘swimming upstream’ and acting in ways that sometimes are the opposite of what we see around us. In fact, as I have mentioned several times on this website, it is impossible, because no human has the strength or ability to fulfil its demands.
"I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
This is why God gives us His Holy Spirit to live within us and impart to us the power to act like Jesus, which otherwise would be impossible.
So our reactions in difficult situations are a part of our fight of faith; and the way we respond demonstrates how real our faith is. Please do not think I am criticising or judging anyone who is presently weighed down with a legacy not of their making due to unfair treatment - the last thing you want or need is for someone to say,
“You are doing it wrong;”
“Your problem is of your own making.”
That would be no help whatsoever; and it would be untrue too. All I can do is to look at what we are taught in God’s word and try to report on it accurately. God has made available to us freedom from all the emotional, physical and psychological pain resulting from our past, through the price Jesus paid in His suffering and death on the cross; but it can only be obtained in His way.
Consider the example of Jesus. He knew He was the Son of God; He’d sent Satan scampering with His word in the wilderness; He’d sent demons fleeing away from him on numerous occasions as he delivered possessed people; He’d shocked the wisest and cleverest of the Jewish leaders into silence by His arguments; He’d healed the sick and raised the dead; He’d demonstrated over and over again the fact of His relationship with God. But now, nailed to a cross his enemies torment Him with,
“If you are the Son of God, come down.”
He had the power to do it. Instead, He retaliated with,
“Father, forgive them…”
Paul tells us we all should follow the example of Jesus:
bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.
You cannot experience unfairness and mistreatment without giving some kind of a response, because sooner or later you will explode if you try. This is why we are told:
But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you…
Responding with resentment, bitterness, anger, thoughts of revenge, etc., may be perfectly natural, but it lays the foundation of a lifetime of pain and hurt. Jesus responded to His unfair treatment by forgiveness, and He comes to live in us by His Spirit in order for us to be able to do what He did. There has to be a response, but it is to be one of blessing, not cursing; doing good, not repaying in kind; and laying the seeds for your own blessing and deliverance from the negative results of the misdeed.
Unforgiveness is blocking the path to God’s forgiveness for ourselves
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us in the same way we forgive others:
So He said to them, "When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
Jesus stressed this element of the prayer in one of His parables:
Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, 'Pay me what you owe!' So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses."
Every one of us is very aware of the number of things in our own lives for which we need forgiveness. Indeed, the heart of the Christian message is that God offers us free forgiveness for everything on the basis of the sacrifice Jesus made. We can do nothing at all to earn this forgiveness; but we can block it. Jesus made it clear that if we refuse to forgive, then we erect a barrier that prevents God’s forgiveness from reaching us. On the other hand, Jesus said:
Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
I may feel hurt, angry, upset and deeply grieved by the way someone has acted against me and it is perfectly natural to want justice to be done and to be seen to be done; but there is something far more important at stake here - my eternal destiny that is dependent on receiving God’s forgiveness for my own shortcomings. I simply cannot afford the luxury of short-term satisfaction at the expense of long-term disaster; and holding grudges, resentment, bitterness and everything else that naturally follows, allows the ‘perpetrator’ to hurt me once again!
Indeed, Jesus made it clear that Christianity is diametrically opposite to the ‘natural’ way of acting, as can be seen from what He said just prior to Luke 6:37:
But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Matthew reported on the sermon on the mount in this way:
"You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
This lifetime is very short. When I was young it seemed to stretch before me like an eternity; but now I am in my seventh decade I look back and realise how rapidly it has gone by. Eternity ahead of us is a very long time - it lasts forever! The way we live here and now directly affects the existence ahead of us that will continue without end. Jesus said:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
A part of the treasure we lay up for ourselves is the beings we will become as a result of how we live now. As Paul teaches us, this life is a seed that is planted to produce something much more glorious in eternity:
But someone will say, "How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?" Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.
1 Corinthians 15:35-43
Even giving a cup of cold water brings its reward.
And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward."
This makes it clear that every experience brings with it the opportunity to improve our ‘seed’ and give us a more glorious existence in the eternal ages to come, and just as one star differs from another in its glory, so we too have the opportunity to be raised to a more glorious resurrection. Therefore, if Jesus could endure the cross for the joy that it would later produce, how much more important is it for us to forgive for the reward this will bring in releasing us from the pain of the hurt we have suffered in the here and now, and a brighter eternity in the future?
looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
It is not for me to tell you how to pray; but I suggest incorporating the following elements in a prayer (perhaps best spoken out loud) would be a good first step in response to the bad things done to us.
Father, I do not feel forgiving toward x, and I do want justice.
But I want to obey You and please You more.
So I ask for Your power to enable me to do it.
In the name of Jesus I forgive x fully for everything and relinquish all my rights for retaliation. I ask You to bless x and turn him/her into everything You have planned for him/her.
X is now forgiven and set free from everything involved with the situation. So I ask You please to release me from all feelings of upset related to all that has happened.
I choose to walk in faith believing that You have done it and set me free. So I thank You for saving me in every area of my life, including this one.
Faith means that sometimes you have to believe God’s word even when you can’t experience it. There’s an old story about three people, called Fact, Faith and Feelings, who were walking on the top of a wall. Fact was at the front and Feelings at the back. When Faith kept his eyes on Fact he was fine; but when he turned around to look at Feelings he lost his balance and fell off. While our eyes are on the fact of God’s word we are fine, but when we turn away from that and consider the way we feel instead, we come to grief.
So if the feelings of resentment, bitterness and hurt do not leave immediately, this is not an indication nothing has happened, but is simply the normal process of the fight of faith.
Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
1 Timothy 6:12
Every day thank God for hearing you, for blessing x and for setting you free from all the negative effects of what has happened. Every time the negative feelings arise say out loud something like,
“I have forgiven x and God has delivered me from everything; so I reject these feelings as lies and thank You Lord for Your full salvation.”
I pray God’s richest blessing on You as you walk in faith with Him and trust Him to do everything He has promised in His word.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version.
Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Quotations labelled GNB: scriptures and additional materials quoted are from
the Good News Bible © 1994 published by the Bible Societies/HarperCollins Publishers Ltd UK,
Good News Bible© American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976, 1992. Used with permission.
Page picture, free image from here