Forgiving: The Difficult, Delicate Decision

Isn't it humbling to be reminded of your past blunders? Some time ago when speaking at a church I was delighted to run into a friend from the past. I had been the minister at her wedding years before. As we talked, the lady recalled to me that at the wedding I had criticized their best man's long hair. Later, very upset, the best man had said to the newlyweds: “I'll never go to another Baptist church!” Personally, I didn't recall a thing!

“Do you know where the guy is now?” I asked my friend. She gave me his phone number. At home I phoned the man and apologized profusely for my “big mouth” and judgmental attitude. “It's not necessary,” was his reply. But I asked again, and he wearily said, “O.K. I do forgive you. Frankly I'm amazed that you've called after all these years.” The friend later recounted to me that their former best man had telephoned, excited and pleased that I'd asked forgiveness. His attitude had changed. I still pain, haunted by the quick comment that stayed over 20 years in his life, affecting his actions.

How easy it is to hurt people and not know it. God convicted me years ago while I was reading Acts 24:16: “. . . Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God and toward man.” I have resolved to put that verse into action, necessitating many phone calls and face-to-face apologies.

How can one describe what a lack of forgiveness looks like? Think of running a race with a tumor inside of you, grabbing the blood and oxygen you need to win. Hebrews 12:1-2 reveals that exact picture. We are commanded to “lay aside every weight.” That word “weight” means a growing tumor! We must totally forgive in order to mentor others effectively. Anything short of real forgiveness stops good people from being holy people, winning lives for Jesus.

Total forgiveness is more difficult than I once thought. We often sin unknowingly toward God and others. The cross is God's supreme reminder that we need forgiveness. Sin is so hideous, so blinding, that only the death of God's son could pay for such terrible, enormous ruin. We also choose to deliberately sin. We pick a word or choose an act, not always caring that we will wound others deeply. We even rationalize that they deserve it! People also hurt us in similar ways, either unknowingly or purposefully.

Total forgiveness is the way to freedom. Only then can we be unchained from our past, and freed for a glorious flight into the Now! How do you forgive the spouse who divorced you for someone else, or the parent who abused you emotionally? How can you let go of bitterness toward that neighbor who destroyed property? Or how might you totally forgive the antics of a mother-in-law, or the boss who fired you? People flow through our lives whose joy, it seems, is in offending us or those we love — devilish people! R.T. Kendall, a Baptist minister in England, has written a great new book entitled Total Forgiveness. 1

Why Forgive Others?

Throughout Scripture God commands us to forgive others. Why forgive?

  1. Forgiving thrusts us into the very heart-life of Jesus who prayed: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” What amazing words spoken by a dying Man, hanging from the most accomplished torture tool invented. Didn't the Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross know what they were doing? The crowds who ridiculed and laughed at the dying Man didn't know? The chicken-hearted, faithless disciples that did a disappearing act when the soldiers took Jesus — they didn't know what they did? We need to forgive others because they may not know what they are doing. Their words and wounding deeds may actually be beyond their threshold of spiritual sensitivity. We feel it; they don't.
  2. Without forgiving others we can never get prayer answered. “Prayer without forgiveness is like a car without an engine; or a body without a soul. It simply doesn't work,” says Hank Hanegraaff“So likewise will your heavenly Father do unto you; if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses” (Matthew 18:35).
  3. Forgiveness will erase bitterness in our hearts. Unforgiveness gives birth to a tiger in our heart: bitterness. This killer mutilates and claws all those close to us. “See to it that no one misses the grace of God, that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15, NIV). We can imagine the hurt, “play” with it in our minds, make up whole dialogues about it, even dream about what we say and they say. Bitterness begins to cripple our whole life. Consider this concept: John Piper feels that “ultimately all bitterness is a refusal to forgive God for something we think he did to us.”
  4. We give forgiveness because we have received it. The Holy Spirit writes in Ephesians 4:32: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.” Jesus tells the story of a man who can't pay a debt (in our day it might equal $20 million dollars). The man who is the creditor graciously has compassion and cancels the unpayable debt. Then the forgiven man goes to a guy who owes him a $20 dollar bill and puts him in jail. What hardness! But what about us? We've had an unpayable debt of sins and damnation cancelled through the loving sacrifice of Christ. Yet, we stubbornly dare to refuse to forgive a terrible wrong. Our debt to a holy God is unpayable. Hell is sure; although we deserve fire forever, we've been forgiven. Can we not forgive a $20-dollar debt?

What does it mean to totally forgive?

R.T. Kendall shares indicators of how we know that we've truly and fully forgiven. Read these slowly and carefully.

  1. Being aware of what they did, and still forgiving them.
  2. Choosing to keep no records of what they did.
  3. Refusing to punish them back.
  4. Not telling others what they did.
  5. Being merciful.
  6. Gracious.
  7. It is an inner condition and surrender of our wills to forgive.
  8. It is an absence of bitterness.
  9. It is forgiving God.
  10. It is forgiving ourselves. 2

The Lord's Prayer says: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Three hundred years ago Thomas Watson, asked regarding this verse: “When have we really forgiven others?” We've forgiven when we: 3

  1. Resist all thoughts of revenge: Romans 12:19, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
  2. Don't seek to do them mischief: 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “See that no one repays another with evil for evil.”
  3. Wish well to them: Luke 6:28, “Bless those who curse you.”
  4. Grieve at their calamities: Proverbs 24:17, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
  5. Pray for them: Matthew 5:44, “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
  6. Seek reconciliation with them: Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
  7. Be always willing to come to their relief: Exodus 23:4, “If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.”
  8. Forgiveness must keep well our hearts: “Keep thy heart with all diligence. . . .” Jesus warned about our sure judgment, “unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:32-35).

What Forgiveness Doesn't Mean

Forgiveness isn't forgetting what happened to us or others. That's not normal. We forgive, and release the offender to God. He is the ultimate reconciler to bring all things to rightness. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay” (Romans 12:19). He does not bless “evil.”

If I confess, and God forgives, is everything back to square one? No! When we truly repent God will forgive the sin, but he will rarely stop the chain-reaction of the consequences. Thomas Watson says: “Though a child of God, after pardon, may incur his fatherly displeasure, yet his judicial wrath is removed. Though he may lay on the rod, yet he has taken away the curse. Correction may befall the saints, but not destruction.” 4 King David got forgiveness when he repented. However, the consequences of his sins continued. His testimony was scarred forever and many of his family were destroyed (2 Samuel 12:10-13). The sins of the fathers can be visited upon our children (Exodus 34:7).

Furthermore, forgiving does not mean that we hold back on loving discipline towards a child, or church leader or criminal. Both goodness and sin have consequences. “. . .Because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:6).

How To Forgive Others

  1. Make a commitment. Forgiving others is an act of the heart and the will. Genuine love toward another involves a decision. Emotions will follow actions.
  2. Whenever emotions grab our mind again, we undergird the decision to forgive by repeating to God: “I forgive him, Lord.” It may take time for the negative emotions to subside and our attitudes to be victorious. The hurt may remain, but the dagger in our hand will dissolve.
  3. Victory can be maintained. “Glue a verse” to the person such as “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving. . . .” I've followed step-by-step this verse with difficult people. Jesus commands us to activate four responses to an enemy: 1) love them, 2) do good to them, 3) bless them and 4) pray for them (Luke 6:27-28). Now, go fill in the Bible study worksheet on Forgiveness here. You will fly free!

1 This book is sweeping in revealing how far we must go to forgive totally. I was quickly convicted and ordered more copies to share. Also search “forgiveness” in John Piper's website: 
2 R.T. Kendall, Total Forgiveness, (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House Pub., 2002), pp. 20-34. 
3 Tomoas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 581. 
4 Watson, p. 556