Almost everyone has heard about forgiveness, but it is my experience that few people really understand or know how to effectively do it. When I suggested that a client, who had been repeatedly sexually abused over her lifetime, forgive her abusers, she turned to me and asked “How?” In another situation, a Christian woman that I knew heard a sermon on forgiveness and, trying to be obedient, forgave and re-married her ex-husband. A few days later he asked her to leave because he liked his current girlfriend better! She did not understand that although we are required to forgive, according to Matthew Chapter 18 we are not required to be reconciled with someone who has not truly repented. In another situation, I was witnessing to an alcoholic who said that he had become addicted after someone killed his wife and children. The killer had never been caught. I asked if he had forgiven the killer. He said no. I then explained to him that until he forgave and gave up his right to avenge himself, God would not get involved in bringing justice to the situation.
Forgiveness means “To grant pardon for or remission of (something). 2. To cease of blame or feel resentment against. 3. To remit, as a debt.” (The New International Webster’s Concise Dictionary of the English Language edited by Sidney Landau, 1997) I define it as “giving up our right for revenge or payment from the other person.” Forgiveness must be done from all of our heart—the mind, will, emotions, and spirit—before the process is complete. The Bible discusses three situational types of forgiveness: 1. When a person repents and we forgive and reconcile the relationship. 2. When a person does not repent. We are to forgive them but are not obligated to reconcile the relationship. 3. When forgiveness is unilaterally granted and rights for justice are waived out of concern for the abuser.
1. In the Old Testament offenses by men were punished with harsh judgment equal to the wrong done to others. This is what most of us want for those who offend us. This method of justice has become know as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” or legalism. Unfortunately, because we humans tend to want even more done to others than was done to us, this leads type of legalism results in escalating violence. The results in a world full of blind and toothless people. The Israelis and the Palestinians are a perfect example of this type of “justice” since both Judaism and Islam ascribe to it. It has resulted in thousands dead and no end to the conflict between them.
Lev 14:19 And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; 20 Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.
2. The Old Testament method of forgiveness was atonement, the covering up of sin. This was a kind of restitution to God. Restitution was also required to make things right when men were offended.
Le 4:20 And he shall do with the bullock as he did with the bullock for a sin offering, so shall he do with this: and the priest shall make an atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them.
Ex 21:35 And if one man's ox hurt another's, that he die; then they shall sell the live ox, and divide the money of it; and the dead ox also they shall divide.
3. Forgiveness in the New Testament is based on the shed blood of Jesus that takes away all of our sin.
Colossians 1:14 In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:
Psalms 103:12 As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
4. Because we all sin, we all need forgiveness. A British General said to John Wesley, “I never forgive.” Wesley responded, “I hope then, that you never sin.” (Tan, #1985)
Ro 3:23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
Psalms 32:1 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
5. We are required to forgive all the offenses of other people, because God has forgiven us for our sins.
Mt 6:14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
6. The only sin that cannot be forgiven is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit because it drives away the very Spirit that must draw us unto salvation. If we continually reject the wooing of the Holy Spirit we cannot be saved and without salvation we cannot be forgiven. Many psychotic clients fear that they have committed the unforgivable sin. I believe that this is because spirits take advantage of their psychosis in an attempt to overwhelm them with fear. From these clients point of view, if they have committed the unpardonable sin, it means that they are hopelessly doomed to hell and there is nothing they can do about it. In order to refute this belief, I usually explain that if they are already saved or if they still want to do what is right, it is clear evidence that the Holy Spirit still dwells within them. If this is true then, since they have not driven the Holy Spirit away, they have not committed the unforgivable sin.
Mt 12:31 Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. 32 And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
7. Forgiveness is giving up a debt that we perceive is owed to us when we are unjustly treated. To forgive, you must give up your right for vengeance. Unforgiveness is an affront to God and a lack of understanding of the gravity of our own debt (sin). One reason why people do not forgive is because they see their own sins as less evil than the offense done against them. God sees all sins as rebellion and the consequence of even one sin is the fire of hell. The following parable makes it clear that the debt of the first man (us) was huge (millions of dollars) compared to the debt of the second (those who offend us) (one day’s wages).
Mt 18:23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. 24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. 26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
8. We cannot expect to have God forgive us and not forgive others. God has a right to be angry with us when we refuse to forgive because He paid the price of His Son to redeem us.
Mt 18:28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. 29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. 32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: 33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
9. Refusing to forgive brings internal torment onto ourselves. Our psychological tormentors are bitterness, the mental torment of rumination, being preoccupied with the past, not being able to forgive ourselves, and stuffed anger which results in angry blowups and physical health problems. We are the only ones who are hurt by the situation. By not forgiving, we must realize that we are the ones who are turning ourselves over to the tormenters. By our actions, we choose the world in which we will live: judgment or grace.
Mt 18:34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. 35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
10. Unforgiveness gives Satan an advantage over us.
2 Co 2:10 To whom ye forgive any thing, I [forgive] also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave [it], for your sakes [forgave I it] in the person of Christ; 11 Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.
11. When another person admits their fault and changes their behavior, we are not only to forgive them, but to do what we can to be reconciled in our relationship with them. This is the first type of forgiveness.
Lu 17:3 Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.
Heb 2:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
12. Although we are still required to forgive someone who refuses to repent, we are not required to be reconciled with them. This second type of forgiveness is, in effect, turning the situation over to God for justice. In doing so, we have still given up our rights for vengeance. However, forgiveness does not mean we have to put ourselves back into the same situation to be abused again.
Mt 18:16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
13. If we do not forgive, God does not get involved in bringing justice to the situation. If we choose to hold on to our right for vengeance, God is not released to bring justice or vengeance.
Mt 18:18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
14. The third type of forgiveness involves dropping the matter as an act of mercy to an evil and unrepentant offender. Both Jesus and Stephen chose to do this as they were dying.
Lu 23:34 Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.
Ac 7:60 And he (Stephen) kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
15. Sometimes, people do not forgive; because they do not believe that forgiveness is fair. God disagrees! He forgives because He is more interested in what someone will become in the future than what they have done in the past. We are all supposed to be growing in maturity and righteousness. He sent Jesus to forgive us, so that we could have a relationship with Him and become more progressively whole.
Eze 18:25 Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal? 27 Again, when the wicked [man] turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. 28 Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
16. Because forgiveness seems to cost us something, some people are not willing to pay the price. We need to ask ourselves how much do we value the other person? God paid the price of His son Jesus for each of us so that we could have another chance to become all He designed us to be!
Mt 18:14 Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
17. When we have been wrong in offending someone, restitution is appropriate. Jacob gave presents to Esau to make restitution for stealing his birthright and blessing.
Ge 33:10 And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.
1. We must forgive, but reconciliation is required only if the offender truly repents. Forgiveness is giving up our right for vengeance and is not the same as reconciliation. If the other refuses to repent or does not show the fruit of repentance, we are required to forgive, but not to reconcile.
2. We need to learn how to Biblically forgive others. Some clients need to be taught how to forgive. The first step is to choose to forgive as an act of the will, because God commands it. We will not be forgiven without it. When we forgive, we are delivered from the internal torment that unforgiveness perpetuates. Next, we must try to see the situation from the viewpoint of the other person as well as God, who sees the other person as infinitely valuable. Then, we should try to find compassion and empathy for them. Remembering our own sins and our need for forgiveness can help. After attempting to resolve the offense according to Matthew Chapter 18, we must choose the type of forgiveness appropriate to the situation: forgive and reconcile if they have truly repented, forgive by turning the situation over to God if they have not, or ask God to not hold this sin against them as Jesus and Stephen did when they were murdered. Once the decision is made, either reconcile the relationship, if they have repented, or treat the offender as a “heathen man and a publican”—that is, you keep your distance, but pray for their salvation and a change of heart. Realize that forgiveness is an act of faith. When you act according to your faith and pray for the offender, your emotions will eventually follow.
3. We must identify and overcome any resistance to forgiveness. Using these principles, we need to determine why the client is unwilling to forgive and help them to overcome this problem. Usually people do not forgive because they feel forgiveness is not fair, that the abuser will get away with the offense if they forgive, or that if they forgive they will be abused again. They need to realize that the opposite is true. If they refuse to forgive, they will not be forgiven by God for their sins, and they will be the one hurt by the inner torment and rumination caused by the unforgiveness. By not forgiving, they are holding onto their rights for vengeance, and God does not get involved in bringing justice. Most of the time, when the client realizes that they can forgive an unrepentant offender by giving up their rights for vengeance to God and that God will take up their cause, they are willing to do so. Finally, forgiveness does not imply that they should reconcile and again put themselves in a vulnerable position. Reconciliation is only required if the other person truly repents and changes his behavior.
4. Reconciliation in abuse cases should be done slowly and step-by-step. The first step is testing that true repentance has occurred. In fact, sometimes waiting helps solidify the repentance and results in restitution or the fruit of repentance. Even if the other person has truly repented, that does not necessarily insure that all issues have been adequately resolved. In addition, many times trust has been destroyed and fear is present. By starting the new relationship at a safe distance and closing that distance only after any conflicts and abusive behavior have been resolved, trust can be slowly rebuilt as fear is faced in the incremental fashion of systematic desensitization. This is especially true when domestic violence or abuse has been a pattern.
5. Direct or indirect restitution is the fruit of repentance. If the offending person is not willing to make restitution, we should question whether full repentance has occurred. Although no one can ever completely rectify a wrong, the offender can at least demonstrate a change of heart through his actions. It also helps an offender to feel that he has done all that he can do to make up for the wrong. Direct restitution is repaying a debt or doing something for the one offended. Sometimes this is impossible. In cases where the person has died or when revisiting the offense could bring further damage or hurt, indirect restitution should be made. The offender should do something symbolic. For example, making a donation to the family of the victim or to a charity that assists in helping victims of this type of offense.