How to Forgive Others

Dateline: 2 May 2008

I began my writing career with how-to articles for magazines. Then came how-to books. And then came this blog, which has featured several how-to essays over the past three years. My usual how-to topics are down-to-earth and hands-on oriented. This essay will be a significant departure from the usual. I feel compelled to write on the very important subject of How to Forgive.

As I was considering this essay I decided to do a Google search of the phrase, “how to forgive.” To my surprise, I found comparatively little information from a Christian perspective. I found articles like How to Forgive Someone Without Using Religion and Nine Steps to Forgiveness. The how-to advice in those articles did not seem very good to me at all.

Incredibly, the one article about forgiving “without religion” even suggests that you might not want to forgive someone who has wronged you. Such advice is absolutely horrible. Not forgiving is psychologically, spiritually and physically destructive.

That said, my focus here is on how to forgive from a Christian perspective. I should make it clear that I am not a learned theologian. But one need not be a learned theologian to understand this subject. It is, essentially, Christianity 101.

Nevertheless, as my Google search showed, there appears to be precious little information out there on the specifics of How to Forgive. What I’m about to share with you here is something I learned over 20 years ago at a church I once attended in Whitney Point, New York. I do not recall exactly who taught me this, but I have never forgotten it. And I have had plenty of opportunity to use it over the years.

There is a lot of information out there about why it is so important to forgive, and I’ve heard that topic discussed in numerous sermons. The Bible is perfectly clear on why Christians are to forgive:

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matthew 6:14-15

That verse underscores the imperative of forgiving others. In fact, forgiveness—God forgiving us and God’s people exercising forgiveness towards others—is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian. I dare say that exercising forgiveness is one of the essential keys to living a victorious Christian life.

Then there is the matter of how often to forgive. Once again, the Bible is perfectly clear. If you’ve heard many sermons, you are familiar with this verse:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
Matthew 18:21-22

In other words, we are called to forgive every single time, for every single offense. But forgiving someone who has done us wrong is, as you are probably well aware, not an easy thing to do. To forgive is contrary to human nature. Holding a grudge and/or getting even, is a much more “natural” or human response.

My daily job inside a maximum security state prison brings me into contact with many men who are there precisely because they were unable and unwilling to forgive another person for wronging them. The desire for personal vengeance led them to commit a serious crime. And many (if not most) still have bitterness and anger related to unforgiveness; their desire for further vengeance is still there.

To a lesser (but no less serious) degree, all of us face battles within ourselves over this matter of forgiveness. People hurt us emotionally with their words, their attitudes, their actions, and by their irresponsibility. Unforgiveness in a life is often associated with matters of money. If you are human and have been around for awhile, I’m sure you can relate to what I am saying.

Some slights and hurts inflicted upon us by others are small. Others may be large and amazingly terrible. Many times we are innocent victims. Sometimes, if we are honest in the matter, we bear a measure of responsibility for the hurtful actions which have been inflicted upon us. Regardless of the size and the details of any offenses we’ve suffered, if we are Christians, we must forgive.

I am persuaded beyond any shadow of a doubt that, apart from God’s help, true forgiveness is impossible. That’s because God is the author of forgiveness. I know of no other religion outside of Christianity in which the god of that religion extends forgiveness to undeserving people for no other reason than love--totally unmerited love.

God’s love is evidenced in His incredible forgiveness, which was manifested through His son, Jesus, who came to earth as a man, lived a sinless life, and willingly died a brutal death, in order to pay the penalty for our sin. Why did Jesus do this? Because He loved us. Because it was the only way to bring us back into proper relationship with the Father. The reality of this is almost incomprehensible. Yet it is so.

That said, the power for us to truly forgive others comes not from ourselves, but from the work of Christ in us—in those who call him Lord..

When a person trusts in Christ, the Bible says he becomes a new creature. Old things are passed away.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new
2 Corinthians 5:17

One of the old things that pass away is the inability to properly forgive others here on earth. Or, even, if need be, to forgive those who may no longer be here on earth. And so it is that every Christian has the power and ability to forgive.

All of which finally brings me to the subject of how we can forgive someone. I have condensed (somewhat) the answer to that question into three steps.

The First Step is that we must choose to forgive. Choosing to forgive is an act of the will. We may not feel like forgiving. But that is entirely beside the point. In order to forgive someone, we must consciously and deliberately decide to forgive, regardless of our feelings. This is the proper Christian response.

This choosing is best expressed in a prayer. Here is an example of what I mean.

”Father God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I choose to forgive _________ for what he did to me. Please help me to forgive him as I should.”

That’s pretty simple, right? Well, yes, but willing to forgive someone can often be very difficult. It is, however, the absolutely necessary first step.

Step Two in the process of forgiving is to pray for the person who has done you wrong. Again, this is a choice, an act of the will, an expression of obedience to God.

How should we pray for those who have hurt us? If they are not believers in Christ, we should, first and foremost, pray for their salvation:

”Lord, I ask that your Holy Spirit would work in _______’s heart and draw him to you—that you would bless him with your salvation through Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus, I ask that spirits of sonship and adoption be loosed to work in his life. I ask that your grace and mercy would abound towards him.”

There, again, is an example prayer. Of course, the actual words you use are less important than your willingness to pray in a constructive way for the person you are forgiving. In the event that the person is a believer in Christ, we should pray that the Lord will lead them into closer relationship with Himself through Jesus; that repentance and personal revival will result. It is a very liberating thing to pray for such blessings on someone who has harmed, cheated or mistreated us.

Now, if a person, Christian or not, has intentionally done us harm and is continuing to inflict harm on us, I believe it is scriptural to ask God to deal with them in order to bring an end to the wrong and, hopefully, lead the person to repentance and salvation.

In the Psalms we can read numerous imprecatory prayers of David asking God to deal with his enemies. Psalm 35:1-8 is one example:

Plead my cause, O LORD, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for mine help. Draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me: say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. Let them be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul: let them be turned back and brought to confusion that devise my hurt. Let them be as chaff before the wind: and let the angel of the LORD chase them. Let their way be dark and slippery: and let the angel of the LORD persecute them. For without cause have they hid for me their net in a pit, which without cause they have digged for my soul. Let destruction come upon him at unawares; and let his net that he hath hid catch himself: into that very destruction let him fall.

I’ve memorized those verses and have prayed that prayer against demonic forces that would work in my life and in my family. I see such imprecatory prayer as a weapon of spiritual warfare, and such warfare happens to be the calling of every Christian believer.

On occasion, I may pray an imprecatory prayer, asking God to execute the judgments He has written against an individual or organization that is actively engaged in oppressing a godly person or a godly ministry. The purpose of imprecatory prayers is to get heavenly help, to stop a sustained attack, or to get deliverance from evil forces. Imprecatory prayers should be righteously and judiciously applied. Never should such prayers be used to obtain vengeance. .

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord
Romans 12:19

I could go further down this imprecatory rabbit trail but I need to return to the main point here, which is how to properly forgive people for bad things they have done to us in the past. Praying for good (i.e., for salvation or restoration of fellowship with God) towards those who have harmed us is the important second step in the process of forgiveness.

Will these two steps to forgiveness “magically” remove the hard feelings of unforgiveness we have? Will we instantly forget the hurt others have done to us? Well, if my personal experience is any indication, those things will not happen—at least not right away.

More than likely, a spirit of unforgiveness will endeavor to work in our minds, reminding us of the hurt, tempting us to continue to dwell on the injustice that was perpetuated upon us. In fact, we can count on this happening. And when it happens, we are faced with another choice. Do we entertain the thoughts and feelings? If we do that, unforgiveness will take root and grow stronger, not weaker.

Therefore, knowing that the enemy of our spiritual well-being (and victorious Christian life) will surely tempt us with such thoughts, we need to be wary and prepared to “do battle.” This is where we employ another tactic of spiritual warfare, and it is Step Three in the process of forgiving.

The instant you realize your mind is beginning to regurgitate thoughts about the past wrongs that you have forgiven a person for, you need to spring into prayer action. I do so by praying something like this:

”In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I rebuke the spirit of unforgiveness that is trying to work in me. Father in heaven, I will to forgive _______ for the things he has done.”

Then pray for God’s blessings on that person as you have done before. If you do this every single time you are attacked through your thoughts by the spirit of unforgiveness; if you respond with prayer, in sincerity and a spirit of love, out of obedience, the pain and bitterness will recede.

You may never totally forget some incidents that led to unforgiveness in your life. But you can effectively take away the power of such incidents and of those who harmed you to steal the joy and perace which are yours in Jesus Christ.

Aside from the necessity of forgiving others because, as Christians, we are commanded by God to do so, there is another very important reason to forgive. Many people believe that the spiritual condition of a person has an effect on their physical health. In other words, if we don’t properly deal with the spirit of unforgiveness, it can lead to a variety of sicknesses. Depression can result from improperly dealing with matters of forgiveness. High blood pressure and heart disease too. Our whole immune system can come under a terrible burden from pent-up feelings of unforgiveness.

There is much more that can be said about this matter of unforgiveness. But what I have written here is what I have been feeling compelled to share here on this blog at this time.

To summarize: For a Christian, forgiveness is an act of faith, obedience, and spiritual warfare. Some people have more “opportunities” to forgive than others. But we are all faced with the need to forgive others for small and large offenses throughout our lives. Doing so is rarely easy but it is critically necessary. God is glorified when we believe and act as He commands us in this regard.

If you are dealing with matters of unforgiveness in your life (and most of us are, or should be) I hope you have found wisdom in this essay. I hope you will be able to use the steps I have outlined here to do spiritual battle, to find deliverance, and to know the joy and peace of victory in Jesus’ name.

God bless you.


Matthew said...

What a powerful message.

How many people, homes or even churches have been wrecked because of unforgiveness. This is an excellent reminder that we are commanded to forgive--whether we *feel* like it or not.

While not the main point of your essay, we also need to remember to be willing to ask for forgiveness when we have wronged someone. That often requires a act of will too--swallowing our pride (admitting we were wrong and/or wronged someone) is often difficult to do. It's a humbling experience, and I know that I don't usually enjoy being humbled--but the results are sure worth it: "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

Thanks for your insight on this very important subject.


P.S. Have you read John Eldridge's books? (Wild at Heart, and The Way of the Wild Heart) The tone of this essay reminds me of his writings. I have read and reread them, and while I don't agree with him implicitly, I would concur probably 85 to 90 percent of the time.

Andi said...

Very timely... This essay is just what I needed to hear, as there's someone I need to forgive, and I am having a hard time with it, mainly because she has been confronted with her sin and has not apologized. But, I must forgive her anyway. Thank you.

James said...

Thank you for this timely post, and thank God for it's application to my life.
Is there a more potent bait of the enemy than the unforgiving spirit? To be "right" and have someone wrong you, and then to dwell on that wrong is so temping, and so easy.


Homestead Herbs said...

Great post! Your post reminds me of an article that was given to me that helped me tremendously, How to be Free of Bitterness by Jim Wilson.

Time does heal all wounds. I remember thinking and feeling that I would never get rid of the anger and bitterness, but God through His Spirit has helped me. There was a time when I had to pray constantly because I just couldn't/wouldn't let go of the past wrongs. Now that prayer is said less often!

One does find peace in being obedient to God's Word! :-)