Are you having trouble forgiving someone? Everyone deals with the challenge of forgiveness at one time or another.
Then Peter came to [Jesus] and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
“No!” Jesus replied, “Seventy times seven!” [Matt. 18:21-22]
Forgiveness is an integral part of living a spiritually mature life, yet it is a complex and distressing issue for many of us, Christian and non-Christian alike. This two-part series will explore this challenge and present steps to help us in the process of forgiveness.
What is Forgiveness?
One big stumbling block is confusion over what forgiveness actually means. The dictionary defines it as “granting pardon without harboring resentment.” Forgiveness is an altruistic outpouring of love and compassion towards the person(s) who offended us. It does not mean ignoring or denying that we have been hurt; condoning, justifying, or making excuses for someone’s actions; nor does it mean that persons committing an offense should not be held accountable for their actions.
It’s normal to feel hurt, anger, fear, or betrayal when someone offends us. But when we dwell excessively upon the offense, nurse our wounded pride and ponder on revenge, our hearts become hardened with the unforgiving emotions of bitterness, resentment, even hatred. That’s why we must take steps to transform these destructive emotions into positive ones.
We need to realize that forgiveness does not mean we allow someone to continue hurting us through abusive relationships, perpetual irresponsibility and disregard for our feelings, or persistent behavior that is destructive to themselves and others. In such cases, we may need to avoid future emotional entanglements until and unless serious steps have been taken to resolve the problems, but we can still let go of our bitterness. Even after forgiving someone, the relationship and your feelings for the person may never be the same. Forgiveness involves non-possessive, “agape” love [charity], not necessarily an intimate, personal, or physically-demonstrative affection.
The degree of difficulty in granting forgiveness does not always depend upon the gravity of the offense. We may be able to forgive certain actions, yet struggle with others because they injure our feelings more deeply or trigger memories of past hurts. Some people are openly antagonistic towards us for no apparent reason. This blow to our ego is hard to take. But being spiritually mature means learning to forgive those who do not or cannot love us back.
Why should we forgive?
Forgiveness is a recurring theme throughout the Scriptures. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” — Christians recite these words every time they pray the Lord’s Prayer. Forgiveness is one of the most compelling lessons taught, and perhaps the most challenging. Why is it so important to forgive others?
- It blesses the person who offended us.
- We have an obligation to forgive as we have been forgiven by God and by other people; for Christians, forgiveness follows Christ’s own example
- Forgiving others benefits us physically, mentally, and spiritually. Our emotions always turn back upon us. An unforgiving attitude makes peace of mind impossible, and some experts believe that harboring negative emotions like bitterness, resentment, and hatred for long periods of time can even lead to physical illness.
Forgiveness is a process that can be broken down into manageable steps. As with any important undertaking, adequate preparation is essential.
- Pray for the gift of being able to forgive: Prayer softens the heart, opening it to receive God s grace. Also pray for the person(s) who hurt you. It’s difficult to stay angry with a person for whom you are praying. Here is a suggested prayer:
“Lord, I want to forgive ______, who has hurt me deeply, but I feel no forgiveness, compassion, or charity in my heart. Every time I try to forgive, I just get more frustrated. I don’t want to honor only my human feelings and continue to live with heartache over this, so I’m asking You to help me. Give me a little of Your great capacity for love and compassion. Help me to act with high-mindedness, not just human emotion. Place within my heart the determination to be selfless and forgiving.
Please bless this person I am trying to forgive, and heal any pain or bitterness that is in his/her heart. If it is Your will that I continue to have this person in my life, heal our relationship and help us to work out our differences with mutual respect and charity. I promise that as You help me, I will help others; as You forgive me, I will forgive; as You believe in me, I will believe in the value of others; and as You love me, I will love others in return. Lord, make me a soul who reflects Your Light. Amen.”
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- Seek inspiration: Reading the Scriptures and other inspirational material can also open the mind and heart to forgiveness. Here are some relevant Scripture passages about God’s forgiveness of us, and our obligation to forgive others:
If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared [Psalm 130:3-4].
For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more [Jer. 31:34].
Where is another God like You, who pardons the sins of the survivors among his people? You cannot stay angry with your people forever, because you delight in showing mercy. Once again You will have compassion on us. You will trample our sins under Your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean [Micah 7:18,19].
For if you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins [Matt. 6:12].
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. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but repay evil with good. [Romans 12:19-21].
- Make a conscious effort to begin the forgiveness process. Don’t wait for a warm, fuzzy feeling towards your offender. You probably won’t feel like forgiving someone who has caused you pain, and it will take an act of will to take the first step. If warm feelings toward the other person do happen, it will be the result of forgiveness, not vice versa.
(In Part II, we’ll examine the process of forgiveness as a series of steps, and explore some tips on how to follow through and sustain your resolution to forgive.)
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