Who Do You Need to Forgive?
Updated: Jul 16
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”— Nelson Mandela
Coming to the point where we can forgive is one of the hardest things we ever do.
“You don’t understand what they did to me.” “The pain has devastated my life.” “I could never forgive them.” Do these phrases, or similar ones, sound like anything you have spoken or thought?
The list of potential offenses is as long as the sins of mankind – ranging anywhere from betrayal to murder of a loved one, from neglect to molestation and rape. The list is long. The human race has been committing heinous offenses against each other since Cain killed Abel.
Offenses can be large or small. The offenses we need to forgive also can be monumental and have a huge impact on our lives, or the offense could be relatively inconsequential.
Holding onto unforgiveness of any degree is not acceptable to God.
He knows how detrimental a lack of forgiveness is to our minds, our emotions, and even our physical bodies. We are not designed to live with bitterness.
The devastation resulting from offenses can be heavy, both in the way they affect our daily circumstances and in the emotional pain. God looks at each of us personally. He doesn’t compare or weigh our offenses or reactions against the offenses of another. He does understand our pain. Jesus experienced some harrowing times on the cross, completely rejected, defiled, and ultimately executed. But He chose to forgive his tormentors in His final moments.
The actual act of forgiveness is not difficult, but getting to the point where we can choose to forgive can be extremely hard.
Remember how Jesus agonized, sweating blood, before finally relinquishing His will to walk through the pain? He was willing because the final goal was God’s will: Jesus’ sacrifice paid the penalty for our sins and purchased eternal redemption for all mankind, for all time.
Who Do You Need to Forgive?
Recognizing we need to forgive is the first step.
When I was about forty years old, with young children in elementary grades, I started experiencing night terrors and crazy, violent dreams that interrupted my sleep. I started feeling overwhelmed and began to shut down emotionally and physically. Depression set in and I was barely functioning. Nothing was outwardly wrong in my life. No big life changes. No marriage or children problems, at least nothing major. A friend recommended a Christian counselor and I made an appointment.
After a couple of sessions, we hit on the main problem. She asked me, “Who do you need to forgive?” I couldn't believe how many people sprang to mind.
She asked me to do something that was life changing. “Make a list of everyone who has ever offended you.” The list was long. I was still holding onto some offenses from elementary school!
Whether a large offense or a minor one, it was amazing the detail with which I recalled each offense. I remembered hurtful words spoken by a friend in elementary school, the summer job employer who said I’d never amount to anything, and being ostracized by my peers in high school. My offenders were random and many, both close family members and people I had known briefly.
The counselor asked me to go down my list in private and verbally forgive each one individually. I did, and the result was astounding. The cumulative weight of all that unforgiveness had been crushing me.
Evidently, it was the source of my problems, because after forgiving, I felt light and free. No more night terrors. The depression lifted.
I learned to deal with offenses as they came and not allow them to be buried in my subconscious where they would fester and eventually wreak havoc. I learned to forgive as quickly as possible and not bury the offense.
Lack of forgiveness leads to bitterness. Bitterness causes mental, emotional, and physical turmoil that will eventually manifest and cause emotional instability, problems in our relationships, and even in our bodies.
Forgiveness is necessary for total health and well-being. Freedom in Christ can only be attained by obedience to God's command to forgive, again and again if necessary.
Practical Tips to Help You Forgive
Here are some practical tips about forgiving:
Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is a choice to obey God, an act of our will.
Forgiving is about YOU. Not forgiving affects your life primarily. It’s like carrying around a weight wrapped around your neck that isn’t hurting the other person, only you.
Forgiving doesn’t mean you approve of bad behavior.
Forgiving doesn’t deny the reality of what has happened.
You don’t need an apology before you forgive. We have been conditioned to expect an apology before we consider forgiving. But we must forgive even if they aren’t offering an apology or expressing any remorse.
Forgiveness is healthy for your mind, emotions, and physical body.
Feeling forgiveness for someone is a by-product of choosing to forgive. The feeling happens later, not before you forgive.
Forgiveness doesn’t always mean restoration of relationship. It can. But sometimes not.
Grievous sin against us can cause internal wounds. God can heal these deep places in us. Choose to forgive, then ask God to bring healing to your heart, mind, and spirit.
If you feel you need to work through the emotions and pain with someone, ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to a Christian counselor, pastor, or caring friend. Sometimes we need to expose our wounds to the light, which can be difficult when we’ve tried to hide them for so long, to bring inner healing and restore mental and emotional health.
Forgiving Ourselves is Essential
When Louis and I were leading a chapel service at a local homeless shelter, we gave those who attended a spiritual assessment survey to determine where they were in their journey. Most of the responses were ones you might expect: some were Christians, some were not, many had not had much Bible teaching, some had addiction issues, etc.
But one question's response surprised us: "Do you feel like you need to forgive yourself?" Almost 95 percent of them responded affirmatively. The shelter chaplain confirmed the truth of this response.
Many of the homeless are stuck in a cycle of despair because they can not forgive themselves. This affects every aspect of their lives, jobs, relationships, and their ability to cope with day-to-day realities.
Are you stuck? Could it be because you can’t forgive yourself?
If that question just hit you between the eyes, then own it. God can and will forgive anyone, and our sins are not any more awful than the next person’s. Sin is sin and Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sinful mistakes, big or small.
If I can’t accept that, then I need to recognize the pride in my refusal to accept God’s gift of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is sufficient for others but not for me?
The problem isn’t because I can’t forgive myself, it’s because I won’t. The choice is entirely mine.
I need to get over myself! This isn’t humility and brokenness over my sin. It is simply my pride.
We must repent for pride and lack of forgiveness, then choose to forgive ourselves.
Let's do it now!
God makes it clear. Forgiveness is not just a healthy suggestion; it is a command. He says if we aren’t willing to forgive, neither is He.
Scripture confirms how God feels about forgiveness: “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.” Matthew 6:14-15
“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.” Mark 11:25
Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a constant attitude.”
So true! As we know, especially with those closest to us, offenses may happen more than once. Do you have a constant offender in your life?
Jesus addressed that too…how many times do we have to forgive?
“Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!” Matthew 18:21-22
Forgiveness is never one and done. God desires for us to practice a lifestyle of forgiveness. We must become serial forgivers who walk in love toward all.
Jesus is our example and He is our only hope to find freedom and wholeness through forgiving.