Last time I wrote about how to say “I’m sorry.” Even if all our relationships are going great right now, I’m sure there will come a time when it’s very important that we know how to apologize.
But what happens when the shoe is on the other foot, and someone is apologizing to us? What happens when they ask for forgiveness—and maybe we’re not quite willing to forgive?
As important as it is to acknowledge our guilt and repent both to God and to the people we’ve hurt, it is equally essential to let go of the wrongs others have done to us.
For one, forgiving others helps them.
Jesus tells us,
If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23)
I don’t pretend to understand this… does He really mean that we can keep God from forgiving someone? We’re all doomed! Still, I don’t want to take any chances. I want to make sure I’ve forgiven everyone I need to.
More personally, we need to forgive others so that God will forgive us. Mark 11:25 says,
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
And Matthew 6:12,14-15 states,
…And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. … For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
While we like to skip over them, we need to realize that there are numerous other verses that say basically the same thing.
We may think our lack of forgiveness is hurting the person who offended us, but in reality it hurts us much more. The problem is that unforgiveness doesn’t just go away. It grows, and we become bitter and angry. In an effort to protect our hurting hearts, we isolate ourselves, walling ourselves off from anyone who can love us. We are allowing the person who hurt us to hold us in bondage. Extending forgiveness sets us free.
I don’t have room to go into detail on this here, but I can recommend an excellent book on the subject. The Bait of Satan, by John Bevere, deals with the topic of offense. Sometimes he doesn’t mince words, and his bluntness can be a bit intimidating. Plus, he has a particular theological point of view that we may or may not agree with. But overall, if this is a topic you struggle with, I hope you will pick up a copy and read it. You’re not alone—the book is over ten years old, and is still in high demand. It’s as relevant today as it was when it was written.
As far as actually telling someone that we forgive them, here are a few pointers I’ve learned over the years:
- I can’t wait for an apology to forgive someone. I may wait forever. I don’t want to let them hold me in a state of unforgiveness. I may not be able to tell them that I’ve let go of the offense, but I need to get it right between myself and God. Then, if they do tell me they’re sorry, I’ll be ready.
- Sometimes, letting go of an offense is incredibly difficult. After all, they don’t really deserve to be forgiven. This is something I can’t do it alone. It is only as I realize how much God has forgiven me that I am able to forgive others (see Matthew 18:21-35). Even then, the Holy Spirit has to do a work in my heart. The key is my willingness. It may be that I need to tell God, “I’m willing to be willing.” I just need to start somewhere!
- I tell the person, “I forgive you.” They need to hear it, and so do I.
- Once I have forgiven someone, I don’t bring it up again. It’s done and over with. Just as God removes our sins from us, we are to “remember not” our offense. I actively decide to forget. (See Psalm 25:7, Isaiah 64:9, Psalm 103:12)
- Forgiving someone is not the same as being a doormat. If someone repeatedly hurts me, I may need to put some distance between us to avoid being a constant victim. Each case is unique, and needs to be worked out with God.
We are all imperfect. Everyone hurts someone at some point in their lives, and everyone experiences hurt at the hands of another. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to end there. We can apologize and forgive and walk in joy and freedom. That’s great news!