Bitterness and unforgiveness can leave us dangerously susceptible to attacks from the enemy (2 Cor. 2:11). Yet it is an area of confusion and pain for many believers. God wants us to know and experience His forgiveness and to extend it to others. The articles that follow will explain this important aspect of the Christian life. To learn more about what forgiveness is and how to apply it, read Victory Over the Darkness by Dr. Neil T. Anderson.
You not only can, but you must! Forgiveness is one of the most important steps toward freedom in Christ. Jesus Himself predicates God’s forgiveness of us on our forgiveness of others: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors….For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:12,14,15). The apostle Paul teaches us that unresolved anger gives the devil a place in our lives and calls us to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:26, 27, 32, NIV).
The question above addresses the relationship between feelings and forgiveness. Realize that if God commands us to do so, we can forgive whether or not we feel like forgiving. We don’t always feel like going to church, praying or studying the Bible, but we choose to do these things anyway because they are necessary for our growth. Our feelings change as we obey God and enter into His presence. Similarly, forgiveness is a choice — an act of the will — that begins a process of emotional healing and the restoration of our relationships with God. Don’t wait for the emotions to heal or lead the way before you obey God and choose to forgive.
We must also forgive from the heart if we are to experience the freedom of forgiveness (see Matthew 18:34, 35). It is not the words we say that accomplish forgiveness. It is facing the hurt and the hatred and then choosing to forgive from the heart. Such emotional honesty is absolutely necessary as we choose to forgive, and this is where many evangelicals stumble. They never admit their anger and simply forgive from the head, trying to keep the painful memories out of their minds.
Forgiveness, then, is something you can do regardless of what you are feeling. It is a decision that you can and must make in obedience to God and for your own sake. Go as deep as you can with your emotions because that is where the healing is going to take place. Don’t be afraid to face the hurt and the hate. Instead, trust the Lord to bring to the surface whatever painful emotions you need to deal with and then trust Him to help you deal with them as well.
A good way to do that is to name the offense you are forgiving and to describe how that offense made you feel about yourself (rejected, unwanted, unloved, dirty or something similar). Now that you’re again feeling this pain, hurt or anger, choose to let the debt go and agree to live with the consequences of the sin. Although the situation isn’t fair, you have no choice but to deal with the effects of that person’s sin. More accurately, the only real choice you have is whether to deal with the consequences of another person’s sin against you in the bondage of bitterness, or in the freedom of forgiveness.
Nowhere do we teach that forgiveness means tolerating sin of any kind, especially abuse. Forgiveness does not mean staying in an abusive situation and giving the perpetrator more opportunities to inflict damage. The loving thing to do is to confront abuse and help the perpetrators acknowledge and accept their responsibility.
At this point, you might find it helpful to understand that forgiveness and reconciliation are separate issues. Forgiveness is necessary even when reconciliation may not be possible. In many situations, emotional healing from bitterness, hatred and anger is necessary, but reconciliation is impossible or inadvisable. A person who was abused by a now deceased parent, for instance, will never find healing by waiting for the offender to repent. That person can’t, and many other people won’t. The deceased abuser has already met his or her Maker and Judge, and hanging on to bitterness and hatred won’t help you or impact that person. Also, a person who was ritually abused needs to find emotional healing but should never be reconciled with the perpetrators. Simply put, forgiving is releasing a debt. It is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person’s sin and relinquishing the right to seek revenge which God assures us is His domain (see Romans 12:17-21).
Some believers, however, have used Luke 17:3, 4 to teach that we should not forgive unless repentance occurs:
“Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
This passage focuses on forgiveness in the context of reconciling a relationship in which we are called to rebuke sin and help bring others to repentance. It doesn’t specifically say that we shouldn’t forgive if they don’t repent (even though this may be implied). Furthermore, we are not called to play the role of the Holy Spirit, rebuking every sin in every person we meet. Honesty about sin is necessary for genuine reconciliation, and there is a time to refuse a cheap reconciliation without repentance. But note that Christ’s main point here is not about withholding forgiveness but extending it, even repeatedly, to someone who is struggling in the relationship. We are to be grace-givers, not repentance-demanders.
As we take people through the Steps to Freedom, we find that people who wait for another’s repentance are locked in bitterness toward literally dozens of people. Many are still bitter about an old boyfriend who jilted them or a boss who passed them over for a promotion. We see little gained by hanging on to bitterness and somehow trying to exact repentance and force reconciliation. Our freedom cannot be dependent upon whether another person will repent.
In the Steps, we deal primarily with the volitional and emotional side of forgiveness as it relates directly to our relationship with God. Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions” (Mark 11:25). Here, forgiveness is not portrayed as some long, drawn-out reconciliation process. It can be done while you stand in prayer. Nor is forgiveness shown to be conditional, extended only to some people for some transgressions. Instead, forgiveness is pictured as part of our normal prayer life, it is extended to anyone for anything, and it may not be a prelude to reconciliation. Furthermore, forgiveness on a human level is necessary if we are to experience forgiveness from God (see Matthew 6:12,14,15). Forgiveness is also a crucial element in resolving anger and bitterness (see Ephesians 4:27,32). Only when we are free from bitterness can we pursue reconciliation from a biblical perspective and a godly attitude.
Technically, no. God cannot do anything wrong. But you had better deal with your bitterness and anger toward God if you want to find spiritual freedom. Again, since we are dealing with the volitional and emotional dimension of forgiveness in the Steps to Freedom, we often process these feelings toward God in the forgiveness step. What we are actually doing is being honest about the disappointment and pain we feel in our relationship to God and repenting of our false expectations and wrong attitudes toward God. Though Job clung to God throughout his ordeal and was emotionally honest with Him all along, the breakthrough for him came with repenting of his demanding spirit and letting God be God (see Job 42:1-6). We try not to get too hung up on exactly how someone expresses this repentance. We’re sure God forgives someone whose heart is right, but who says, “God I forgive you for…” Whenever possible, we encourage people to use the correct terminology, but the attitude of the heart is the critical issue.
“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:31, 32).
At one point in His ministry, the Pharisees accused Jesus of performing His miracles by the power of Beelzebul, a ruling territorial spirit. In response, Jesus said that if He were casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, then Satan would be casting out Satan. Satan would be divided against himself, and his kingdom could not stand. Jesus then explained that, since He was casting out demons by the Spirit of God, the kingdom of God had come upon them (see Matthew 12:28). Clearly, they were rejecting the Spirit of God by crediting His work to Beelzebul.
So why did Jesus say that a person can speak against Him, but not the Holy Spirit? The answer to this question comes with understanding that the unique role of the Holy Spirit was and is to give evidence to the work of Christ and to lead us into all truth (see John 14:17-19; 16:7-15). The only unpardonable sin is the sin of unbelief. If we refuse to accept the testimony given to us by the Holy Spirit, fight off His conviction of our sin, and never accept the truth, we will never come to Christ for salvation. In Christ, all our sins are forgiven. Therefore, no Christian can commit the unpardonable sin. Only an unregenerate person who refuses to come to Christ will die in his or her sins.
The accuser of the brethren, however, will often try to convince Christians that they have committed the unpardonable sin so that they will live in defeat. We encourage you to read Living Free in Christ, which was written to help Christians understand their relationship with God and their identity in Christ so that they can stand against such lies of our adversary. Even as Christians, however, we can quench the Spirit. If we do, we will impede the work of God and live a less than victorious life, but we will not lose our salvation.
Again we are dealing with anger that stems from false expectations, in this case, false expectations for ourselves. In answer to the question, when we forgive ourselves, we are simply accepting and agreeing with God’s forgiveness of us. Many people, however, find it easier to connect with their self-directed anger by saying, “I forgive myself for ….” Often people mentally beat themselves up for sins God has already forgiven. Playing judge, jury and warden in our own life like this is more like playing God than choosing to affirm His forgiveness.
Throughout the Bible, obedience brings blessing and disobedience brings cursing or negative consequences. After laying out the choice between the blessed life of obedience and the cursed life of disobedience (see Deuteronomy 27:1-30:14, God asks Israel to choose life instead of judgment (see vv. 30:19, 20). Is it selfish for Israel to obey God and choose to enjoy His blessings and avoid His discipline? Hardly. Neither is it selfish to choose to forgive in order to escape emotional torment (see Matthew 18:34, 35), to have our prayers unhindered (see Mark 11:25), to thwart Satan’s schemes against the Church (see 2 Corinthians 2:10,11), to remove Satan’s place in our lives (see Ephesians 4:27, 32), or to enjoy God’s forgiveness (see Matthew 6:14,15). What higher motive or greater benefit could we have for forgiving than the restoration of our relationship with God? Certainly restoring your relationship with God cannot be considered a selfish motivation.
God was there, and He was greatly grieved over what happened. Psalm 94 assures us that God indeed does see all forms of abuse and oppression and that He is a God of vengeance and justice. He is also our help, our stronghold, and our refuge. Rather than focus on what God didn’t do in his life (that is, stop the abuse in our life), the psalmist focuses on his relationship with God, confident that God will one day mete out perfect justice.
It may also help to remember that God made human beings with the responsibility to choose — even to choose to disobey Him. God does not now change that freedom and prevent people from choosing to do evil. Besides, to take away our choice would be to remove the possibility of us choosing to trust God.
In light of the pain we experience at the hands of others, our confidence and hope lies in the truth that God is able to bring healing and that He even uses the pain to build strength of character — a Christlike character — in us. We cannot guarantee that you will escape evil in this sick and fallen world (see John 16:33), but we can reassure you that you don’t have to be a perpetual victim of your past. In Christ, God has provided us with a way to overcome our past, and we have to assume our responsibility to choose that path of freedom.
One more important word about suffering comes from Job, a book which teaches us how to deal with the loss and pain that comes our way in this world. As his suffering progresses, Job never gives up on his relationship with God. He argues, he expresses his deep disappointments, and he even asks God for a trial and the opportunity to plead his case about God’s apparent injustice (see Job 9,10). Through all his trials, Job never gives up on God: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him” (Job 13:15, KJV). The key is to be honest about your deep disappointments with God and allow Him to speak to you (see Job 38-41).
Don’t suffer in denial. Let God know about your anger and disappointment with Him. Then you will be able to see God and yourself clearly enough to follow Job’s example and repent of your wrong expectations of God (see Job 42:1-6). Keep in mind, too, that Job’s latter state was more blessed than his former state. God never told Job why he was suffering, but God used suffering to increase Job’s trust in Him and to bless Job. Romans 8:18-39 assures us that God’s plan for our glory includes suffering, but this suffering can never separate us from His love for us as demonstrated in Christ Jesus’ death on the cross.