I’ve lived with myself long enough to know what happens when I allow the enemy to set up camp in my heart. Left alone, unforgiveness can destroy my life just as surely as a direct hit from a tornado can destroy a house. All that remains are the scattered, broken pieces of what could have been.
Unforgiveness comes out in our words, our tone, our attitude. It negatively affects our health—body, mind, and soul. Unforgiveness causes a head-on collision with hatred. Trying to love with unforgiveness in our hearts is as fruitless as an apple tree in January.
Life is not fair, but God is. He’s a God of justice, a God who makes wrong things right. As we give up the right to be involved in a matter that’s really between the one who has wronged us and the Creator who will ultimately hold him responsible on our behalf, we’re free to pray for and bless the offender, free to move on with our lives, free to love and be loved.
More than words, forgiveness is an enablement by the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to live a life free of offense. We’re never more like Christ than when we forgive. Forgiveness often changes the one forgiving more than the one being pardoned. And that’s a beauty in itself.
Forgiveness is one of the last things Jesus mentioned before dying on the cross (Luke 23:34) and one of the first things He mentioned to His disciples after His resurrection (Luke 24:45–47). Forgiveness is that important. Without it, we will never be like Christ.
As I look in the rearview mirror of my life, I see myself coming out of one of the worst relational hurts I ever experienced. When I visited a church leader in an attempt to reconcile a damaged relationship, I was told, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your rule book,” spoken with as much sarcasm as the line suggests. My heart shattered into a billion pieces that night; all hopes of reconciliation shattered with it. That curve ball hit me directly from right field. I didn’t see it coming.
So how do you forgive—even when it still hurts? I’ll share with you six things I’ve learned.
1. My forgiveness doesn’t depend on the other person
The incident with the person mentioned earlier wasn’t our first round. Our relationship had the quality of an Alka-Seltzer just hitting water—instant reaction. I knew that waiting for an apology for the ongoing harshness would be like waiting for someone to show up at my door and hand me a million dollars.
I also knew that I needed to forgive before the hurt in my heart became a hardness of heart. And I knew that I couldn’t wait for him to take the first step. I chose to forgive. That’s right. Forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision that we can make—even when we’re still hurting.
2. Unforgiveness can kill
On one occasion, when my husband and I traveled to Haiti, we were warned, “Do not drink the water. It isn’t safe; it’s unclean and potentially life-threatening.” We had no problem obeying that command, and yet I can let unforgiveness, which is dangerous in these same ways, slide right down into my heart.
It’s true. Unforgiveness can kill our relationship with God and others, our joy, our health, and more. Choosing to hold on to anger, hurt, and bitterness is like taking a drink of Haitian water—very risky and unwise. I got thirsty in Haiti, but I chose to avoid the water; I may be hurt by another, but I choose to forgive.
3. Forgiving anything is possible
Forgiving spiritual abuse in the church may not seem like such a big deal to people who’ve faced far worse atrocities. I experientially get where you’re coming from. I’ve had to forgive childhood emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. But I also know that we can’t compare one person’s woundedness to another’s. Everything needs to be forgiven.
I don’t want to walk through life with the muck of unforgiveness leaving a mark with my every step. People aren’t doormats for us to wipe our unforgiveness on. If hurts were quills, we’d all look like porcupines, but because of Jesus we have the power through the Holy Spirit to forgive anything, and I do mean anything.
To do this, I had to learn the sequence to love: We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). God initiates, we reciprocate. Loving God means we love others. All of them. All the time. Because Christ loves me, I can love others. Because Christ has forgiven me, I can forgive others.
4. Speak life
Words were never meant to be arrows or shields that we use either to wound or defend. Words were always intended to heal and bring life and blessing. “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).
When we choose to forgive, we must stop the negative thoughts, the rehashing of the offense to others, the constant how-dare-they cycle. In order for Christ to forgive us, He had to give up all of His rights. For us, forgiveness means that we give up our right to revenge and our right to hold the offense over the offender. We give up these things so that we can gain the freedom that Jesus died for us to have. Let it go. Whatever it takes. Let! It! Go!
Forgiveness doesn’t always look like the prison door flinging wide open. Sometimes the freeing is internal, the opening of the heart and mind to love again, to speak life and bring healing. Your circumstances may not change, the person who hurt you may not change, but I can guarantee that your heart will change. And just when you thought the hurt couldn’t get any worse, it didn’t, because you chose to forgive.
5. We can forgive as we change our perspective
I think we have a tendency to take offense when we really could just look at the person or situation through God’s eyes and move on. But when we don’t, the offense threatens to become our own Titanic. We’d have a whole lot less to forgive if we became as unoffendable as Jesus was.
Forgiveness reveals love from Christ’s perspective. It’s who He is, what He’s done, what He expects us to do as the ones He died for. In Ephesians 4:32 Paul said, “Be kind and compassionate to one another; forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Forgiveness ushers in a new fragrance of love, because forgiveness properly given is infused with grace. A person may not deserve to be forgiven. We don’t deserve it either, yet Christ freely forgives us while we are still sinners (Romans 5:8).
6. Forgiveness does not justify the offense
Forgiveness can be so hard at times because we think that when we forgive, we’re excusing what the other person did. Just because I forgave the spiritual abuse offender and even the sexual abuse offender, neither of whom has asked for forgiveness, doesn’t mean that what they did is OK. Instead, we can say, “What you did is wrong, but in spite of that, I’m forgiving you so that I can be free.”
That’s right, when you forgive, it sets you free. You can’t put a price on that kind of freedom because when “the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Forgiveness is one of those fork-in-the-road moments where our faith and our fear collide. Do I dare forgive? With everything that’s within me I encourage you—Yes! Hurt is a natural part of this life, so why fight the rain that makes the flowers grow?
Believe me when I say, you can forgive—even when it still hurts. It’s just that sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are one and the same. The hurt may be too painful to remember, but forgiveness is too beautiful to forget. Choose beauty. Choose forgiveness. Do it now.