Before I ever forgave others or helped individuals learn to forgive, I always thought forgiveness granted all the benefits to the offender. In the process of struggling with forgiveness, I’ve found that it’s my own soul that receives the greatest benefit from it. I’ve witnessed amazing changes in people through the healing power of forgiveness. What Forgiveness Is Not Forgiveness is not forgetting. I challenge you to find the verse that says, “Forgive and forget” in your Bible. Get a concordance and try to find it. It won’t be there.
I’ll always remember the most significant experiences of forgiveness in my life. These memories are of spiritual victories whereby God overcame the fear, rage and resistance created in my soul by another person’s actions toward me. In true forgiveness, I release my hatred, self-protection and desire for vengeance, but I keep all of my short- and long-term memories. When we’ve experienced the healing power of forgiveness, we never forget the release we feel in our souls. Through forgiving, we’re able to forget “what lies behind” and reach forward to “what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13), which involves letting go of the pain and being freed from hatred, fear and bitterness. We remember those painful circumstances in a way that gives us hope for the future. True forgiveness gives us back our lives.
Forgiveness is not masking hurt. When we’re sinned against, we hurt. Our instincts tell us to control the hurt. Many of us are pros at denying our hurt. We think that’s forgiveness, but it’s not.
When Jesus hung on the cross, He died for every sin you and I will ever commit. Second Corinthians 5:21 says that He became sin for us. Our Savior didn’t smile and say, “Oh, they really aren’t that bad.” No, He was deeply and completely acquainted with our wretchedness. That was the only way He could forgive us for everything. We can’t forgive a transgression if we won’t let ourselves face how angry, hurt and betrayed we feel because of the offense.
Forgiveness is not an emotion. After we’ve been hurt, we want to feel better. Many of us try to use forgiveness as a feeling to make us happier. Forgiveness is not an action we take without agony of the soul. It’s not easy to do. For me, forgiveness begins as a decision to trust God, rather than a desire or feeling of wanting to be close to the person who has offended me. My emotions toward the person may be completely antagonistic, but that doesn’t affect my decision about forgiving that person.
Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation. The great thing about forgiveness is that we’re free to forgive each and every person who has ever sinned against us. Forgiveness doesn’t depend on reconciliation.
It’s freeing to know that our part of forgiveness doesn’t depend on the response of the offender. However, reconciliation does depend on the offender. Reconciliation is possible only when the forgiver and the person being forgiven can come to terms about the offense.
Forgiveness is not revictimization. Many people are afraid of forgiveness because they think it means they’ll become the victim of the person who has sinned against them. This is not what Jesus teaches.
True forgiveness cleanses a heart of the damage caused by an offense. In the process of forgiveness, we realize the need for boundaries — decisions we make about our relationship to the offender that prevent the relationship from being unhealthy, that prevent us from being revictimized. When God asks you to forgive others who have offended you, He is not asking you to be a victim. Being a victim and forgiving are two totally different things.
It’s also easy to practice false forgiveness, but there’s nothing less satisfying to the soul. We can waste a lot of time, effort and energy buying into false forgiveness.
What does it mean to truly forgive? Let’s take a look at the positive side of forgiveness now.
What Forgiveness Is Forgiveness is a process. Perhaps God is speaking to you about a person you need to forgive. You can begin the process of forgiveness today, but that doesn’t mean you will instantly feel the freedom of complete forgiveness.
For deep offenses, it may take years to experience the full freedom of forgiveness. I compare forgiveness to peeling layers off an onion. You can dig deeply and take off many layers at once, but there are lots of thin layers as well, which makes forgiveness a process of patiently addressing the issues that come up.
Committing to the process means admitting that you’re powerless to forgive on your own. You’re telling God that you want Him to forgive through you. You’re willing to begin, knowing it may take years before you feel the complete release of God’s work of forgiveness in your heart.
Forgiveness is a decision. The most important contribution you make in the process of forgiveness is to trust God enough to make the decision to forgive. In human matters, forgiveness comes down to a decision. It’s a decision to trust that God knows more than you do and that forgiving the person who hurt you will heal you.
No one can force us to forgive, and no one can keep us from forgiving. Forgiveness is a decision to trust not our own instincts but the voice of God. When I’ve decided to forgive, it wasn’t because the offender asked me to do so or even acted in a way that created a desire in me to forgive. I forgave because I trusted that God loves me and that He would never tell me to do something that wasn’t good for me.
Forgiveness is desiring reconciliation. You can use this act of forgiveness as a litmus test to determine how far along you are in the process of forgiveness. As God cleanses our souls from bitterness and hatred, He replaces them with love. As forgiveness does its work, you move from being an obsessed, embittered woman to a willing agent of God’s love. The reconciliation that you desire is evidence of the changes going on in your heart through forgiveness. Perhaps the person we’re forgiving and seeking reconciliation with doesn’t see things the same way we do. But for reconciliation to take place, there must be an openness in the hearts of both parties to admit wrong and come to a mutual understanding.
Forgiveness is alchemy for the soul. True forgiveness brings about a seemingly magical transformation. Whereas we were once burdened, consumed and obsessed, now we’re transformed, free and willing. When I was 16 years old, I read a quote that has had a great impact on the way I’ve lived my life: “I will never allow another person to ruin my life by making me hate him.” God has used these words to keep my soul free from the burden of hate. Hate creates chemical reactions in our bodies. Unresolved hatred and anger have been linked to heart disease and burnout. A soul that’s free of hate through forgiveness goes through a chemical transformation.
Steps to Forgiveness There are no “six simple steps to forgiveness.” But I’ve seen myself and others go through stages. Here are three stages of the forgiveness process that have helped guide people through the path of forgiveness.
1. Fully examine the wrong. A lot of us don’t experience the full healing power of forgiveness because our spirituality won’t allow us to feel the anger that’s stored inside. Ephesians 4:26 says to be angry and sin not. Anger in itself is not sin. It’s what we do with our anger that makes it sin. I find it helpful to express the anger in my soul in a letter that I don’t send to the person who offended me. This helps me fully recognize the reality of who and what God is asking me to forgive.
2. Confess your own sins. How have you allowed the sin committed against you to influence you to sin? Have you been angry at God? Have you developed a life of hate and anger? Have you become afraid to live? Have you not loved well? Have you been afraid to love God? It’s important for you to honestly admit your own sins and take responsibility for your own life in the process of forgiveness.
3. Commit to the process of forgiveness. Now it’s time to let God do what only He can do. Forgiveness in the Spirit is a spiritual process. He can reach and cleanse places in your soul that you could never touch. It’s time to trust God and let Him free you from the bondage of unforgiveness.
True forgiveness is one of the most important instructions Jesus gives us. The reality of a fallen world makes forgiveness the only true remedy for the damage done to our souls by hurtful relationships. I challenge you to consider the deep work of forgiveness and let God know that you’re willing to practice true forgiveness in your relationship. As you practice true forgiveness, you’re well on your way toward ending your cycle of damaging relationships.