What does it mean to forgive someone? Forgiveness is often confused with condoning, excusing, pardoning, or forgetting an offense. It is related to, but different from, repentance and reconciliation. Forgiveness is a deeply spiritual process that allows injured parties to surrender to the Lord their anger, hurt, fear, and sense of injustice (Eph. 4:31) and to experience God’s peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and compassion for the wrongdoer instead (Eph. 4:32 ). We forgive others because we have been the recipients of a GREATER forgiveness (Eph. 5:2). Our forgiveness of small offenses may come quickly, and this kind of forgiving is the grease that keeps the wheels of ministry teams and families turning smoothly. In contrast, forgiving others of offenses that hurt us deeply takes more time. We are blessed because the Holy Spirit empowers us to be channels of God’s forgiveness in this world and in our most challenging relationships. Forgiveness acts like an antibiotic and an inoculation–it releases us from the pain of past relationship violations (antibiotic) and calls us, as children of God, to rightly relate to our wrongdoers in the present (Rom. 12:18; Eph. 4:24) so that we do not contribute to cycles of mutual wrongdoing (inoculation). Forgiveness clears the heart’s pathway so that we may hope for a future reconciliation.
The following five principles can help you grow in your ability to forgive others:
- Forgiveness is a family characteristic of God’s children. Our identity as children of God starts with God’s forgiveness. John 13:35 says that people will know we are Christians by our love. But too often Christians are known by their unforgiveness of other Christians. As we “put on” our new life in Christ (Eph. 4:17-32) and allow the Holy Spirit to continue to transform us into the new creation that God envisions for His family (2 Cor. 5:17), we can also mature in our ability to forgive others. How easy or difficult is it for you to forgive someone who has offended you? Are you willing to pray for insight into what is hindering your ability to forgive?
- Forgiveness is a gift you offer the wrongdoer. Our God stands ever ready to bestow upon us His gift of forgiveness (Lk 23:34). Lack of repentance does not hinder God’s readiness to forgive. In the same way, we can forgive even if the other person does not apologize. Forgiveness is the work of the injured party irrespective of how the other person responds. However, lack of repentance does limit reconciliation options. Our willingness/decision to forgive lets us fulfill Jesus’ teaching in Mt. 6:12. Is there someone in your life who is difficult to forgive? Are you willing to work toward a decision to forgive them?
- Empathy is a key to forgiving others. Empathy allows you to see the other person’s perspective and their humanity. It also opens your eyes to your contribution to any relationship problem. Empathy does not mean that you approve, condone, or affirm what happened to you. Empathy for the person who hurt you unlocks the will and decision to forgive. As difficult as it is to empathize with your offender, social science research consistently shows that people who forgive can develop empathy – even compassion – for the person who wounded them. What difference does it make in your willingness to forgive when you tell the story of the offending episode from the other person’s perspective?
- Forgiveness is a practice in which we can grow. For some people, forgiveness is a “trait,” that is, it is a natural part of their personality. For all of us, forgiveness is a skill that can improve with practice. A good starting point is to monitor your thoughts about and actions toward the person who wounded you (2 Cor.10:5, Phil. 4:8). You have control over the thoughts that you dwell upon and the actions that you take. Are your thoughts about your “wrongdoer” consistent with the heart of God toward that person? Are you focusing only on the worst parts of who they are and forgetting their positive characteristics and contributions?
- Forgiveness is not a one time action. Many people think of forgiveness like a light switch that is either “on” or “off.” In reality, forgiveness is more like a volume knob. Some days your capacity to forgive or to maintain a heart of forgiveness broadcasts loudly. Other days, like when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, your capacity to forgive is turned down to a whisper. A low volume day does not invalidate those days when the forgiveness volume was turned up as high as it could go. You do not need to feel guilty for those days when it is more challenging to forgive. Nor do you need to assume that a low volume forgiveness day means you haven’t forgiven at all. What personal or circumstantial factors contribute to a forgiveness volume that is turned up high or turned down low?
Virginia Todd Holeman, Chapter 7, “Extending Forgiveness” in Reconcilable Differences: Hope and Healing for Troubled Marriages, InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Miroslav Volf, Chapter 5, “How Should We Forgive” in Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Zondervan, 2005.
Fuller Studio, “Voices on Forgiveness”
Bishop Desmond Tutu interview on forgiveness: What Do You Do to Forgive Someone?
Dr. Everett Worthington,a researcher specializing in forgiveness and other virtues
Relational contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Johanna Rugh
Curator of content: Dave Higle