What is Forgiveness Anyway?

Hands holding forgiveness note

Hurts and offenses can grow from resentment into bitterness and even hatred. God asks us to show forgiveness toward people who’ve caused us pain, but many of us struggle to achieve that. Maybe, that’s partly because we don’t understand what forgiveness really is.

Paul Ryan, from Ellel Ministries, says people struggle with forgiveness in four key ways:
1. They can’t accept forgiveness from God for being a sinner.
2. They can’t get past their hurt in order to offer forgiveness.
3. They can’t forgive themselves for the harm they’ve done to others.
4. They can’t forgive God.

That last one is particularly complex, because wrongly blaming God cuts you off from the best source of help and strength you could ever have. They’re seeing Him as the perpetrator of their pain,” Ryan explained. “And it’s very hard to go to a Holy God for a solution if you’re holding him to blame for what’s happened in your life.”

So what is forgiveness anyway? Talking to Neil Johnson on Vision’s 20Twenty, Paul said it’s partly acknowledging what’s going on in our hearts. When we fail to forgive, it’s often because we’re more focused on how we feel than what God wants us to do.

He says forgiveness is the choice to do things the Scriptural way and give up the chance to have revenge. “Forgiveness is choosing not to judge them, but to offer them a grace, just as Jesus offers to us when he forgives us. And forgiveness is offering that full grace, even when it’s not deserved, or not asked for by the person that’s offended us.”

But he says it’s equally important to know what forgiveness isn’t. “And let’s be honest straight away. Forgiveness is not easy. Let’s not play that down. It’s a very very difficult process to work through.”

“Forgiveness is not forgetting the event, or denying it ever happened, or denying the anger and the injustice, or the pain that we feel. All that is crucial to acknowledge, to feel and to express that to a Holy God.”

Forgiving someone isn’t declaring them ‘not guilty’. In fact it might be necessary to confront them about their behaviour, so they can understand what they did. “Forgiveness, though, doesn’t mean that other person owes me. That can become a real issue for a lot of people.”

And forgiveness, we must remember finally, is not based on our feelings, but on a decision to be obedient to God.

God repeatedly commands us to be forgiving in the Scriptures. It’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer, which many of us sing in Church every week, or whisper before we go to sleep at night. “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”. (Matthew 6:12 NKJV) And it’s in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18. Paul says Jesus makes the consequences of unforgiveness clear.

Closely related to forgiveness is the idea of judgment. Matthew 7:1/2 (NKJV) says “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.

“When we fail to forgive, we’re making a choice, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, to keep a person under a condemning judgment in our heart in regards to the way they’ve treated us or mistreated us.”

And Paul says that unforgiveness, over time, can leave us spiritually and emotionally entrapped by bitterness and resentment. “We know if we carry this poison, just in our own hearts, it spills out into all of our connections, all of our relationships.”

Hebrews 12:14/15 (NKJV) says “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.”

So there are some really negative consequences here, if we don’t make choices to allow God to help us on this healing journey of forgiveness.

Listen to the podcast of Neil Johnson’s conversation with Paul Ryan for more great advice on how to forgive the people who’ve hurt you, and encourage others to do the same.

Tune into 20Twenty and join the conversation with Neil Johnson, weekdays on Vision Christian Radio. Click here for your local times.

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