If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses- Matthew 6:14-15 NKJV
Let’s be real.
Hard things are hard and Christianity demands a LOT of hard things of Christians. Christians are called to love the most unlovable of people (Luke 6:27), and exercise self-control in the most unjust of circumstances (Romans 12:17-19, 1st Peter 3:17). Christians are even expected to do good things to and for people who mistreat them (Matthew 5:44).
Perhaps the hardest of all the hard things Christians are called to do is to forgive those who sin against us.
The New Testament passages that mandate total forgiveness are insanely comprehensive and leave no legitimate wiggle-room for compromise (Matthew 18:21-35, Mark 11:25, Colossians 3:13, 1st Peter 2:18-21). These requirements go so far as to teach that our being forgiven by God hinges on our willingness to forgive others. Furthermore, Hebrews 12:15 tells us that if unforgiveness is allowed to harden into bitterness that bitterness will not just defile (taint, corrupt, ruin) the bitter person but the people they love as well.
Over the course of the last fifteen years or so I have had several “opportunities” to forgive people who really did not deserve to be forgiven, mostly because few of them were actually sorry. These were not small slights like having my feelings hurt, being overlooked in a social situation or being ignored by someone I felt should care about me. Each experience was extremely personal and painful. I am not going to share the details of any of them. All you really need to know is that all the situations demanded more of me than I honestly thought I was capable of giving at the time.
Through that I learned that there are steps that must be followed for the process of forgiveness to work itself out. If any aspects of the process are skipped or glossed over the forgiveness will be incomplete and our feelings towards the person who hurt us will harden into bitterness.
Following are some steps to forgiving others. They don’t have to be done in a particular order but they all have to be done. It all starts with:
Recognizing that forgiveness is a process not an event-
Forgiving really big offenses is rarely, if ever, a one and done. Forgiveness begins with the choice to forgive. However, that choice must be followed by a commitment to do the work necessary to truly move on from the hurt. The length of time it takes to work through the process depends on many things including the level of hurt involved and the maturity of the person who was hurt.
Ask God to help you-
Any reasonably mature adult can forgive a social slight or a minor offense easily. However, there are some hurts and offenses so grievous that even the most spiritually mature people cannot forgive them without God’s help.
Allow yourself to feel the impact of the hurt-
Anytime I hear someone who has just experienced a great-big-horrible-tragedy at the hands of an evil person say “I forgive them”, my heart breaks for them because I know that they aren’t Jesus and Jesus is the only person who ever lived who is truly capable of forgiving an act of evil without first sorting through their feelings about the situation (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness is hard because it is the act of surrendering the right we all feel we have to hold people accountable for sinning against us. Because feeling the impact of hurt is painful it is tempting to simply utter the words “I forgive” without counting the cost and really working through how we feel about the person who hurt us. But if we don’t we will likely find that the feelings of forgiveness do not last long. All that being said, it is critical that we don’t get stuck in this step because if we do bitterness is inevitable.
Find a person to help you process-
God designed the human race in such a way that people need people (Genesis 2:18). Christians are commanded to comfort those in pain and to mourn with those who mourn (2nd Corinthians 1:3-5, 1stThessalonians 2:11-12, Romans 12:15). No one needs comfort more or is mourning harder than someone who is processing a big hurt. If you are hurting find a Christian counselor, Pastor or mature Christian friend who can walk you through the process. If you happen to be in a good place right now choose to be the person who helps someone when they need comfort.
Pray daily for the person who hurt you-
Pray that God will bless the person who hurt you. Ask God to make them more self-aware so they will know how their actions are affecting others. Ask God to do whatever needs to be done in their lives for them to grow into the best version of themselves possible (Luke 6:28). Keep praying those prayers until you feel freed from any bitterness you feel towards the person who hurt you.
Forgiveness is not easy but it is worth the trouble because unforgiveness makes it impossible for us to grow and change. Authentic forgiveness frees us from the mental bondage of thinking about the person who hurt us all the time. This frees us up to focus on the things that will empower us to become the people God wants us to be.