Have you been hurt so deeply that you feel trapped by the pain? Living with the memories of the offense feels like you’re locked in a stone fortress. Roaming the dark hallways, you search for an escape from the looming images of betrayal that line the walls. No way out appears, save one—the way of forgiving.
You want to forgive. You long to break through the bitterness, to have relationships that honor God. But part of you craves vengeance. “It’s not fair!” your inner voice screams. In anger, you yearn to hurt your offender for hurting you. To even the score. And so you live as a prisoner of pain, shut away in this lonely, desolate place. How can you find freedom?
Deciding to Leave
The process of forgiving begins with a decision. You must decide that you've been locked up in the house of tortured bitterness long enough. Now it’s time to leave for good, to pack your bags, and set out for a new home. Your decision to forgive must start with the resounding thump of a door shut behind you and a determination not to go back.
As you begin your journey, you can know that the Lord walks with you through this process, and He’s a trusted guide (see Psalm 32:8-9). You’ll need His comforting hand in yours because the next steps toward forgiveness can be the most difficult.
Grieving the Loss
Forgiveness isn’t denying the pain you have experienced. To deny or minimize the hurt is to gloss over the issue and hurry through the process of forgiveness. The results don’t provide lasting change.
Instead, true forgiveness requires feeling the hurt. Get to the source of your pain by acknowledging your feelings. Hurtful words, angry tones, and even abandonment are easy to pinpoint. But what about the unspoken expectations your heart has held? Mourn the loss of the relationship you never had, the lost time, the shattered expectations. And, in the mourning, turn to the Lord, allowing Him to comfort you with His presence (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Pouring out your heart helps the grief emerge, an essential part of the healing process. You can write out your feelings in a journal, spend time talking with a trusted friend or counselor, and communicate with God through prayer. Journaling is an especially good outlet because you can record your thoughts and prayers, coming back to them when you need to be reminded. It will also help you recall God’s faithfulness during this experience.
Canceling the Debt
Having faced your feelings, you are better equipped to fully forgive. But forgiveness can’t happen until you cancel the debt that is owed you. What are the unfulfilled pledges you hold on to? Maybe a faithful lifelong marriage was promised to you. Maybe you invested in a deep friendship, and now it’s over. Perhaps your offender owed you a childhood free from harm. Or the security of a stable home. Or maybe your trust in a parent was betrayed. Forgiveness requires that you cancel the debt owed. In that process, you release the person into God’s hands. You release the anger to God and trust Him to handle justice toward your offender (Romans 12:18-19).
The God Who Forgives
If you are not quite ready to cancel the debt owed you, spend some time meditating on Bible passages that teach about forgiveness. When you draw near to the righteous Judge and consider His Word, you’ll be able to adjust your focus to see your offender through His eyes. How does God respond to those who have sinned against Him? King David knew:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:8-12)
God’s heart of forgiveness is shown clearly at the cross. There, as men crucified the Son of God, Jesus responded, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). His heart toward us is exactly the same, for “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. . . . While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:8, 10). Through Christ, He has cancelled the debt we owed Him (Colossians 2:14).
God’s forgiveness extends to the worst offenders and to anyone who wishes to receive it—not because of who we are, but because of who He is.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, emphasis added)
God Enables Us to Forgive
As good as the news of our forgiveness is, it’s not the only good news. God enables us to likewise forgive those who have offended us. Only then can we be set free to experience life as He intended (John 10:10).
But how is that possible? How can we forgive those who have truly hurt us? We can know for sure that it is possible, because God commands us to do it. When the disciple Peter asked Jesus if he had to forgive his brother up to seven times, Jesus told him he had to forgive up to seventy-seven times—in other words, never stop forgiving (Matthew 18:21-22). Then Jesus told a parable about a slave whose master forgave him a huge debt but who was unwilling to forgive a fellow slave even a small debt. The master, upon finding out, was enraged, asking the forgiven slave, “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” In other words, since God has forgiven us so much, we also ought to forgive others (Matthew 18:23-35).
What God commands us to do, He empowers us to do by His Spirit. True forgiveness is foreign to the world, but not to those who have been made new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). God has poured His love into our hearts by His Spirit (Romans 5:5), and our hearts truly can rejoice in canceling others’ debts to us.
As those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. (Colossians 3:12-13)
As you choose to cancel the debt of someone who has offended you, pour out your concerns to the Lord. Allow Him to heal your heart. During this process you may want to write out your prayers or even write a letter of forgiveness to the person canceling their debt. Whether or not you send it, or whether it would be received, isn't the issue. The exercise will give you a tangible reminder that the debt is written off. In obedience to God, you have chosen to cancel the debt.
Reconciliation: Finishing the Process
The process of forgiveness isn't complete without self-examination. Is there any sin you’ve harbored in your own heart? How about the sin of unforgiveness? Our bitterness and anger towards an offender often make it impossible to relate to him or her without sin.
Maybe you've identified the hurt someone caused you, and you recognize your own sinful response. What can you do? First, agree with the Lord concerning your sin (James 5:16; 1 John 1:9). You may want to make a list of your offenses to help clearly define them. Then, if appropriate, go to the person and ask for their forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24). This is not the time to lay blame for their offenses against you, but a time to admit your own wrong.
What If the Person Refuses to Reconcile?
Often you'll find that your vulnerability weakens the tight defenses your offender has built around his or her own heart. If so, reconciliation may flow naturally between you. But what if the person doesn't want to restore the relationship? Forgiving and asking for forgiveness only opens the door to reconciliation. If the offender refuses to take ownership of the offense, restoration of the relationship is unlikely.
You have done what the Lord requires. You have done everything you could to make peace (Romans 12:18). The rest is in the Lord's hands.