Forgiveness in the Bible is one of the greatest blessings that God has given us, and one of the greatest blessings we can give to others. If we all lived by the mantra “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,” we would all be blind and toothless. Instead, we must forgive others who wrong us, just as our Father has forgiven us.
But sometimes forgiveness isn’t easy. Betrayal and abuse can hurt (both emotionally and physically), which can cause us to struggle with true forgiveness. In fact, we can sometimes hurt ourselves worse by not forgiving the offender in our life, as opposed to simply forgiving them and moving on. What complicates this even more is questions like: What is forgiveness? Do we have to forgive those who never apologize? Do we have to maintain a relationship when we forgive and be reconciled? Do things have to return to normal?
Having experienced a lot of emotional pain myself, I have often struggled with forgiveness, holding grudges, and some of those very questions. After studying this topic for years and learning how and when to forgive, I thought it was time to write about this topic and also share some of my experiences. This post (or essay) will be long, but I hope it helps anyone out there struggling with forgiveness.
Forgiveness Definition: What Does Forgiveness Even Mean or Constitute?
If you look up a definition online, then you may find definitions like the ones below:
- The act of excusing a mistake or offense
- Forgiveness is typically defined as the process of concluding resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offense, difference or mistake, and/or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution
Both of those definitions are good. So let’s examine each of those points in more detail:
Excusing Small Mistakes/Offenses–We must look past small offenses and not blow up minor annoyances or wrongs. If someone cuts you off on the interstate, let it go. Don’t honk your horn, throw up a finger, and other things. Simply let it go. If the person at Walmart is in your way for 10 minutes reading a product label, just kindly push your buggy aside and go on to another isle. In other words, let minor things go, because we all do them.
Ceasing To Demand Restitution/Punishment–When we forgive, we no longer try to personally “get even” or “punish” for the wrong they have done to us. This makes sense, and echos back to the “eye for an eye” point. If we all tried to personally “pay back” everyone who wronged us, and take punishment into our own hands, then no one would be able to sleep at nights for fear of someone getting even with them. Instead, true forgiveness means we are not going to seek vengeance or restitution for an offense by taking things into our own hands.
Notice I said “by taking things into our own hands.” In some major situations, we may have to contact the authorities and report illegal or abusive behavior. If you are abused physically, or experience some serious crime, then you must contact the proper authorities. God raises up governments and uses them as a way to exercise judgement on evil in this present world. As God has said, “vengeance is mine saith the Lord.” This is how he repays here on Earth–the use of the judicial system (Romans 13:1-4).
But we do not seek revenge ourselves, nor do we take matters into our own hands. We overlook minor offenses, even if they frustrate or bother us. For major offenses, we do not seek revenge. However, we should let the authorities handle illegal or abusive behavior.
Letting Go of Angry Feelings and Resentment— In addition to not punishing the person, we must also work to let go of the feelings of anger, hatred, and resentment. This is by far the hardest part for most people. But if we allow the hatred to linger, it can consume us and make us into a miserable and bitter person. Thus, we actually bring more pain on ourselves than the offender did.
Anger itself isn’t a sin. It is a natural emotion. The Bible tells us : “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:26).”
So while we have the right to be angry when we are wronged, we should not allow that anger lead to sin, bitterness, or a grudge. We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move forward with our lives. If we allow the anger to linger, then we invite Satan’s ways into our lives. This leads to misery and corruption. Let it go, and move on. Pray for help if needed, or speak to a Godly counselor or friend if you are struggling.
What Does the Bible Say About Forgiveness?
The Bible has much to say about forgiveness, and we can learn a lot by carefully reading the direct (and indirect) scriptures. In fact, some passages may even surprise you. So let’s see some things the Bible says about forgiveness.
Forgive Others Like God Forgives Us–Jesus gave a wonderful parable on this. In this parable, he shows us how God forgives us for our sins, so we must forgive others who repent to us. If we were forgiven graciously by God ourselves, but do not extend that same forgiveness to others, then we are hypocrites and are undeserving of God’s forgiveness. Here is the parable:
Matt 18:23-35 Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants. When he had begun to reconcile, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But because he couldn’t pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and kneeled before him, saying, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all!’ The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
“But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him one hundred denarii, and he grabbed him, and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ “So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you!’ He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry, and came and told to their lord all that was done.
Then his lord called him in, and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?’ His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.”
Here are some other miscellaneous passages dealing with forgiveness:
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
From these passages, it becomes painfully clear that forgiveness is required to all who ask it of us. If we do not forgive when someone asks or repents, we are in sin. It is that simple. So you must, must, must forgive all who offend or wrong you. Again, this means you do not seek to punish them, nor do you allow your anger to multiply into sin. Be at peace, and look past their transgressions.
If you think you have been wronged so badly that you can’t forgive when someone apologizes and genuinely repents, then consider Jesus’ own story. After living with His chosen 12 disciples, traveling with them, performing miracles in front of them, and even dying for them–Peter actually denied knowing Christ. He denied him three times. Ouch. You know that betrayal must have hurt Jesus terribly. But even after doing this, Peter was filled with regret and sadness, and wept bitterly from his sin. He repented, and Jesus forgave Him. Peter goes on to be a great apostle for Christ.
In fact, after Jesus’ resurrection, he specifically asks Simon Peter the following:
So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”
He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.
In that display, Jesus asks Peter the same question 3 times (which was the same number of times Peter denied Jesus)–giving Simon Peter the chance to reaffirm his devotion to Christ.
Another touching event is while Jesus is hanging on the cross, after being abused, spat upon, beaten, and mocked, He cries out:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34
The above passages are but two examples of the beauty and wonder of forgiveness. Thank God we can all be forgiven for our sins when we turn in faith to Christ. And those are but two examples of forgiveness in the Bible. Its pages are filled with forgiveness–from Adam and Eve to the Book of Revelation, we read story after story of God forgiving people, and people forgiving others as well.
What Forgiveness Does NOT Mean
Now that I have covered what forgiveness truly means, let’s look at some of those difficult questions. Let’s begin with how God himself forgives us. Does God forgive those who do not repent? The answer, obviously, is no. He still loves us, but He does not forgive us if we do not repent. To repent does not mean you abstain from sin permanently (although the Bible certainly teaches we should abstain from sin). To repent means “to change your mind.” It means you repent of your views and your attitude. You repent of what you used to believe about God, and turn to Christ in faith.
As the scriptures clearly teach, those who do not repent will be cast into the Lake of Fire.
I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
Satan himself is unrepentant towards God. Will God grant Satan eternal life even though he hasn’t repented? Surely not. Besides, Satan’s fate is already sealed. God has already judged him, and his punishment will take place in the future.
What happens if we are wronged and the person does NOT admit wrong, or does not apologize/repent, and/or does not make a genuine effort to turn from the behavior? Are we required to forgive? Here is an interesting passage that deals with this very issue:
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV)
Here, Jesus lays out the ground rules for when someone wrongs us and does not apologize or change their ways. It is obvious that Jesus wants us to do everything possible to make this person repent so that we can continue fellowship with them. We are to speak to them alone, then with a couple of friends/church members, and if that doesn’t work, to talk to the entire church. If even that doesn’t work, we have an interesting command: Treat them as you would treat a gentile and tax collector.
At this point in the Bible, Jesus’ message was very clear. The Jews hated gentiles and tax collectors, and looked at them as thieves and pagans. They avoided them as much as possible. Therefore, Jesus is clearly telling us that if a person absolutely refuses our reaching out to them, and they do not apologize AND turn away from the activity after all efforts have been made, at that point we may avoid fellowship with that person.
Of course, should that person every truly repent, we should work to restore fellowship and welcome them back into the church. We don’t necessarily have to spend our time with them, or be their best friends again, but the goal should be to love one another and resume fellowship. Here is another interesting verse:
“Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.” Luke 17:4
Notice here again we see that if someone asks for our forgiveness, we must give it. Even if they wronged us seven times per day. We must forgive openly. But, notice also that he says “and asks for forgiveness,” which indicates, like the above verse, that if they refuse to apologize or repent, we do not have to reconcile with them. We must forgive, but not necessary reconcile.
That doesn’t mean that we should hold a grudge or treat them hatefully. All it means is that we must forgive when people wrong us, and if they repent, then we have the opportunity to continue a relationship with that person (if we desire). If they do not repent, then we should still love them, pray for them, and forgive them (for our sakes and for God), but we do not necessarily have to maintain a relationship or contact. In fact, it may be necessary to “treat them as a tax collector or pagan” in terms of avoiding contact.
This may sound like “tough love,” but sometimes tough love is required to protect ourselves, or to help a person realize the severity of their sin.
More Facts About Forgiveness
1. Forgiveness Does Not Mean We Forget–When we sin against God, and then repent, He no longer keeps a record of it with regard to our salvation. Likewise, we should strive to remove all minor offenses of others from our mind. But as human beings, it is sometimes impossible to forget a major offense done to us. As an active young boy, I would often get many minor cuts and scrapes on my skin playing outside. I cannot even remember most, as they quickly healed leaving no trace.
However, as an adult, I was trying to open one of those hard plastic packages that electronic devices often come in. I took a pair of scissors, and as I tried to open it, the scissors slid right into the palm of my hand, causing a deep wound that quickly bled everywhere. It hurt, and even though it healed over time, it left a deep scar. Every time I look down at my hand, that scar reminds me of that event.
Likewise, we may not be able to forget something tragic like a rape, the harming of a loved one, or a betrayal especially when we look at the person and are reminded of that deep scar they left on us. But we should strive to move past it and not let it haunt us. In fact, it may even be beneficial to remember these things, so we can protect ourselves from future harm. Just don’t dwell on them or hold a grudge, and don’t “pay them back” by plotting revenge. Let the authorities deal with any serious crimes against you, and give vengeance to God.
2. Forgiveness Does Not Mean There Are No Consequences–If someone steals from the church, we can forgive them. But we may need to relieve this person of their duties. If the theft is severe, then legal action and/or the authorities should be contacted. Why? Because forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. Forgiveness means we do not punish them ourselves, nor do we hold onto feelings of hatred.
Take a look at Adam and Eve. Did God forgive them when they ate from the tree? Sure. But was there a consequence? Yes, and a severe one indeed. Death came into the world through that sin. Likewise, did God forgive David for committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband? Sure. Did it have consequences? You better believe it. David’s first child with Bathsheba died. Also, David experienced a lot of grief from this sin.
If you chopped off my arm, I can forgive you. But I will have a consequence that I will be disabled in that regard for the remainder of my life. Likewise, just because I forgive you, that doesn’t mean I may ever have the same level of trust that I had previously. And with difficult relationships, it is sometime best for individuals to go their separate ways. Sin results in consequences for the sinner and the person who was sinned against.
When we forgive, we sometimes must experience a change in a relationship. Sometimes, we may need to create a new boundary with that person. We may no longer confide in a person who broke our trust. Or we may no longer loan money to people who never pay us back.
Forgiveness Frequently Asked Questions:
1. What if a Spouse Cheats?–Again, if anyone sins against you, you must forgive. But do you have to stay with them? Not necessarily. The Bible clearly says that if a spouse commits adultery, that is Biblical grounds for a divorce (Matthew 19:9). That doesn’t mean you MUST divorce. In fact, it would be wonderful if you could reconcile and stay married if this was only an isolated event under extreme circumstances, and I strongly encourage Christians to do that. However, divorce is permissible in the case of repeated and/or unrepentant adultery.
In this situation, you should judge the circumstances. Was it isolated? Was it a one time event, or did it go on for months? Do you want to stay? Do you have children? If it wasn’t a one-time event, it may be wise to end the marriage. But you should consider this carefully and prayerfully. Seek advice from a local pastor or Godly counselor who knows more about your situation.
2. What if you are abused physically or sexually? Again, you should report this behavior to the authorities immediately. Let the authorities punish them. In this case, forgive the person, but it would be wise to avoid any further contact with them. The Bible never mandates us that we are required to spend time with people when our safety is jeopardized, or if we feel uncomfortable around them.
3. What if I forgive, but the person never changes? Again, you should forgive the person and not seek revenge or harbor feelings of hatred. However, it may be wise to “treat them as a pagan” as Jesus pointed out. Again, this means you simply avoid the person doing wrong. Remember also, the apostle Paul tells us:
But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.” 1 Corinthians 5:11
Here, we see that it is wise for Christians to avoid activity with people claiming to be Christians who are engaging in destructive behavior–both towards us and to God. The reason is twofold: We don’t want people to think that is how a Christian is supposed to act, and we want them to feel ashamed and convicted of their sin so that they can repent and be welcomed back into church fellowship.
4. What if a family member hurts me and isn’t sorry? If you are a Christian, your family is your brothers and sisters in Christ. Biology means very little to God. Granted, we must honor our mother and father, and love all people (even our enemies). But what happens if a biological member of our family harms us? We forgive them. We love them and pray for them. But if they do not change, then we may need to create a boundary. We may need to love them from a distance, and avoid going around them as often. Even if our mothers or fathers are unrepentant, then we may need to honor them from a distance.
When King Saul was going after King David and acting crazy (ie, throwing spears at him and plotting to kill him), David still respected Saul and avoided him (rather than kill him outright). He distanced himself, but He still respected and honored Saul as King. We must always honor mother and father, but we may need to distance ourselves from them in abusive or unrepentant situations. Just do so lovingly, and if the person changes, work hard to reconcile and become closer if possible.
Family drama can be very frustrating. We can lose contact with friends who do us wrong. We can change jobs if a co-worker does something to harm us. But it can be difficult dealing with family problems. The first family in the Bible was a dysfunctional family. Cain killed Abel. That’s very dramatic. And after that, Cain left as God told him to.
The same is true with many Bible greats–Abraham left his family to follow God’s will. Jesus said that sometimes mother and daughter, father and son, etc. will be divided because of His sake. Sometimes, we must separate ourselves from family members who continue to cause us pain, or who do not follow Jesus.
Just make sure to forgive them and love them always. But you may need to create new boundaries with people harming you.
5. What if someone apologizes, changes/repents, but I don’t want to forgive? The deeper the wound, the harder and longer it takes to heal. But we should always forgive people, and when they do repent, we should work to restore the relationship in love. It is easier for me to forgive a person who harmed me badly but was genuinely sorry and changed, than it is for someone who barely hurt me but WASN’T sorry and didn’t change.
We have a command, and the command is to forgive. Don’t seek revenge (let God do that), and do not harbor feelings of hatred. Let it go, forgive, and move on. Your relationship may change. You may have to draw a boundary, but move on. If someone truly changes, and you still have not granted forgiveness, then you risk being hurt far more by this.
A good movie that has a theme about this is called “Five Minutes of Heaven,” starring Liam Neeson. In that movie, the character bears with him a burden of not forgiving, and the movie shows what happens. I thought it was an interesting movie, although it certainly had strong language that was offensive and not Christian-friendly. Another good movie about forgiveness is “Les Miserables.” If you ever have time, you may want to watch that film (Les Miserables was my favorite of the two, and also stars Liam Neeson).
6. Why Do Some People Never Admit Wrong?–It is very hard to forgive people who never admit wrong, who never apologize, and who never change their ways. Why do they do this? Pride is one reason. People don’t like to think they are imperfect. Fear of being perceived as weak is another. People have all sorts of reasons for not admitting their faults or apologizing. When you are dealing with a difficult person like this, do the best you can following the tips below.
Tips on Forgiving People
1. Always point out the wrong to a person–Sometimes people may not realize something hurt your feelings, harmed you, and so forth. Always make the effort to communicate your feelings. If you aren’t comfortable talking, then try sending an email or writing a letter. This may help the other person understand how you feel, and it may help them apologize or change. If they do, you will find it much easier to forgive them. As Jesus told us in the quote I mentioned above, we should always tell the person privately as a first line of reconciliation and forgiveness.
2. Always admit mistakes yourself–when you wrong people, be quick to admit your mistake and apologize. If you do this, perhaps others will be the same way with you. When you admit a wrong and change the behavior, it is so easy to forgive and even forget.
3. Pray for them–At one point in my life, a family member hurt me deeply, and never did apologize even though I made it known how I was hurt by their action. I didn’t seek revenge, but I allowed the feelings of hatred to build to the point where I despised them, and it was affecting my life. I would find myself thinking about them randomly each day, allowing those negative thoughts to enter my mind, even to the point of wishing their death.
I would sometimes pray for God to help me stop having feelings of hatred and bitterness, but the feelings persisted. But then, one day, I decided to pray a different prayer. Instead of praying for God to change me, I prayed for God to bless the person who hurt me. And so I started to pray each night for the person who wronged me. I would ask God to help them overcome their sin, to help them realize their wrongs, and to bless them. I prayed that He help them live a long and happy life, to change their heart, and prosper them.
Even though this person never apologized, this prayer helped me to overcome all bitterness and pain the person caused me. I was able to truly forgive them, and I was released from the bondage of pain and bitterness. If you are struggling with this, then I would urge you to pray for the person each night, wish them well, and pray that they may be saved and blessed. This may help you as it helped me. For even Jesus himself said:
“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Matthew 5:44
Conclusion: Forgive Others as God Forgives You
God forgives us, and we should forgive others. We are commanded to forgive. We are blessed when we give forgiveness. Others are also blessed when they receive forgiveness. Forgiveness means letting go of anger and resentment, and not seeking revenge. It does not mean we always forget. It does not mean there are no consequences. It does not mean things may stay the same. But it does mean we are to obey God, love, and pray.
I hope this article (essay) has helped you. May God forgive us all for our sins, and may we all forgive others their trespasses too.
If you haven’t received forgiveness of your sins, turn to Christ right now. God will forgive you. God sent His son to die so that you may live. God put the punishment for our sins on His only begotten Son. Pray a prayer to God right now asking for His forgiveness, and place your faith in the risen Christ. Then, pray to God to help you forgive others, and pray for God to bless them.