When Forgiveness Isn’t Easy
We must receive God’s forgiveness! But He also tells us we must learn to forgive—even when it hurts. These concepts can help.
It’s not easy being a Christian.
But then, it wasn’t easy being Christ either. Who among us could function as well as He did, living in a world where the sinners for whom He came to die were the very ones who would kill Him! Even more amazing, as He was literally sacrificing His life, He uttered with a love and mercy we can scarcely imagine this incredible statement: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Anyone who genuinely repents and seeks God’s blessing of forgiveness to cover his or her sins must enter into a commitment to walk in His steps, to follow His example. And sooner or later, that walk will lead you to one of life’s toughest challenges: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
Many people have mouthed these words from “the Lord's Prayer” without really dedicating themselves to actually living by them. Perhaps sensing that human tendency, after finishing this sample prayer, Jesus immediately revisited and elaborated on the weightiness of forgiveness.
“For 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” (verses 14-15). Yes, it’s that important to God!
Many trespasses are relatively easy to forgive. But what about the tough ones—when you have been terribly abused or hurt in some way, when the pain runs so deep that it’s easier to think about revenge or punishment than forgiveness?
Sin hurts people, and in a world full of sin, it’s almost inevitable that at some point we will face the spiritually tough task of trying to forgive someone with the same sincerity Jesus displayed.
God does not lay the impossible upon us—only what is right. He also promises to help us in our struggles to do what is right.
Here are three concepts to consider that may help you in your quest to do the right thing in God’s sight: to forgive when it’s really hard.
1. Hard work, time and repetition
For humans, forgiveness is often a process that requires hard work, time and repetition. We often fall short of God’s ability to say, “You are forgiven,” and have it be so—“As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
We may say that we have forgiven someone and sincerely mean it at the time, but we find that memories of the hurt crop up again and again and, with them, renewed hard feelings. It takes time—maybe weeks, months or years—and repeatedly working through the same process until the desired forgiveness settles permanently into our minds.
I once knew someone who had been deeply wounded emotionally due to enduring a long-term abusive situation. Long after extracting herself from that relationship, she grappled, understandably, with resentment. However, she also understood that resentment would grow into bitterness; and bitterness, into hatred, which, in the end, would only destroy her. Forgiveness was the only way out.
Years later she related to me how it had taken her five years—five years!—of working at it, asking God often for help to be able to forgive and not be bitter. One day, she said, she just realized, “It’s gone!” It was as though the bitterness had finally drained away and she had truly forgiven her tormenter.
This happened only because she worked hard spiritually. She knew it was the right thing to do, and she persisted. At no time did she say, “Well, this forgiveness thing just doesn’t work for me.” She kept at it, kept seeking God’s help, because she knew it was the right thing to do!
The process of sorting through anger and hurt and coming to the point of forgiving may take a lot of repetition and effort. It’s easier to harbor resentment than it is to cultivate love.
God says to us: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Is it easy? No. Is it worth it? Yes! As this lady told me, through forgiveness she now lived with great peace of mind.
2. Forget about “forgive and forget”
We create a virtually insurmountable problem for ourselves when we believe God expects us to “forgive and forget.”
Forgiving is not the same thing as forgetting. Only God in His perfection has the capacity to not remember. As He says in Hebrews 8:12 and 10:17, “their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
Yet I have talked with people burdened by carrying vivid memories of the sins of others and concluding, “I must not have forgiven them, because if I had, I would have forgotten about it.”
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to forget a lot of the hurts in life? Maybe. But God in His wisdom created us with memory, intending that we learn how to use it to our advantage.
In fact, in numerous places in the Bible He tells us to remember, and some of those are painful recollections. For example, five times in Deuteronomy He told the Israelites to “remember that you were a slave.” Remembering their days of brutal slavery, which included the killing of their children, had to be terribly painful!
Why would God put their minds on that again? So they would not forget how He saved them! “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall be careful to observe these statutes” (Deuteronomy 16:12). God’s purpose wasn’t to resurrect painful memories, but to help them learn the great lessons in life and to be careful to do what He said.
So if, in the process of striving to forgive others of their trespasses against you, you find yourself spending time dwelling on the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean you lack forgiveness.
The good news is that with true forgiveness, in time the memories of bad experiences often grow dimmer, simply because the painful wounds are no longer so easily irritated.
But does that mean you will never remember those things? Sometimes situations in life arise and memories of past, hurtful events jump back into our minds.
Whether that is good or bad depends on what we do with that memory. We may flare up emotionally, get angry again or get depressed. That’s when we have to walk back once again through the forgiveness process that we’ve been through before.
On the other hand, memory—even bad memories—can be turned into a great tool that keeps us on the straight and narrow.
For example, the apostle Paul stated in Philippians 3:13, “One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.” The funny thing is, just a few verses earlier in the same chapter he wrote in detail about horrible things in his past, such as persecuting members of the Church—things he now considered the garbage of his life!
So had he truly forgotten “those things which are behind”? Obviously not. What he meant here is that his memories of the past motivated him to serve God, and thus he was always able to move on with his life. Memories weren’t gone, but he could tell himself, “Forget about it! It’s done; it’s over!”
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you never look back in memory, but it means you put it in its proper place. Don’t struggle with the impossible—to forgive and forget. Just forgive, and God will help you to be able to benefit from visiting the past without living in it.
3. The “forgive yourself” fallacy
What about the situations where the one who has caused you such great hurt is … you! Many people have struggled with the idea, “I know God has forgiven me, but I just can’t forgive myself.”
Interestingly, nowhere in Scripture are we told that we have to learn to forgive ourselves. That’s really a modern self-help philosophy. What God does tell us is simply this:
- Repent and change; stop doing the things you’re doing wrong.
- When you have repented, realize you are forgiven by God, and He has paid for and buried your past sins.
- Then strive to forgive others as you’ve been forgiven in order to take on the mind and character of God.
God beautifully designed this process to heal us emotionally and spiritually. The key is not to forgive ourselves, but to accept the truth—accept that you are forgiven.
Remember what we read earlier in Philippians 3 about Paul’s persecuting the Church—notice he never said, “I just can’t forgive myself.” No, he recognized that he was forgiven.
We don’t make ourselves okay—God makes us okay! Every one of us carries regrets from our past—but we can never justify ourselves in some way that will undo it, rectify it and make everything as though it never happened. Only God can. Only God can forgive us.
And when He does, isn’t that good enough? Let’s not try to make ourselves bigger than God by saying, “He can forgive me, but I can’t forgive myself.” The issue is not forgiving ourselves, but accepting that we are forgiven.
Accepting God's forgiveness is the only way to clear our path to move forward with our lives.
To forgive, divine
The English poet Alexander Pope’s famous line, “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” captures an important concept—forgiveness is based on a divine, or godly, model of behavior. Through our sins we crucified Christ, and yet God offers to forgive us. Then He tells us to extend the same graciousness to others.
Is it sometimes nearly impossibly hard? Yes. Can it be done? Yes, through His divine help. May these three points help you in the process.