You can’t talk about Christianity without talking about forgiveness. It’s at the very core of our faith in Christ. But forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to us, and the whole concept can make us feel uneasy, confused, or afraid.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross paid for our sins, and because of Him, we can be forgiven by God. Nothing but death could demonstrate eternal love more clearly. The blood of Christ cleanses us from sin, and God declares forgiveness and redemption over us. And He commands us to forgive others as we have been forgiven.
Yet as we walk through our lives on this earth, we experience pain in our relationships with others, ranging from hurt feelings to serious conflicts to abuse or assault. Not all of us experience trauma in our relationships, but all of us experience pain on some level. As Christians, how do we respond, and what does forgiveness look like in varying situations?
What is Forgiveness?
Jesus vividly illustrated the concept of forgiveness:
Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, “You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart. – Matthew 18:32-35
This story is powerful because it really provides a picture of the hypocrisy of unforgiveness. Knowing how much we’ve been forgiven by God, how can we refuse to extend forgiveness to someone else?
That doesn’t mean forgiveness is easy, though. (And forgiveness isn’t the same thing as reconciliation.) But knowing the power of forgiveness can change how you relate to other people.
Even psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley have discussed the powerful necessity of forgiveness. They call it a “conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” (Greater Good Magazine)
5 Steps for How to Forgive
So how do we actually walk this out? Here are five ideas to consider as you work through how to forgive:
#1?: Journal the hurt.
Choosing to forgive someone doesn’t mean minimizing what they did but processing your pain can help you move on to genuine forgiveness. Here are some questions to consider as you write:
- What is your relationship with this person in the past and present?
- What did they do to hurt you?
- Why was this painful for you?
- What do their actions say about them?
- Is a continued relationship with this person safe and healthy? If so, what kind of relationship would you like to have with them going forward? If not, what steps can you take to detach from them while still working through the process of forgiveness in your own heart?
#2:? Reflect on your own sin.
If you are an abuse victim, this step may not be helpful in the process of forgiveness. Please seek counseling from a Christian counselor who is experienced with trauma recovery. Abuse is not your fault.
If you have been hurt in a non-abusive relationship, it can be difficult to focus on anything but the other person’s actions that caused you pain. But it’s important to focus on your own actions first. Is there anything you did that contributed to conflict or miscommunication? More importantly, focus on your relationship with God and be grateful for the forgiveness He has extended to you.
Here are some Scriptures that may be helpful as you reflect: 1 John 1:8-10, Matthew 25:41-46, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:3-10, Colossians 3:5-10, James 3:16, James 4:11, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
#3?: Meditate on the biblical concept of repentance.
2 Chronicles 7:14 can provide more material for reflection as you consider the importance of repentance in your life, both vertically with God and horizontally with others.
#4?: Reflect on the importance of forgiveness.
As you consider God’s call for His children to forgive as we have been forgiven, here are some more Scripture passages to read and think about. Read each one in the context of the surrounding verses and reflect on how each Scripture might apply in your current situation.
- Matthew 6:14
- Mark 11:25
- Ephesians 4:32
- Colossians 3:13-14
#5:? Seek to love wholeheartedly.
Matthew 5:43-48 can be a helpful start as you reflect on God’s call for us to love others. What does true, biblical forgiveness look like, and how does it apply to your relationship with the one who hurt you? How can you respond in a Christlike way?
Help Finding Forgiveness When It’s Hard
Growing in forgiveness according to God’s Word also means you’re growing to be more like Jesus. When we choose to forgive someone, we can’t guarantee that they will repent of what they’ve done, but we can hope and pray for them.
Hopefully, some of the suggestions offered above can help you work towards forgiving others from your heart. One of the most powerful parts of the journey of forgiveness is that it involves encountering God’s grace closely for yourself, allowing you to connect more authentically and deeply with those around you as you walk in that grace.
Avoiding forgiveness because of your pain can actually be self-defeating. Forgiveness opens the door to blessings you might not have known were possible, such as having a reconciled relationship with another person. Resentment can feel protective, but it builds a wall in a relationship, thus preventing true connection.
Gloria Baird, author of God’s Pitcher, describes this self-protection as the “turtle syndrome.”
“I began to think about the way God gives the turtle a shell for its protection. But the turtle cannot eat or move unless its head and legs come out of the shell. The shell does keep out the bad, but it could also keep out the good. The turtle must be vulnerable in order to live … we want to be in control, especially in the area of our emotions. When feeling sad, we may try not to cry; when feeling weak, we may try to seem strong; when feeling lonely, we may try not to need anyone; when feeling tempted, we may try to hide it. Too often our deepest emotions are the ones we bury or mask under our ‘shell.’”
Vulnerability is scary, but it’s what it leads to human connection and relatability. God is protecting me; therefore, I can be vulnerable with others. I can choose to forgive, even with the vulnerability required by forgiveness, because I know that God cares for me.
If we choose to respond to emotional pain by self-protecting, curling up in our “shell” like a turtle, we not only cut ourselves off from pain, but also from the love and fellowship we so desperately need.
When we go through these difficult times in our lives when we need to extend forgiveness, this is an opportunity for growth. When you realize that you’re growing in maturity through these experiences, it gives you the chance to reframe challenges into positive opportunities.
“Bumps bond” is an alliterative reframing phrase that can help you remember that conflict doesn’t have to ruin relationships; it can help them grow closer as you work through it. Conflict, repentance, and forgiveness don’t feel good at the moment, but grace can allow us to turn those bumps in the road into a bonding experience.
If the other person isn’t repentant or able to grow closer to you, those bumps in the road can bond you closer to the Lord as you walk in His grace.
Grace and love always go together. Living in love means we are living like our Father and near to Him. As forgiveness flows from Him to us, it also flows from us to others, as we make our best efforts to live in peace with those around us.
If you’re struggling with how to forgive, don’t forget to avail yourself of practical help as you walk the journey of forgiveness and grace. Join a church family, find a mentor to talk to, join a small group, or talk to a Christian counselor who can help guide and equip you to forgive.
“Praying Hands”, Courtesy of Congerdesign, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Journaling,” courtesy of Hannah Olinger, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Embrace,” courtesy of freestocks.org, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Mountain, Cliff, and Valley”, Courteys of Daniel Malikyar, Unsplash.com, CC0 License