A few ladies in my college group and I have been going through Beth Moore’s study Breaking Free recently. We’re about halfway through, and it’s been a really great experience of getting to know each other better and helping each other overcome tough things in our lives. When we met for discussion this week, one theme emerged: forgiveness. I think it’s one that gets mentioned but still often gets overlooked when it comes down to it. We know that Jesus forgave us, but we don’t really think about forgiving or being forgiven by others. It’s easier to just brush it off and pretend nothing happened. Why is that? There are lots of reasons that forgiveness might be hard for us. Maybe the hurt caused was so deep that we can’t seem to let it go. Maybe the person in question has done the same thing to us over and over. The reason is probably different in every case, but I do know one thing that applies across the board... If you don’t forgive and don’t allow yourself to be forgiven, you will never find satisfaction.
When someone hurts you, it can be hard to move past it. It’s easy to start seeing him or her as a “bad person” because of what happened, isn’t it? The temptation is always to hate the other person involved. Forgiveness seems like weakness in a way. But that’s the complete opposite of the truth! It’s easy to just become hateful and bitter. Forgiveness is the hardest option, and it takes a great deal of strength to choose it. First, we have to remember that forgiveness is not the same as excusing someone’s behavior. Forgiveness does not mean continuing to trust or go back to someone who repeatedly hurts you. Forgiveness simply means that you no longer hold a grudge or harbor bitterness toward that person. You can let go of your anger and hate, but that doesn’t mean you have to be friends with or even see the person who hurt you if you don’t want to. Still, we can’t let ourselves get away with hating people. Jesus says in John 13:35 that people will be able to tell we are his disciples by the love we have for others. The way we treat others is one of our biggest witnesses. You may have a coworker, friend, or family member who only knows one Christian: you. If we treat others harshly, hold grudges, and constantly badmouth people who have hurt us, we’re not giving an accurate representation of Jesus to those around us who don’t know him. What did Jesus say when he was on the cross, after all? “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). We need to be willing to forgive others like that, too. Treating other people with love regardless of how many times they’ve hurt or betrayed us is such a good way to show others the love of Christ.
The other side of the coin is also kind of tough sometimes. Being forgiven by others can be difficult! It sounds weird because being forgiven should be relieving, but sometimes it’s hard to accept that the person really has forgiven you, especially if you haven’t forgiven yourself yet. We blow it sometimes, and we make people angry. That’s just a fact. We aren’t perfect, and sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we deliberately hurt others. After we do that, the Holy Spirit convicts us. Let me tell you, I always feel horrible after I know I’ve messed up and hurt someone. It becomes so easy to try to hide or deny what we’ve done because we feel ashamed. It’s so hard to go to the person we’ve hurt and ask for forgiveness because we don’t want to acknowledge or own up to what we did. Then, even if we do get the courage to ask for forgiveness, it’s hard to believe it when the person we’ve hurt says, “I forgive you.” There are two reasons why we need to ask for and then accept forgiveness, though. Firstly, beating ourselves up isn’t productive or helpful. It only makes us feel worse and hinders our kingdom work. It doesn’t accomplish anything! This process also encompasses forgiving ourselves for what we’ve done. We have to admit that we made a mistake and learn from it, but we can’t hold it against ourselves. Our sins have already been forgiven by Jesus. We need to live in that freedom and not allow sin that’s already been taken care of to control us. Secondly, not allowing someone to forgive us robs that person of the chance to break free from bitterness and anger. Think about how good it feels when you finally forgive someone who’s hurt you. That’s how it feels for someone to forgive you, too. It’s selfish to deny him or her of that. In fact, enabling that person to practice unforgiveness toward you hurts his or her relationship with Christ. I know I don’t want to be the cause of that, and I’m sure you don’t, either.
Forgiveness isn’t easy, don’t get me wrong. It’s not instantaneous. It may not even be a one-time thing. Sometimes we have to forgive someone for something over and over before it finally “sets.” It’s entirely possible to forgive someone and truly mean it one day and then find little roots of bitterness or hatred coming back the next day. The important thing is not giving up. Keep forgiving that person over and over, as many times as it takes. In Matthew 18, Jesus says that we have to forgive people seventy times seven times. He didn’t mean that to be taken literally – don’t keep a tally of how many times you’ve forgiven someone and then stop doing it after you reach that number! He meant that we need to do it limitless times. As many times as he’s forgiven us, we need to forgive others (Colossians 3:13). The point is that forgiveness is not an event, it’s a process. And we can’t do it alone. In our own human strength, forgiveness is impossible. But think about how much forgiving power Jesus has; he forgives every single sin of every single person who asks him to. There is nothing too big for him to forgive, is there? And just think, that power is living inside of you! His strength will enable you to forgive even the unforgivable.
I have a friend who often says that when you allow someone to make you angry or bitter, you’re giving that person too much control over you. I completely agree. Don’t allow someone to take away the joy that comes from Christ. There is a saying I’ve heard that goes, “Bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” So true. Holding on to resentment and hatred only hurts you in the end. Forgiveness is for your own good when it comes down to it. I know it’s difficult. I know so many of us have been hurt in ways that seem impossible to ever get over. With Jesus, though, nothing is impossible. Remember that you are redeemed. Remember that God is the Great Physician who can heal your hurts. Remember that he is the ultimate forgiver who can empower you to forgive in the same way. My challenge for you this week is to memorize Ephesians 4:30 and remind yourself of it every time you’re tempted to be bitter or to hurt someone else: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as in Christ, God forgave you” (ESV). We can let people who have hurt us make us bitter through resentment or better through forgiveness. Let’s choose better.