Anything in your life you need forgiveness for? Anyone you need to forgive? Anything in your own life you need to forgive yourself for? Some people don’t even believe in forgiveness, feeling it’s a sign of moral and emotional weakness. Some people feel if someone else has done something to harm them, they need to do something to hurt that person in return—certainly not forgive them. Where do YOU stand on this matter of forgiveness?

Jesus said to his disciples, “If you don’t forgive the sins of others—letting them go and giving up your resentment—your Father won’t forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6: 15)  Later, Peter came to Jesus and asked Him, “Lord, how many times must I forgive a fellow believer if they sin against me—as many as 7 times?” Jesus answered Peter, “No, not 7 times—but 490 times!” (Matthew 18: 20, 21) This is an expression meaning as many times as necessary.

“Christians . . . forgive one another readily and freely, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4: 32)  ” . . . Readily pardon one another; even as the Lord has freely forgiven you, so must you also forgive.” (Colossians 3: 13)  When Jesus was in the throes of agony on Calvary’s cruel cross, He cried out just before He died: “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing!” (Luke 23: 34) Yes, He was referring to those people physically present at the time, but by extension, that cry to “forgive them” comes ringing down through the centuries of time and refers to us, too.

Through Jesus’ cruel, agonizing death on our behalf on that tortuous cross, the Father has already forgiven us all our sins—past, present, and future. And it’s not cheap, lovey-dovey, sentimental forgiveness: it cost the death of Jesus! Jesus went to the cross to release forgiveness into the world for all time . . . into you in the now of your life . . . and through you into the lives of others whom you must forgive. Only the brave know how to forgive! Only the weak and cowardly choose not to forgive.

Results Of Unforgiveness

Later, Paul warned us that unforgiveness results in bitterness which can destroy our lives and the lives of others (Ephesians 4: 31, 32 and Hebrews 12: 15). The coldness of unforgiveness and bitterness turns inward into a hate that burns and then destroys the person harboring it. The acid of hate and bitterness destroys the container: you—if you’re the one harboring the deadly acid!

Are you one of those Christians who say, “Yes, but . . . “ to biblical references such as I’ve cited above? “Yes, but you don’t know my situation.” “Yes, but, you don’t know how badly that person hurt me.” “Yes, but you don’t know what a terrible sin that person committed against me.” “Yes, but . . . “ You must know, don’t you, that all those “Yes, buts . . . ” are just weak and flimsy excuses for not obeying what God commands you to do in biblical references such as those I mentioned above? And there are many, many more references in the Bible where we are told to forgive.

The bottom line? If you harbor unforgiveness for any length of time against another person, you’re being disobedient to God. You’re not hurting anyone else by your unforgiveness; you’re hurting only yourself and causing bitterness to grow within you.

Simply put, forgiveness is a choice; it is not a feeling; forgiveness is an act of the will, a quality decision. Don’t wait to forgive until you feel like forgiving; in some instances, you probably never will feel like forgiving. As a choice, as an act of your will, as a decision, just do it: Forgive! Then, learn to live daily with an ongoing attitude of forgiveness for the remainder of your mortal journey. It’s the only way to live in the freedom freely given us by God through Jesus; “If Jesus sets you free [from unforgiveness], you shall be free indeed!” (John 8: 36)

As followers of Jesus, when someone sins against us, that person has all the advantages. They can sin against us up to 490 times or more and we’re supposed to keep on forgiving them! They can hurt us in terrible ways, gossip and spread rumors about us—libel or slander us—over and over and over, and, still, Jesus instructs us to forgive them with no thoughts of getting even. The burden is on us because we have been fully and completely forgiven by God, and God requires us to do no less. No excuses. It’s pretty straightforward: God has forgiven us all our sin and wrongdoing; we must forgive others!  Remember this one thing: Unforgiveness produces haunting memories which slice into one’s soul and torture the mind.

There are health benefits from forgiveness, too. Research discloses that the act of forgiving can lead to improved overall health. Scientists at the University of Tennessee found forgiveness to be associated with stress relief, lower heart rate, and decreased blood pressure. Other studies link forgiveness to a reduction in physical complaints such as aches and pains, lead to improved sleep quality, and greater spiritual “strength.”

Conversely, holding on to unforgiveness, resentment, and bitterness can lead to higher blood pressure, muscle tension, and depression. The person who forgives and the person forgiven aren’t the only ones who benefit. There’s a ripple effect. Those who forgive are much more likely to perform volunteer work or give to their church or charity. They are much more likely to reach out to other people in meaningful ways of serving and helping them.

Just Do It!

Right “up front” let me tell you this . . . If someone has wounded you or hurt you in some manner, you are wasting your valuable time if you are sitting around waiting for them to realize what they have done to harm you and then come to you to ask for your forgiveness. Friend, that just doesn’t happen except very, very rarely. 999 times out of 1000, the person who has hurt you will never come to you seeking forgiveness. But you must forgive them anyway.  

Forgiveness is not about them; it’s about you! You need to forgive for your own spiritual and mental health and well-being, not for the well-being of the person who hurt you. Give it up! Most likely, they’re not going to come to you seeking forgiveness. The truth is, they often don’t even remember, or know—or even care—if they have done harm to you, causing them to need your forgiveness.

I’d like you to say this OUT LOUD…right now, two or three times: “I remain imprisoned within myself as long as I harbor unforgiveness, anger, and bitterness, but Jesus sets me free!”  If God was willing to totally forgive you and me for our sin, our meanness, our weakness, our stubborn self-righteousness, our foolish pride, then who do we think we are by holding those same sins against another person?! Maybe we should concentrate more on confessing our own sins than on keeping morbid track of another person’s sins against us. When we harbor unforgiveness toward others, often we can’t even deal with our own sins because we’re so focused on the sins of others.

Holding On To Anger

Often, we mistakenly feel that staying angry with others is how we protect ourselves from letting others hurt us more. Refusing to forgive is not only how we feel we are “punishing” others, but it’s how we feel we can keep others from getting close enough to hurt us again. Sometimes it seems to work, but the downside is that it leads to deep bitterness—which can really do terribly destructive damage to both our bodies and our souls.  Look closely at someone you know who is full of anger, resentment, unforgiveness, and bitterness. See how those traits have twisted and shriveled that person inside and filled them with malice; look how it has atrophied and shrunk their insides.

Anger, all by itself is not damaging; it tells you that something we hold dear is in danger—something or someone is in danger, or our beliefs, or our physical safety. The Bible says it’s okay to be angry; we just shouldn’t sin while we’re angry—and get over it and let it go before we go to sleep at night. Anger is sort of a flashing yellow caution light. It’s saying “slow down and figure out what’s going on.”

If we do slow down, often we can learn from our anger. Sometimes we can use the energy it creates to change ourselves or our relationships with others—by the inner power of Holy Spirit Who empowers us to make such changes. But if our anger just goes on and on without our using it to change what needs to be changed, then it is not simple anger anymore. It has turned into bitterness and resentment and unforgiveness. Someone has called such unresolved anger “arthritis of the soul.” And, only our forgiveness can “cure” such arthritis!

That means there is another good reason for us to forgive—besides simply obeying what Jesus tells us to do. We owe it to ourselves, because such anger, bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness “deforms” us and makes us diseased inside. It becomes a boomerang; we think we’re using it to protect ourselves—to hurt back before we can be hurt again—but it has a sinister way of circling right back at us so that we become the victim of our own bitterness and unforgiveness.

Who Is Hurt By Unforgiveness?

The bottom line?: Our unforgiveness most often doesn’t really hurt the other person that much; sometimes they even go on completely oblivious to the harm they have caused us and of our unforgiveness of them. But our unforgiveness does hurt us—sometimes irreparably this side of heaven.

The only antidote to sin—ours or that of others—is forgiveness. Sometimes the problem is that our anger is so exciting and enlivening in a twisted sort of way that forgiveness seems like sort of a limp surrender. For example, if we have ever sort of cherished our own bitterness and resentment, we know how “right” it can make us feel to have someone in the world whom we believe has wronged us. We won’t admit it, but sometimes having an unforgiven “enemy” helps us feel we “look good” by comparison. It also seems to help sometimes because we have someone whom we mistakenly feel we can blame for our lives not turning out the way they’re “supposed to.” Sometimes, “losing” our unforgiven enemy (by our forgiveness) is as upsetting as losing a friend.

When we forgive our “enemies,” all the rules change. We don’t know how to act anymore because forgiveness opens new doors by which Holy Spirit can transform our lives. Forgiveness doesn’t give us the adrenaline rush of anger or the feeling of power that comes from long-standing resentment or bitterness. To forgive, often means we give up our own misplaced feelings of “being right.” And sometimes that’s sort of scary. Forgiveness helps us live again, no longer bound by chains of resentment and bitterness—chains we’ve bound ourselves with. Forgiveness is setting a “prisoner” free and then finding out the prisoner was me!

Through Jesus, we are being forgiven by God every day of our lives. God is continually setting us free from chains that bind us. Forgiveness is God’s cure for the inner deformities our unforgivenesses causes us. Every time we forgive, we stand up a little straighter and taller inside—we become a little more alive with God’s very own LIFE inside us. What God knows—and we often don’t—is that once we “get the hang” of forgiveness, seventy times seven won’t be enough. We’ll get so carried away by forgiving others that we’ll just want to keep on forgiving all our lives.

When a rattlesnake is cornered, it can become so frenzied that it will accidentally bite and poison itself with its deadly fangs. In the same way, when we hang on to our unforgiveness, anger, bitterness, and resentment, we are the ones hurt by the poison. We mistakenly feel we are poisoning and injuring our enemies, but the real poisonous harm of unforgiveness is deep within our own souls.

I heard this little quote recently: “When I don’t forgive another person, it’s like me drinking poison, thinking it will hurt the other person.” Unforgiveness is “poison”; it doesn’t hurt the other person at all, but it poisons the one holding on to the unforgiveness.  Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean we will forget the wrong the other person has done, but it does set us free to move on into the bright future God has for us. Ask God to help you break the chains of your unforgiveness that bind you, so you can move on, letting God reshape you, re-form you, remold you, and restore you into the image of Jesus! He cannot do that for you as long as you remain bound by chains of unforgiveness.

We must forgive those who hurt us. The reason is simple: Bitterness and unforgiveness are claws that set their hooks deep in our hearts; they are chains that keep us held captive to the wounds and the messages of those wounds. Until you forgive, you remain their prisoner. Paul warns us that unforgiveness and bitterness can wreck our lives and the lives of others (Ephesians 4: 31; Hebrews 12: 15). We have to let them go.

Miscellaneous thoughts

Now I have a few miscellaneous thoughts about forgiveness I want to share with you.  First, if you don’t instantly forgive someone for a real or imagined sin or wrong against you, you instantly place yourself in a state of unforgiveness and disobedience. Why would any rational person want to place themselves into such a position, knowing that they instantly begin to poison themselves by their unforgiveness and disobedience?

Next, let me share with you a “credo” that I have lived by for many years when it comes to this matter of forgiveness or unforgiveness. When I see a fellow follower of Jesus yield to temptation and fall into sin (sometimes against me), there are 4 things I do not know:

  1. How hard he or she tried not to sin.
  2. The power of the forces which assailed him or her.
  3. The exact circumstances or events (as perceived by that person) which led to their actions.
  4. What I would have done in the exact same circumstances or events.

Therefore, because I don’t know the truth about those 4 matters I am never in a position to judge a fellow follower of Jesus (or pre-follower, for that matter) when he or she sins! Nor, am I ever in a position to harbor anger, bitterness, or unforgiveness against them. Ever!

Also, when we harbor anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness, we completely stop our spiritual growth and development! Instead, here’s what happens. Because the unforgiveness has “killed” our growth in Jesus and our relationship with Him, we find ourselves having to “fake it” as followers of Jesus. While we’re feeling dead inside, on the outside we’re putting on a false front with fake smiles and fake words so that people won’t know we’re dead inside.

In short, we become one of those hypocritical followers of Jesus we’ve always sworn we would never be like. And it then becomes a vicious circle: the deader we become inside because of the anger, bitterness, and nonforgiveness, the more we have to fake it; the more we fake it, the deader we become inside.

By our unforgiveness, we have quenched Holy Spirit Who lives inside us, causing Him to have to “retreat” to a dark corner of our spirits and lay dormant there, “blocked” from working in our lives. We have thwarted his inner power to help us grow spiritually and to be a witness for Jesus. We have lost our peace. We become overstressed, and that begins to affect our physical, emotional, and mental health and wellbeing. We lose victory in your spiritual lives. We “shrivel up” and have to fake it even more; some “unforgivers” even simply walk away from God and become a prodigal son or daughter.

Another tragic thing that can happen to a follower of Jesus who doesn’t forgive is that secret guilt will often set in, followed by hidden shame. Guilt tells us we’ve done something wrong; shame wrongly tells us we are something wrong—both of which can be devastating and crippling to our souls and spirits. Don’t let these two crippling forces creep into you and harden your heart; instead, learn to forgive instantly. It’s the only way to remain guilt-free and shame-free if someone has wronged us.

It is as impossible to be unforgiving and have peace of mind at the same time as it is impossible for light and darkness to co-exist at the same place simultaneously. If we’re not “instant forgivers,” we remain stagnated and “dead in the water” in our spiritual lives. We remain in the dark instead of in the light.

Bottom Line? When someone sins against me, as a follower of Jesus I must voluntarily choose to forgive the other person . . . by an act of my will, not by my feelings. Forgiveness is a choice. It is not a feeling. Don’t try to grit your teeth and feel forgiving. It is an act of the will. “Don’t wait to forgive until you feel like forgiving,” wrote Neil Anderson. “You will never get there. Feelings take time to heal after the choice to forgive is made . . .” Allow God to bring the hurt up from your past, for “if your forgiveness doesn’t visit the emotional core of your life, it will be incomplete.” Acknowledge that it hurt, that it mattered. Choose to extend forgiveness to your father, your mother, yourself, anyone who hurt you. This is not saying, “It didn’t really matter.” It is not saying, “I probably deserved part of it anyway.”

Forgiveness acknowledges: “It was wrong. Very wrong. It mattered. It hurt me deeply. I release the offender. I give this to God.”  It might help to remember that those who hurt you were also deeply wounded themselves. They were broken hearts, perhaps broken when they were young, and they fell captive to the enemy of our souls. They were in fact pawns in his hands. This doesn’t absolve them of the choices they made, the things they did. It just helps us to let them go—to realize that they were shattered souls themselves, used by our age-old enemy in his war against humanity.

We must forego the right to revenge and must commit to overcoming bitterness and anger toward the wrongdoer. The ultimate goal of my forgiveness is reconciliation—restoring a broken relationship or creating a new one. Forgiveness is not words alone; it is the ongoing  behavior of being a lifelong forgiver. It is never a one-time event.

Let me put it as simply as I can: “If we’re not green and growing, we are ripe and rotting!” Forgive. Forgive. FORGIVE!

Bill Boylan
Revised and Updated February 2023

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