Forgiveness. It’s such a loaded topic. There’s so much pain and doubt associated with that word — maybe bitterness, resentment, anguish, or grief.
Something shook you to your core, caused you deep sadness, and now you wonder: how can I move on from this? What does God expect me today? How can I forgive someone when I’m still dealing with the emotional fallout of how they’ve hurt me?
Does forgiving others mean pretending you weren’t hurt? Does it minimize the pain that person has caused or the harm they’ve done?
The Meaning of Forgiveness
We all tend to have a personal definition of forgiveness. Depending on how we grew up, we might think forgiving others means accepting an apology, sweeping things under the rug, or talking it out. People have many different approaches to resolving a conflict. How does forgiveness apply in every situation?
What about the person who hurt you? They apologize. You forgive them. You assume this means they won’t commit the offense again. But then the person hurts you more.
Now you feel betrayed and confused. Was the person ever really sorry? Are you supposed to keep forgiving and acting as if nothing happened?
Extending mercy can seem impossible when someone has grievously sinned against you, when they continue to hurt you in the same way, or when you feel you must pretend that everything is okay when it’s not.
We have to cut through the confusion surrounding how we define forgiveness. What’s the motive behind it? What does the process of forgiveness entail? What should we do with patterns of harmful behavior that are forgiven and then repeated over and over again? How can we address the pain without living in bitterness?
The Complication of Emotions
We struggle because of the grief and anger we experience after being hurt. We may have thoughts like, “Why should I have to forgive them? Why don’t they treat me better?”
You might feel like you have to dismiss these thoughts to forgive someone, but acknowledging your emotions is crucial to the healing process. That way, you can work through them instead of stuffing them down, only to have them pop up again later and make things even more complicated.
Making the Decision to Forgive
Questions about forgiving others abound. Here are some you may struggle with:
- Should you immediately “forgive and forget” the sin of the person who hurt you?
- What does forgiveness look like on a practical level?
- Do you have to communicate your forgiveness to the person who hurt you? If so, how?
- Does God give us a time limit for how long we can take to forgive someone?
- Is there a biblical process?
- Are there examples in Scripture for us to follow?
As Christians, we know we are obligated to forgive. So, if there’s a time we’re struggling with the hurt someone has caused us, we often feel guilty and ashamed that we can’t “snap out of it” and immediately go on with life.
Scripture does have answers to these difficulties. We need to study the biblical principle of forgiveness, from God to us and from us to each other. Then, seeking God in prayer for wisdom, we can apply these principles to our lives and relationships.
One of the most definite statements we’ve heard on forgiveness came from a teenager who said, “You don’t need an apology to forgive. The Bible has taught me how to forgive others and is a constant reminder that I’ve received forgiveness as well.”
When They’re Not Sorry
There are some critical aspects of forgiveness we need to explore:
- What is forgiveness?
- What is not forgiveness?
- Is there a timeline for it?
When people aren’t repentant, we can still forgive them. We see this in Jesus in one of his last moments on this earth. He prayed for the people who were crucifying Him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” – Luke 23:34
Jesus demonstrates for us that if someone hurts us and doesn’t even realize it, we still have the freedom to forgive them.
This kind of forgiveness is a powerful act. How can we “let someone off the hook” who doesn’t acknowledge the offense? The world around us won’t understand. But we know that grace is a gift from God. When we extend grace unasked, we bless the person who hurt us, and we also benefit our spirit.
When Jesus forgave those who put him to death, the criminal hanging next to Him heard it. He asked Jesus to remember Him. Jesus responded with compassion and love, setting the most excellent example for us. He said to the criminal, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 23:34
When You’re Hurt Again
So you go through the process of forgiveness and feel that now, all will be well!
But then the person who hurt you does it again. How many times should we forgive a person who keeps hurting us? If we get angry the next time, does that mean we never truly forgave them in the first place?
These situations can make us very confused. Should we give this person space in our lives to continue hurting us? Can we stay away from them so they won’t cause more damage? How do we forgive, yet keep ourselves emotionally safe?
Scripture addresses these situations as well, teaching us how many times we should forgive someone. The Bible also discusses the concepts of restoration and reconciliation (which are distinct from forgiveness itself).
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” – Matthew 18:21-22
So we see that Jesus wants us to extend grace over and over again, just like He does for us. No matter how many times the person hurts us, we should be willing to show them mercy, as we have received mercy.
Forgiveness is a matter of the heart. We humbly acknowledge that we are sinners in need of grace. If we are a believer, God has forgiven us of our enormous sin debt against Him. So we turn to another and extend grace to them, knowing we have no right to demand payment from them for their debt against us.
How does this apply to physically or emotionally dangerous situations? Forgiveness means letting go of the desire for revenge or retribution. It means not seeking repayment for someone’s sin debt against us.
But forgiveness doesn’t preclude the wisdom of stewarding our bodies, minds, and hearts, and taking action to keep ourselves safe. With a humble, forgiving spirit, we may remove ourselves from a dangerous situation, or distance ourselves from a person who is emotionally damaging.
Forgiveness doesn’t equate to the restoration of a relationship, or reconciliation with the person who’s hurt us. Forgiveness is a one-way street. Reconciliation is a two-way street that requires both people to acknowledge their sin and be willing to change sinful behavior by God’s grace.
As you can see, forgiveness isn’t simplistic at all! It’s between you and God. He alone knows your thoughts and motives. He can give you the grace and wisdom you need to discern what’s required for any situation, whether that be forgiveness, emotional distance, or the restoration of a relationship. Take time to seek Him, and if others misunderstand you in the process, trust that He understands you.
The Hurt That Lasts Years
Some people will never be in our lives again because of the significant damage they’ve caused us. Sometimes we may have removed ourselves emotionally from something that happened a long time ago.
We might be okay with lingering subconscious resentment and think that the process of forgiveness isn’t even worth it. If we no longer think about it, we’ve forgiven that person, right?
Consider whether any past hurts still give a foothold to bitterness in your soul. There is intentional work to be done if this is the case. You don’t need to uproot your grief or undo the damage they caused. It means you can find freedom from any unforgiveness that holds you hostage while still acknowledging that what the other person did was sinful and wrong.
Read this beautiful Scripture that ties together God’s forgiveness for us, our forgiveness for others, and our prayer life:
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. – Mark 11:25
This Scripture demonstrates that forgiveness happens in our hearts and it’s between God and us. It takes time to process our pain, as tempting as it may sometimes be to sweep it under the rug. God wants us to open our hearts and lay our hurt before Him, so we can forgive without making excuses for the other person’s sin.
What about when you are the person in need of forgiveness? Think of the guilt or shame you feel when you know you’ve sinned against someone. Consider the relief of being fully and freely forgiven. God can grant you the grace to offer that gift to someone who has hurt you. As you do so, you will remember His loving forgiveness for your sin and His care for you that does not diminish when other people sin against you.
When the Relationship is Ongoing
As we’ve seen, forgiveness has many implications for our lives, and it can take many forms as we forgive:
- Someone who never apologized
- Someone who continues to sin against us
- Someone who we are still in a relationship with, whether that be a spouse, family member, friend, coworker, etc.
How do we manage our relationships when we are committed to forgiving others when they hurt us?
Sometimes we don’t feel confident enough to confront someone about how they’ve hurt us, so there’s never an opportunity to resolve the issue. And often if we do face someone about the pain they’ve caused, they don’t take responsibility for what they’ve done. They may not apologize, or they may offer a surface-level apology and expect us to move on quickly.
When someone is uncaring and harsh, can we still love them? Can the power of our love motivate someone to change when nothing else would? With God, all things are possible.
In the New Testament, we read of a practical example of forgiveness among Christians, including the grief caused by the person who sinned:
If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent – not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient.
Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven – If there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake. – 2 Corinthians 2: 5-8, 10
Loving someone when they don’t deserve it can unlock the door to renewal for both you and the person who hurt you. If the person is repentant, we have the freedom in Christ to comfort them and help them cultivate the motivation to change their damaging behavior.
Again, biblical love doesn’t mean setting yourself up for physical or emotional abuse. It doesn’t mean ignoring your right to be safe. If you are struggling with a situation like this, please reach out for help so you can apply biblical principles in a way that is wise for your circumstances.
The Next Step
The pain caused by others can have a varying degree of impact on our lives, depending on the severity of the offense. We may experience hurt, sadness, grief, anger, betrayal, and trauma as a result of someone’s actions towards us. The counselors at Huntington Beach Christian Counseling can help you process these emotions and work towards finding freedom through forgiveness.
Taking the next step is a courageous act, and it’s one you don’t have to carry alone. If you are struggling with someone who is still in your life, you may be able to bring them to counseling too. Our family counselors are available to help you work through the process of forgiveness together.
If you are the one who has caused the hurt and you’re struggling with guilt and shame, we want to help you find freedom in God’s grace and the restoration of your relationships.
Forgiveness and freedom are available to you today. Let us help you take the next step in your journey.
“Hands and Flower”, Courtesy of Lina Trochez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Crying Woman”, Courtesy of Thought Catalog, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hand Across the Water”, Courtesy of Lukas, Pexels.com; CC0 License; “Woman Waiting”, Courtesy of Caleb George, Unsplash.com; CC0 License