When I was fresh out of college in my twenties, I didn’t realize the weight of an unforgiving heart that I carried. It had been there so long that I had grown accustomed to its bitterness. I was nearly thirty and nursing a newborn before I realized how much I, too, needed God’s grace. After a long battle with depression, God showed me that one of the keys to freedom from the burden I’d carried so long was simple, but it was also hard: forgiveness.
While there are many reasons why we don’t forgive people, God makes it clear in his Word that we need to do so. In fact, he even goes so far as to say if we don’t forgive others, he will not forgive us (Matthew 6:15). This statement may sound harsh, but we can’t skip over the verses in scripture that make us uncomfortable, can we?
To understand this command, we need to know two things. First, God forgave us when we least deserved it. When we nailed him to a cross and abandoned him, he said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Second, God’s command for us to forgive is not for his benefit; but for our own. God does not tell us to love injustice, to be a doormat, or to not set boundaries. He tells us to forgive others, as he forgave us.
One of the reasons we are so reluctant to forgive is because we have a false perception of what forgiveness actually is. We often tell ourselves lies to try to get out of it, putting a barrier against our spiritual healing.
Here are three lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to forgive others:
1. If I Forgive, I Will Excuse the Wrong They Did to Me
Forgiveness does not mean we say the person who hurt us did not sin. We are not saying, “Oh, that’s okay. You can sin as much as you want.” Instead, we are giving God permission to judge the person according to his perfect holiness. We release the weight to the One who sees the person’s heart, motives, and everything else we don’t. Paul makes it clear whose job it is to enact justice when he says:
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.’” Romans 12:19 NIV
While we make decisions based on emotions and feelings, God sees each person’s heart and motives clearly. He is not fickle but is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Let’s let him take the burden of judgment because the gavel is far too heavy for us to carry.
2. I’m Not Hurting Anyone by Not Forgiving This Person
It’s true that the people we decide not to forgive may not even be aware of it. They may go about their lives without regard for the harm they caused or the chaos our families experienced due to their actions. For this reason, we may think, “Why does it matter? They don’t even care.”
It matters because the person we harm is ourselves. And whenever we harbor bitterness in our hearts and don’t forgive others, this bitter root will spill into our daily lives. We may not be aware of it, but it will come out in our conversations, our interactions with our kids, and in the carpool line.
But most of all, it will steal our peace. We will live in constant anxiety because we have not let go of the hurt someone caused us, who may not even be aware of it. Is it worth it? No, it isn’t. Jesus paid the highest price so that we could walk in freedom. So let’s lay down the hurt and bitterness and walk away from it.
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” Galatians 5:13 NIV
3. If I Forgive, I’m Permitting Them to Hurt Me Again
Forgiving a person doesn’t mean we don’t set boundaries. As a matter of fact, boundaries are part of living a healthy Christian life. If someone is hurting us or causing destruction in our family and shows no signs of repentance, we are justified in limiting our interaction with that person. Even Jesus walked away from people at times when they rejected his truth. His desire was for everyone to repent and come to him, but this didn’t always happen. This was how he instructed his disciples:
“And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” Mark 6:11 NIV
Only the Holy Spirit can transform a person’s heart. We can present the truth with love and pray for a heart to be transformed, but we are unable to make the change by our power alone. However, there is one thing we can do in addition to praying and speaking the truth. We can forgive.
When we forgive, we trust God to deal with the person according to his perfect will. Instead of trying to be the police for someone else’s behavior, we release them to the One who can transform a life from the inside out. We acknowledge the fact that we are sinners too, and in need of God’s grace.
4. I’m Not Capable of Forgiveness
For some wrongs committed against us, the heartache runs deep. We may be dealing with years of neglect or abuse, and forgiveness may seem too painful or too difficult to even attempt. It is true that we are not capable of forgiveness on our own. We need God’s help. We need his Spirit to empower us to let go of the anger, the hurt, and the bitterness. We need his grace to open our eyes to the peace and redemption on the other side of our willingness to do this hard thing, and to show us the new life that awaits us. Perhaps most of all, we need him to open our eyes to see the person who wronged us the way God sees him or her.
Paul testifies to the power of the Spirit in Romans, saying:
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” Romans 12:11 NIV
This is the same Spirit who helped Jesus forgive those who abandoned him.
Friend, if you are struggling to forgive someone who hurt you today, know this: God sees your pain. No hurt you’ve endured escapes his notice, and he feels it too. Talk to him with an honest heart about your emotions today. If forgiveness seems impossible, admit that to him.
His Spirit, who lives in each of us who declare him Lord, will enable us to do what we can’t do on our own. He is willing and capable. Tell him what you need.
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Abby McDonald is a writer and speaker whose passion is to help women find the hope of Christ in the middle of life’s messes. She is the author of Shift: Changing Our Focus to See the Presence of God, and her work has been featured on Proverbs 31 Ministries, (in)Courage, For Every Mom, and more. Abby lives with her husband, three children, and mischievous lab pup in the mountains of western Maryland. You can download “The Daughter’s Manifesto” as her free gift to you and connect with her at abbymcdonald.org.