By Charles Gerber
Why is it so difficult to forgive someone? We are supposed to forgive. This is God’s plan. The truth is that forgiveness is a very difficult process, but also a very healthy one. Forgiveness and love are the best two witnesses of Christianity.
Jesus taught us to pray for God to forgive us the same way we forgive others (Matthew 6:12). Would you want God to forgive you the same way you forgive others? Jesus stated if we forgive others when they sin against us, God will forgive us; but if we don’t forgive others when they sin against us, God will not forgive us (vv. 14, 15). This is a tough teaching.
So what is the opposite of forgiveness? Bitterness. Arguably bitterness is the leading cause of divorce. Jesus stated that Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of heart. This hardness of heart is bitterness. Bitterness is the most dangerous emotion on this planet and develops from lack of forgiveness. Bitterness affects a culture and also affects a person physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Bitterness is the greatest spiritual warfare emotion there is!
Jean Graubart, in an article about the Jewish perspective on forgiveness, wrote about tikkun olam—which means “repairing the world”—as a Jewish obligation.
Is this a Christian obligation? We are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). Is our spiritual mission to help people heal from painful events of the past that have the potential to create bitterness? Are we on this planet to heal people’s relationships? One of the best things people can be taught is to forgive.
In his book Unconditional? Brian Zahnd asks interesting questions: “So what is your story? Who has been cruel to you? Perhaps bitterly cruel. What injustice have you suffered? How have you been mistreated? Perhaps miserably so. Who has cheated you? Abused you? Lied to you? Lied about you? Maybe it was last week. Maybe it was a lifetime ago.”
These are great questions to explore with people. After exploring the pain, now and only now is the time to explore forgiveness and why it is difficult to achieve.
Forgiveness Is Difficult
There are three basic reasons why forgiveness is difficult—recognized with the ABCs:
A—Against human nature
Forgiveness is against human nature. I wish forgiveness was our default philosophy when having been wronged. But our default is to seek revenge. A lot of times people will say they just “want to get even.” There is a great teaching on revenge in the Bible. Leviticus 19:18 states that people should not seek revenge or bear a grudge. Paul also wrote about not seeking revenge in Romans 12:19-21.
B—Belief in lies
The second reason forgiveness is difficult is because we believe lies about forgiveness. Lies are hard to detect. Our human nature is very vulnerable to believing lies. Lies have tremendous power to deceive, and they can become places of refuge and hiding. There are three basic lies behind the issue of forgiveness that are taught as truth in our society:
Lie #1: If I forgive, I am being weak. Satan loves this lie. Who likes to be told they are a doormat? Satan knows this lie insults our fragile human nature. The truth is, forgiveness is a spiritual strength—it is prompted and powered by the Holy Spirit. When you forgive others, you receive a bigger blessing as the forgiver. You are being obedient to God and his Word. Forgiveness is also a great witness to the world. People who know you have been hurt will frequently ask, “How could you forgive?” Zechariah 4:6 may be the best possible personal paraphrased answer you can give: “Not by might nor by my power, but by [God’s] Spirit.”
Lie #2: If I forgive, I am saying that what has happened to me is OK. The truth is if the event were no big deal, forgiveness would not be necessary. Forgiveness never says what was done was OK. Forgiveness holds the person accountable for the pain they caused. Forgiveness is a canceling of the debt they owe because of the injury. It never justifies a painful event.
Lie #3: If I forgive, I am giving permission for the person to hurt me again. The truth is, forgiveness never gives permission for the hurt to occur. And never gives permission for the hurt to be repeated.
C—Continual reminders of pain
The third reason why forgiveness is difficult is because there are always continual reminders of the painful past. David understood this, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:3). The five senses have great power to create memories both positive and negative. There are things that you can taste, touch, smell, see, and hear that create reminders of painful events. Satan loves vivid memories that are so real that is seems like the hurt was only yesterday.
We All Have a Ministry
Paul said God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
When working on forgiveness issues, it is vitally important to address the ABCs before helping a person forgive. If you address forgiveness without discussing barriers standing in the way, forgiveness stays a difficult process. When discussing the ABCs, be innovative and creative. Jesus was both of these—consider how many parables he taught about bitterness and forgiveness.
If you show proof of the benefits of forgiveness, you make it easier for the person to forgive. Beyond biblical proof, research has also shown the benefits of forgiveness:
• Consider “Power of Forgiveness—Forgive Others” from the Harvard Newsletter. This newsletter stated that forgiveness has several benefits: reduced stress, stronger relationships, reduced pain, and greater happiness.
• Dr. Fred Luskin, director and cofounder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, “has completed extensive research on the training and measurements of forgiveness therapy. His research demonstrates that learning forgiveness leads to increased physical vitality, hope, great self-efficacy, enhanced optimism and conflict resolution skills. It also shows that forgiveness lessens the physical and emotional toll of stress and decreases hurt, anger, depression and blood pressure.”
Forgiveness is a complicated issue—it’s very positive, but it’s a process, not an event. It is not easy to forgive, but it is totally worthwhile and beneficial. It brings peace that’s nothing short of amazing—a peace that transcends all understanding.
Charles Gerber is founder of Christian Counseling Services from Muncie, Indiana (Christiancounselingservices.info).