Forgiveness plays a very important role in our pursuit of mental health. It is a hard but necessary step in overcoming the mental and emotional stress from past emotional damage.
There is no question that the Bible clearly teaches that we are to forgive as God forgave us in Christ. (Eph. 4:32) This cannot mean that we are to judge the motives or intent of the person we are to forgive because we are unable to do so.
Neither can it mean that we free them from their guilt before God because God alone can forgive sin committed against Him. (Luke 5:21-24) Forgiveness does not mean we condone the action; in fact, it really means the action is so bad that it can never be adequately paid for and the only way to deal with it is through forgiveness.
Forgiving others is essential
The Bible has some powerful teaching on the matter of forgiveness, such as Matthew 6:15 “ But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Forgiving others is essential for our own ability to accept and enjoy the Lord’s forgiveness.
Many believers struggle with being able to fully enjoy the fullness of being freed from their own past sins because they have not extended true forgiveness to those who have sinned against them. Accepting full forgiveness for our own sins is absolutely necessary for unrestricted fellowship with God. We offend Him by continuing to carry the sins that He has forgiven.
Forgiveness is not pretending nothing happened
Col. 3:11-13 tells us when we are to forgive. “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” Any time that we feel hurt by others we need to forgive them.
Too often we pretend that we have not been hurt, thus deceiving ourselves that forgiveness is not required. At other times we start to justify the actions of the person who has offended us. Either way we miss the opportunity for dealing with our hurt by genuine forgiveness. I’ve heard it said that we are never more like Christ than when we forgive.
I believe that one of the areas of greatest deception among believers is thinking we have forgiven while still harboring resentment. In our spiritual pride we cannot admit that we are unable to let go of the offense against us.
Forgiveness brings freedom
As long as we refuse to forgive we continue to be strongly influenced by the person who has sinned against us. The only way to free ourselves from their ongoing negative impact is through releasing them from our judgment and handing them over to God who will judge them fairly. We can have no peace as long as we continue to rehearse our case against them and seek retribution in some form.
It may seem cruel to encourage victims of abuse and violence to forgive those who have caused such deep emotional damage. The problem is that a refusal to forgive keeps the wound open and never allows it to heal. The damage continues, no longer as a direct result of the sin against me but as a result of my sin in taking the role of judge that belongs to God alone.
Giving our hurt over to the true Judge
I know from experience how great the freedom of forgiveness can be. What a relief to break the link that held me to my abusers. What a relief to remove myself from the court room of my mind as accuser, prosecutor and judge.
What a relief to turn them over to the Judge who knows every fact and will never need to call me to testify and relive the events so that justice can be served. What a relief to get to the point where I genuinely hope that they too have confessed their guilt to the Judge and received His pardon and forgiveness as well.
There is a very real sense in which our forgiveness does not release the offender as much as it releases us from unnecessary suffering. We can forgive without the offender knowing anything about it and not changing in any way, but what a difference it makes in our lives.
Forgiving like God has forgiven
How we grieve the Lord by refusing to forgive when we have been forgiven much more than we will ever be called to forgive. He longs for us to be like Him in freely extending forgiveness to all who sin against us. As we become more like Him in this way we enjoy the full assurance of His forgiveness and fellowship. In our relationship with Him we find healing from our emotional damage caused by others sinning against us.
What is involved in forgiveness?
True forgiveness requires me to honestly acknowledge the pain that another person has caused. It also requires my willingness to carry that pain without seeking to cause them pain in return. It requires my willingness to completely remove my claim to any personal payment from them to pay for the sin committed against me.
(In cases of abuse and violence this does not mean that we should not testify against them or report them to the authorities. We have a responsibility to do our part to keep other people from being hurt as well as a responsibility to protect ourselves from future harm as much as possible. However, it is my belief that we must be very careful that we do not take action for personal vengeance. It is important to discuss this with godly leaders before taking action).
Forgiveness prepares for restoration
Forgiveness will not necessarily lead to a restored relationship. Forgiveness is subjective and prepares me to be able to enter into a restored fellowship with the offender. Restored fellowship requires the offender to also deal honestly with the offense committed through confession, repentance and restoration. Forgiveness is not license to continue offending without consequences.
Neil Anderson’s “Steps to Freedom in Christ” (available from Freedom in Christ Ministries as well as Amazon and Gospel Folio Press) gives an excellent guide to follow for true forgiveness. If you are struggling with bitterness in your life because of wrongs you have suffered in the past, I would urge you to take the time to pursue true, biblical and permanent forgiveness.
If you have been deeply wounded I would encourage you to find someone able to walk you through the process of forgiveness so that your emotional wounds can begin to heal properly.