Peter came up to the Lord and asked, “How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?” Jesus answered: “Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!”
If people want to be content in this life, they must obey Christ’s command to practice forgiveness. But many people live with discontentment because they think to themselves: “I will not forget what you did, and I will not forgive.” Persistent thoughts of revenge only serve as a cancer which destroys the mind’s thoughts, erodes the soul, and hinders the heart’s ability to love. But people who practice forgiveness are much less likely to be hateful, hostile, and belligerent toward others. They are healthier and happier, and more at peace.
I have had people tell me, “But you don’t know what I’ve been through.” My typical response is: “You don’t know what I have been through, either. You may not even believe some of the things I have experienced, and some of the things that have happened to me and were said to me. So, can I tell you what I have done to forgive those who have sinned against me?”
- When I am trying to forgive someone, I pray for them.
It is hard to keep resenting someone and wish them ill will when you are praying for them on a regular basis. In the book of Genesis, Joseph was the victim of his brothers’ abuse. If there was ever a dysfunctional family to grow up in, it was Joseph’s. Being sold into slavery by your own brothers and being the target of their derision would cause anyone to be upset. But, many years later, Joseph chose to forgive his brothers. He acted with their best interests at mind. He prayed for them, and did not actively work against them. What is more, he eventually came to see the hand of God in it all. Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
- I write a letter of forgiveness (which I may or may not send).
In the letter I detail how the person hurt me. I leave nothing out. And I express exactly how it made me feel, and how it affected my life. Then, I express forgiveness and say that I will not hold the offense over their head. Here is a five-step process for forgiving others using the acrostic REACH which helps shape how I write:
Recall. That is, name the hurt. Name it squarely. Do not fudge on it by saying it is not that bad, or as bad as others might have experienced. Call it what it is, whatever it is: deceit; stealing; assault or abuse; adultery; or, verbal shaming; even, murder. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa after apartheid was based on providing full disclosure of all crimes. Those that stepped forward to do so would be offered a full pardon. Desmond Tutu, who led the commission, was most struck by how many people wanted to hear what had happened to their loved ones from the perpetrators themselves so that they could know whom to forgive. Methinks we have much learn from our African brothers and sisters.
Empathize. Try and see the offense from the other person’s perspective and attempt to put oneself in the other’s shoes. This does not mean we paper over the offense; it just means we don’t demonize another as a monster. That only feeds and fuels our own lack of forgiveness. When we view others as non-human, then we feel no responsibility to forgive.
Altruistic. Choose to do the right thing and treat the other person well, not because they deserve it, but because it is within your control to extend grace. Again, this is what Joseph chose to do with his brothers: “So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:21).
Commit. Commit to practice forgiveness. Make a decision to do it. Do not wait too long for your feelings to catch up to you. “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).
Hold. Hold on to your forgiveness. Just because you make the decision to forgive does not mean you will never have to do it again. Once you have forgiven, let it be a stake in the ground in which you can look back to it again and again. “I forgave him/her, and I will not let the enemy of my soul keep trying to make me bitter about it all over again.” One of the reasons we repeat the Lord’s Prayer Sunday after Sunday in my church is in order to forgive those who have sinned against us.
- I talk to a trusted friend, mentor, or counselor about my effort to forgive.
Many people get stuck in discontentment and an inability to forgive because they do not seek a wise person to help them walk through the process of forgiving. The easy path is to complain about the offense to someone we know will react with the same level of disgust and spirit of revenge that we ourselves have in our hearts. But that only reinforces bitterness. We need someone who can offer us what we need to hear, and not what we want to hear.
Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel, and, so, ought to be at the core of healthy church life. Let forgiveness shape your life and ministry, and not a bitter unforgiving spirit so that Jesus is glorified in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.