In my years in ministry, I’ve talked with many people who have spent years in bondage to someone because they were either unable or unwilling to forgive that person. I have also seen them gain freedom when they finally understand and appreciate the idea of forgiveness. It involves far more than simply putting time between us and the event or saying some words in a prayer.
One stumbling block to forgiving others is wrong information that has entered our theology.Some of these ideas have crept in through the repeated use of clichés. Others have been passed on from generation to generation with no biblical basis whatsoever. Let’s take a look at some common misconceptions about forgiveness.
Myth #1: Justifying, understanding, or explaining away someone’s behavior is the same as forgiving him. I can certainly understand that “my brother” was under a lot of stress when he raised his voice to me in front of my customers, but does that mean I have forgiven him? Certainly not. Understanding someone’s situation is part of the forgiveness process, but only a part.
Myth #2: Time heals all wounds. This is one of the most misused (and damaging) clichés I’ve heard. How could the passage of time or the process of forgetting lead to forgiveness? How many times have we said this with good intentions?
Myth #3: Forgiving others means denying we have been hurt or pretending that the hurt was no big deal.We may try to convince ourselves (after forgiving others) that what they did really wasn’t so bad. This form of denial works against the forgiveness process. It refuses to acknowledge someone hurt us in a way that caused real physical, mental, or emotional pain. It is denying a real part of our personhood.
Myth #4: To forgive others, we must go to them personally and confess our forgiveness. To do so when the other person has not first solicited our forgiveness usually causes more problems than it solves. I will never forget the young man in our church who asked one of the women on our staff to forgive him for lusting after her. She had no idea he had a problem with lust, and his confession caused her to feel embarrassed and self-conscious around him from then on.
I rarely counsel someone to confess forgiveness if the one who caused the hurt hasn’t requested it. Once we begin to understand the nature of forgiveness, it becomes clear why this principle holds true. God forgave us long before we ever asked for it. As we have seen, He has forgiven us of sins for which we will never ask forgiveness. In the same way, we are free to forgive others of things they may never realize caused a problem.
I say rarely because there are some occasions when confession of this type is appropriate. Keep in mind that there is a difference between telling others you have forgiven them and actually forgiving them. The time to start forgiving others is when you are offended, whereas actually expressing your forgiveness may take place later. We need not wait until a person asks for forgiveness to do so. If that were true, many times we would wait forever.
Confessing our forgiveness is appropriate in two situations.
- First, we should do so if the one who hurt us requests it. This helps clear the other person’s conscience and offers the assurance that we are not holding a grudge.
- Second, we should confess our forgiveness if we feel the Lord would have us confront others about their sin. Their wrongdoing may have been directed against us personally or against someone we love. It may be necessary in the course of conversation to assure them we have forgiven them and are coming more for their sake than our own. But when we confront others about their sin, the issue of forgiveness must first be settled in our own hearts. We must never confront in order to force someone to ask for our forgiveness.
Forgiveness is something that each of us deals with in one way or another. But each situation is unique—what might take you a short time to work through might be a process that takes someone else time, prayer, and godly counsel. Whatever the circumstance, forgiveness is a process we cannot ignore if we want to become the person God created us to be. Refusing to deal with the resentment that put us in bondage can make us miss out on the fellowship that we are supposed to have with our Father. Determine today to find the freedom of forgiving, no matter what the cost.
Adapted from “The Gift of Forgiveness” by Charles F. Stanley, 1991, p. 105-107.