To Forgive is not a Choice, it’s a Mandate

by Linda Troxell

Forgiving is the very foundation of the Christian faith. If Jesus had not given His life to forgive our sins, there would be no Christianity. And we are mandated to use Christ’s sacrifice as a model to forgive others. Forgiving is not just a goal we, as Christians, must strive toward. Rather, it is something that is commanded of us. Jesus is quoted in the Book of Matthew as saying if we want to be forgiven, we must forgive others. “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” –Matthew 6:14-15And He didn’t say it just once. The concept of forgiving is found 150 times in the Bible between the Old Testament and the New Testament. If it were not something of importance to God, I wouldn’t expect to see it so many times.

As Christians, we certainly give lip service to forgiving. And, of course, we fully expect to be forgiven by the Lord. At the same time, the command to forgive one another is routinely overlooked and swept under the carpet. I believe the command to forgive one another is second only to the great commission, as Jesus’ most ignored command. Before writing this blog, I admit that I didn’t fully understand that forgiveness isn’t just something God wants us to try. It isn’t something He merely wishes we would do. It is something He said we must do. Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Colossians 3:13. 

Once I realized the importance of forgiveness in our faith, I wanted to know more about it. I learned that while forgiving is essential to our spiritual health, as mandated by God, according to experts, it is also crucial to our mental and physical health. It is pretty well established by psychology and medicine that holding on to bitterness, resentment, and anger can harm our health. Forgiving lowers our risk of heart attack, improves our cholesterol levels, improves our sleep, and lowers our blood pressure. And that’s not all. Those who can forgive have less anxiety, depression, and stress. Wow! That’s an impressive list.

If bitterness, resentment, and anger, the elements of unforgiveness, are so destructive to our bodies and minds, then it isn’t something for which God created us. And if God didn’t design us for unforgiveness, yet it is so pervasive in the human population, we must assume it is a tactic the enemy brought into the garden as sin. 

Before we continue this discussion of forgiveness and unforgivingness, we should establish what they are so we have a mutual understanding of what we are discussing. This is the definition of the word forgive from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary online:

1: To cease to feel resentment against (an offender): PARDON as to forgive one’s enemies

2: To give up resentment of or claim to requital (see REQUITAL sense 1)

To fully understand this definition, we need to go further to know the meaning of pardon and requital. So, I also looked those up in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which clarified the definition of forgiveness quite a bit. Pardon means excusing an offense without exacting a penalty, and requital is compensation or retaliation. Considering the three together, forgiving is to cease feeling resentment toward an offender and excuse the offense without penalty, compensation, or retaliation. This is what God has commanded us to do for everyone, every time.

In my reading, I also found a psychologist’s definition of forgiving to enhance our understanding. “Forgiving is a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” I like this definition because it clarifies that the responsibility for forgiving is wholly on the victim. And because it stresses that forgiving is a conscious, deliberate decision that has nothing to do with whether the offender deserves to be forgiven or the victim desire to do so. The two definitions together serve to help us understand just what the act of forgiving is.

I have found that most objections to forgiving center on misunderstandings and misconceptions of what is and what is not included in the act of forgiving. For a complete understanding, let’s look at what forgiving is not. The objection I’ve encountered most often comes from the victim’s inability to understand that forgiving is for the victim’s benefit, not the offender’s benefit. Second is the fear that forgiving is to let the offender “off the hook” or “to get away with it.” Which is not at all true. I once heard Pastor Mark Driscoll say this about forgiveness: “Forgiving does not allow the forgiven to get away with anything. But it allows the one who forgives to get away from everything.”

In other words, it does not let the offender off the hook but allows the victim to “get away from” the burden of anger, resentment, and all the damage they cause. 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 Forgiving does not mean that the offensive behavior doesn’t matter or that the offender wasn’t wrong. And it is not saying that the victim doesn’t have every right to feel wronged, angry, and vengeful. Nor does it deny the victim’s pain. Forgiving does not mean condoning, excusing, or approving the hurtful behavior of the offender. And it does not involve bargaining or negotiation of any kind. Forgiving is a highly charged emotional issue for someone who has been hurt or offended. The victim often fears that if they forgive, the offender is somehow spared the consequences of their behavior. But let’s look at that fear.

More often than not, the offender is blind to all the victim’s feelings. An unremorseful offender is unconcerned with how their behavior affected their victim and does not care whether they are forgiven. So, when the victim forgives, it changes nothing for the offender. Forgiving is not allowing the victimizer to get away with anything. And in fact, it actually denies him or her any malicious pleasure he or she might have derived from inflicting the wrong. Forgiving allows the victim to let go of suffering caused by the burden of the negative feelings of being wronged. The offender, if looking to enjoy the victim’s suffering, will be disappointed.

Whatever the offense or the offender, the unforgiving victim bears the toxicity of anger, resentment, and hatred, with all the damage they inflict on the body, mind, and soul. Unforgiveness damages every part of our lives, including our relationship with God. All sin is a barrier between ourselves and God. And unforgiveness is the sin of disobedience. This then affects our entire prayer life. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” – Mark 11:2 

There is no question that forgiving benefits the victim. Because when we feel like victims, we carry a heavy burden. Forgiveness allows us to unburden ourselves and walk away, freeing ourselves of all thoughts of the offender and the offense. Until we can forgive, we are tethered to feelings damaging our lives. In holding on to those feelings, we become powerless. Until we can release the emotions, we can’t reclaim our power to determine how we react to the offense or, for that matter, how we respond to life. We will be powerless over the thoughts and feelings that cause our bitterness, anger, and unhappiness. And we will be unable to control those feelings or the thoughts that lead to them.

When we make the decision to forgive, we take back control. We restore the ability to make our own decisions. We decide how to respond to the offense rather than reacting to it from our hurt and anger. We take back the power to choose how often to think about the incident and in what way. In forgiving, we take back the decision to allow God to deal with the offender. We recover our power to look at the reality of the offense and the pain, without making it a part of who we are. Until that happens, there can be no healing.

Forgiving includes letting go of all our negative feelings toward the offender, including those deeply held. This is why forgiving is not a one-time event but a process. It takes time and self-reflection to access all the feelings, talk about them with someone we trust, and then let them go. If the offense was minor, the process might take a few days, and it will be sufficient to say a few prayers and talk it over with a friend. However, when the hurt is more extensive and profound, it is more likely to include deeply buried feelings. In that situation, it will be a long process, and it might take weeks or even months of prayer for God to help us find and let go of the anger and other toxic feelings. And it may very well necessitate professional help from our pastor or a therapist.

Many Christians have a distaste for therapy and therapists. Perhaps it stems from the belief that God should be enough to resolve our problems. Well, I would like to say two things about that bias. First, there are now many, many Christian therapists who counsel from a Christian worldview. Next, I would like to point out that God gave therapists the gift of healing, just as He did doctors. He gave one the gift of healing the body and the other the gift of healing the mind and the psyche. They are different gifts, but the same gift giver.

If we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot forgive on our own, we must not allow our pride to get in the way of seeking professional help. Unfortunately, there is still a social stigma attached to seeking health for our minds and emotions that does not exist for seeking health for our bodies. But we do not have to be controlled by the beliefs of others.

There does not seem to be a consensus among the “experts” on whether forgiving requires developing positive feelings toward the one who hurt us. However, I think that for us Christians, the issue is resolved. God commanded us to forgive, be tenderhearted, and pray for our enemies. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:31-32 I believe this includes repairing the relationship broken by the offense. God expects us to live in harmony with our Christian brothers and sisters. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.-Romans 12:18

Of course, some connections are simply too dangerous to resume. An abusive relationship that might be unsafe should not be continued. God doesn’t want us to live in a state of fear or risk to our safety; that does not glorify Him. God is glorified when we live a full, joyful, and loving life with Him at the center. God is love; His heart is love, His thoughts are love, and His entire essence is love. He wants love for His children because, in love, there is forgiveness. 

By contrast, Satan is hate and all it encompasses. Because hate is the essence of Satan, his heart and the hearts of his demons are unforgiveness. The unwillingness to forgive is a tool of the enemy that cripples our ability to make ourselves over in the image of Jesus. It becomes an obstacle to our sanctification, creating a barrier between ourselves and God. This barrier allows the enemy to get a foothold in our life. That foothold can lead to a stronghold, which will eventually lead to a death hold if we cannot break the barrier to forgive. And don’t sin by letting anger control you. Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil. –Ephesians 4:26-27

In researching and writing this article, I have become convinced that if we don’t know how to forgive, or if it isn’t something we are actively seeking to learn, we better make it so. Because, as we have learned here together, forgiving isn’t just something God wishes we would do; it is a command He has given us. We can no longer sweep that command under the carpet and ignore its existence. Nor can we wait any longer to make it a top priority in our lives. James told us that if we know something is wrong and continue doing it, it is a sin. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it is sin for him. James 4:17 

We can’t know when we will be asked to justify the life we’ve lived on earth, and none of us knows if our name is in the Book of Life. But I want to do everything I can to ensure mine is when the time comes. How about you?

I hope, by now, I have reached my goal of convincing everyone that it is a command from God that we forgive, and it is in our best interest to do so. Because forgiving makes every part of our lives better, I hope we are convinced that we all need to forgive everyone every time, and we need to start now. Regardless of the authority, scientist, poet, psychologist, or religious leader, they all agree that letting go of anger, resentment and bitterness leads to greater happiness. It leads to better health, stronger relationships, a greater connection to God, and an overall sense of well-being. 

But how do we forgive? Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to effectively discuss steps leading to forgiveness. But many online resources can help you learn and understand what you can do to successfully let go of resentment and anger so that you can forgive. I have listed some excellent online sources that will help you begin below. And if you need professional help, your pastor is an excellent resource.

Let’s Pray,

Lord, forgiving was never a choice for those who worship and obey you. But somehow we have acted as if it was a choice. But the truth is, Lord, that you have commanded us to forgive everyone, our friends, our loved ones, and especially our enemies. You, Lord, want us to use Jesus as our model, and He treated everyone with love and respect. And, Lord, being unforgiving is to hold anger, hostility, and bitterness in our hearts. Those things are all poisons to our souls. And now, it seems they poison our mental and physical health as well. But, Lord, we cannot successfully forgive everyone or love everyone without your help. So please, Lord, let the Holy Spirit lead us and when we are full of rage and anger, please reach into our hearts and soften them, Lord. Remind us that you forgave us when we were still sinners and continue to forgive us every day. Thank you, Lord, for your love and your grace. We want your will to be done, not ours, Lord, but you know that we need your help in that struggle. We pray this in the holy name of Jesus, Amen.

Linda Troxell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who lives in a small town in Southern California where she writes devotionals and poetry to post on her personal blog. For over twenty years, she worked to help men and women struggling with substance abuse and adolescent boys in group homes struggling with family difficulties. She is now retired and spends most of her time doing what she loves best, writing about the Lord, and spending time with her grandchildren.

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