“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14, NKJV)
A friend recently called me with a serious question: how does one forgive the unforgiveable. Is it even possible when the offense is so evil? I understood her pain and also knew the severity of the situation. It’s so easy to recite a couple of scriptures or give a pat answer, but I knew her question required deeper thought. She honestly did not know how to go about forgiving the individual who had done such evil. But she also realized the Bible instructs her to forgive.
Before we look at what forgiveness requires, let’s first look at some things that forgiveness does not do.
- Forgiveness does not justify that person’s action or pretend it never happen.
- Forgiveness does not mean we have become a doormat.
- Forgiveness does not mean we must let that person back into our life.
- Forgiveness does not mean the offender will not suffer the consequences of their action.
If the above things show what forgiveness is not, how do I explain to my friend what forgiveness really is?
First, I recognized that she made a tremendous step forward just by admitting she needs to forgive this person who brought such unbelievable pain into her life. That is major! Now, how does she move forward into forgiveness?
Forgiveness is not easy or quick, especially when great harm has been done (such as abuse, rape, murder, infidelity). It is a process—a journey that will free the victim to move forward in life without the bondage of anger, hatred, resentment, and bitterness. Nelson Mandela, who fought apartheid and was imprisoned for twenty-seven years, said, “As I walked out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred, and bitterness behind that I would still be in prison.” Whether he realized it or not, Mandela had learned the power of Ephesians 4:31-32.
“Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (NKJV).
Next, we need to realize that if God loved that person enough to die for their sins, how can we choose to withhold our forgiveness? Everyone is in need of forgiveness for “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Despite our sinfulness, God made a way for us to be restored. “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2, ESV).
We must also understand that the offender may never acknowledge their wrongdoing or seek forgiveness. They may have even died. Forgiveness is never dependent upon the one who harmed us being sorry for their actions. When we forgive, we are turning the situation over to God to handle as He sees fit. He is just and will give everyone their just reward. Don’t seek revenge but allow God to determine how justice will be served. (Read Romans 2:6-10 and Isaiah 13:11.)
Finally, forgiveness is a deliberate choice. When we choose to forgive—even when the act seems unforgiveable, even when we feel it’s impossible but we are willing to try—we have begun our journey to freedom and peace. I’m praying my friend takes that next step on her journey. If you need to begin this journey also, I invite you to start today. Forgive others, even when it seems incomprehensible, and God will forgive you.
(Other scriptures for study: Psalm 130:3-4; Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:17; Hebrews 8:12; Revelation 20:11-15.)