C.S. Lewis once observed that “forgiveness is a lovely idea, until you have something to forgive.”

You probably have someone in your past who has deeply hurt you. It may be an employer who wronged you, a friend who betrayed you, a parent who abused you, or a mate who deserted you. You still have difficulty releasing the hurt you experienced. And honestly, you’re not sure if you should let go. After all, doesn’t your offender deserve to pay for what he has done to you?

No decision is more difficult or more crucial than choosing to forgive those who wrong us. Forgiving others is one of the marks of a true disciple of Christ. 

1. Genuine forgiveness acknowledges the offense.

I’m often asked if it is necessary for us to confront our offender in order to acknowledge the wrong that has occurred. After all, didn’t Joseph confront his brothers who sold him into slavery with his famous words: “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good”? Is personal confrontation a necessary pre-requisite for forgiveness? 

I believe it is clear from Joseph’s words that he had already forgiven his brothers by the time he revealed his identity to them. Joseph had obviously spent many years reflecting on how God had used his brothers’ betrayal to fulfill His plan for his life. To be able to see God’s hand in the hurts of others is only possible for those who have forgiven their offenders. Joseph’s purpose in acknowledging his brothers’ sin was not to illicit repentance from them so that he could then forgive them. Instead, Joseph was trying to effect a reconciliation with his family by eliminating any fear or embarrassment they might have harbored about their actions. 

Whether we confront our offender or not depends upon our motive. If we are hoping that such a confrontation will illicit an “I’m sorry,” we may be setting ourselves up for disappointment. The person who has hurt us deeply may not realize or even care that he has injured us. 

However, if our motive for confrontation is to pave the way for reconciliation with someone we have already truly forgiven, then it may be helpful to let that person know we have forgiven him and want to re-establish a relationship with him. But acknowledging the reality of an offense is always a vital first step in forgiveness, even if that acknowledgement only occurs in our own heart. 

2. Genuine forgiveness calculates the debt.

Wrongs create an obligation. Violating God’s commands results in eternal separation from God. Although the policeman who stops us, the judge who sentences us, or the God Whom we rebel against has latitude in how He deals with our transgression, the obligation is nevertheless real. 

When someone has been deeply wounded by another person, I often counsel him not to only acknowledge the wrong that has occurred, but to actually specify the punishment the offender deserves: That person may deserve divorce, prison, or even death. I’m not suggesting that you should voice this to your offender—especially if he is unaware or uncaring about his actions. 

However, performing a mental calculation of your offender’s obligation toward you is a crucial step in the forgiveness process. You can only release offenses you have acknowledged, and you can only cancel debts you have calculated.

3. Genuine forgiveness releases the debtor to God.

Unforgiveness retains a death grip on both the offender and the offense, trying to extract a payment that will in some way compensate for the injury we have sustained. But usually our offender is incapable of making a sufficient payment to cover the wrong he has committed. What adequate restitution could someone offer us for a marriage ruined through adultery, a childhood innocence destroyed by incest, or a life snuffed out by negligent driving? Although an apology, a divorce, a prison term, or even a death sentence might offer temporary relief from our pain, it cannot provide permanent healing. 

When we refuse to forgive other people, we risk spending eternity in the spiritual (but very real) prison of Hell—all because of our refusal to release a fellow human being for a debt they are powerless to repay. But unforgiveness also has some immediate consequences in this life, as well. When we refuse to release our offender, we enter into our own private prison in which are emotionally chained to our offender and forced to repeatedly relive the hurt we have already experienced—all because we will not let go. 

Forgiveness means transferring to God my right to extract payment from my offender. When I forgive someone, I am emotionally releasing him and assigning his obligation to the ultimate Debt Collector. Forgiveness does not require surrendering my desire for justice, but surrendering my right to execute justice.

By unconditionally forgiving that person you are saying, “Although what you did to me was wrong, I am letting go of that wrong so that I can be free to get on with my life.” Forgiveness benefits us much more than it benefits our offender.