Hebrews 12:15 commands: “See to it that no one of you comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble and by it many be defiled.” Bitterness is a deadly acid that not only destroys the heart that contains it, but it poisons everyone and everything it comes in contact with.
In the forty-plus years I’ve been in ministry I can say without hesitancy that the number one problem Christians struggle with is forgiveness—receiving God’s unconditional forgiveness and/or granting that forgiveness to others.
No choice we make in life affects us more physically, emotionally, or spiritually than the choice NOT to forgive someone who wrongs us.
- Acknowledge you have been wronged (Genesis 50:20a).
Forgiveness is not about denying or diminishing the wrong that someone has done to you. The word “forgive” is a financial term that means “to release a person from an obligation or a debt.”
When Joseph was reunited with his brothers who had sold him into slavery and left him for dead, he didn’t say, “Let’s let bygones be bygones. We’ll pretend that never happened.” Nor did Joseph diminish the wrong they did. No, he was very firm. Genesis 50:20a says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…”
Before we can experience the freedom that comes from forgiveness we have to acknowledge the wrong that has occurred. Remember, it is impossible to forgive those who are not first willing to blame.
- Trust in the sovereignty of God (Genesis 50:20b).
You will never be able to forgive those who wrong you until you believe in a God who is bigger and more powerful than those who hurt you, a God who is able to take bad things, evil things, and still use them to achieve His perfect plan for your life.
Sometimes, as in Joseph’s case, we get to see some ultimate good from what has happened. Other times, we may live and die without seeing anything good from it, but we still trust in a God who causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and to those who are called according to his purpose.
- Admit your own failures and receive God’s forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32).
It’s impossible to truly forgive others without receiving God’s forgiveness first. One reason many people find it impossible to forgive others is what I call the “guilt-blame” see-saw. We all have this emotional see-saw of guilt and blame. We instinctively feel guilty of wrongs we have done, and the only way we can balance it is by blaming other people. If we suddenly forgive someone and let go of the blame, we are left with our guilt and we crash. Before we can forgive others, we are to remove our own guilt—and the only way to deal with guilt is to receive God’s forgiveness He offers when we trust in Christ.
Only when we realize we owe a debt to God that we can never repay and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, can we be relieved of the guilt we all feel.
And then and only then can we truly forgive those who have wronged us (Ephesians 4:32).
- Choose to forgive your offender (Mark 11:25).
Just as there is a moment in time when you choose to trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, there is a time you need to choose to forgive that person who has wronged you. Forgiveness is not about denying that someone has hurt you; it’s not about trying to forget it; it’s not about surrendering your desire to see your offender face consequences for what they’ve done.
Jesus said you don’t have to wait until your offender asks for your forgiveness or earns your forgiveness. You have the ability right now to let go of the corrosive bitterness that is destroying your life so that you can experience the blessed life God has planned for you.
As the late Lewis Smedes wrote, “When we forgive we set the prisoner free and the prisoner we set free is us.”
Two of the most difficult passages in the New Testament to put into practice are Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13. Both these verses command us to forgive those who have hurt us. If the command is not enough to get us to forgive others, Paul added a stinger to each verse: we are to forgive because God has forgiven us. We should never forget that God forgave us when we didn’t deserve it.
It doesn’t do any good to acknowledge wrongs done to you, assess your hurt from God’s perspective, admit your own wrongs, and receive God’s forgiveness if you refuse to forgive others. Instead, be like Jesus. Forgive—and you’ll discover that the mountain of bitterness will move out of your way to give you a clear view of the blessed life.