How to Forgive

Four Keys to Finding Freedom

All of us have experienced the pain of rejection, hurtful words, and hatred. Many of us carry those wounds in our hearts as we struggle to forgive the offender. With every hurt, the trust hinge comes loose in our relationships. And if we’re honest, all of us are also guilty of inflicting pain on friends, loved ones, neighbors, and fellow employees. Deep down, we know that we owe somebody an apology.

So how do you forgive someone who has hurt you? To help us answer that question, take a look at a man  named Joseph from the book of Genesis. Before Joseph became a great leader, he lived in a family filled with dissention, anger, and jealousy. His eleven brothers hated him because their father loved Joseph more than any of them.

Because of their jealousy, they sold Joseph into slavery. And over the next thirteen years, Joseph served in the house of Potiphar, captain of the guard, was falsely accused of attempted rape, and spent several years in prison. Needless to say, Joseph had every right to be bitter with his brothers. But Joseph chose a different route. He chose the high road of forgiveness. From his life we learn this powerful truth:

Forgiveness is a choice to let go of resentment and retaliation and let God redeem the pain.

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1. Forgiveness is a Choice

That’s a tough pill to swallow because none of us “feel” our way into forgiveness. And if you’re the one who caused the offense, you’ll never “feel” your way into repentance. Embarrassment, pride, and rationalization will always speak louder than the small voice of forgiveness.

Ephesians 4:32 (MSG) says, “Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.” Why would this verse say to forgive quickly and thoroughly? I believe the answer is found if you back up to verses 26 and 27: “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” (NLT).

Paul understood that anger has spiritual ramifications. As the sun sets on our anger, Satan’s influence rises in our hearts. Despite what our culture tells us, nobody can make you angry. Anger and unforgiveness is a choice. You can release it or you can rehearse it.

When you rehearse the offense, you allow the offender to live rent free in your head. It’s like handing the keys of your mind to the person who hurt you and giving them permission to rule your head with negative thoughts.

The key to granting forgiveness is to remember how much God forgave you. His forgiveness was quick and thorough (Ephesians 4:32). I’m not suggesting that’s easy, but when you see your hurts in the shadow of God’s forgiveness, it tends to put your hurts—and the offender—in proper perspective. 

If you’re the offender, you also have a choice to make. The key to seeking forgiveness is to put the person before your pride. You have to humble yourself, acknowledge your sin, and seek reconciliation. Matthew 5:23-24 (MSG) says, “This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”

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2. Forgiveness Means Letting Go of Resentment 

When Joseph’s brothers came to him requesting food, Joseph wept (Genesis 45:1-2). In this crucial moment, all of the emotions of the past came rushing back to Joseph. I believe his tears, however, weren’t tears of resentment as much as tears of reconciliation. In this emotional encounter, Joseph recognized the opportunity to reunite with his family after 22 long years.

Resentment is a powerful emotion. My friend Ron Turner says, “Resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.” When we hold a grudge, we poison ourselves. Reconciliation only happens when we throw away the poison and choose to forgive.

3. Forgiveness Means Letting Go of Retaliation

Retaliation is another natural response to hurt. Again, Joseph chose the high road. Genesis 45:3-5a (NIV) says:

“Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here,…”

Letting go of retaliation feels so unnatural. It feels like we’re admitting defeat and awarding the winner’s trophy to the offender. I think Andy Stanley captured it well:

“In the shadow of my hurt, forgiveness feels like a decision to reward my enemy. But in the shadow of the cross, forgiveness is merely a gift from one undeserving soul to another.”

So how do you deal with repeat offenders? The Gospel says to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22). This isn’t a license to hold a grudge after the 490th offense. Rather, it’s a challenge to live with a spirit of forgiveness regardless of how often we are hurt. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a permanent attitude.” This doesn’t mean we allow repeat offenders to treat us like doormats.

A spirit of forgiveness is the attitude you have toward repeat offenders. Clear boundaries are the actions you take with repeat offenders. When you combine the right spirit with the right boundaries you’re able to navigate offense appropriately.

4. Let God redeem the pain 

Joseph’s encounter with his brothers reveals a remarkable level of character and integrity. It’s obvious that his character was refined through hardship. Genesis 45:5-7 (NIV) says:

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”

Most people waste their pain because they don’t let God redeem their pain. Joseph chose the latter. He allowed God to redeem his pain and use it for a higher purpose. Rather than harbor resentment or leverage his influence to retaliate, Joseph found the pathway to redemption.

One of the most remarkable stories of forgiveness is found in Elisabeth Elliot. Elisabeth served with her husband, Jim, as missionaries to Ecuador in the 1950s. While they worked with the Quichua Indians, Jim dreamed of ministering to an unreached tribe. That dream motivated Jim and four other missionaries to reach out to the Aucas—a fierce group of Indians with a brutal reputation for killing outsiders. Though the mission was dangerous, Elisabeth knew it was God’s plan.

Initially Jim and his team made friendly contact with two women and one man from the Aucan tribe. But on January 8, 1956, all five men were speared to death. Their bodies were found floating in the river. Now Elisabeth was a young widow left alone to raise Valerie, their ten month old daughter.

While the news was devastating, it was not debilitating. Elisabeth committed herself to continue serving the Quichua Indians in Ecuador. In the three years that followed Jim’s death, additional contact was made with the Aucans in an attempt to reach the tribe with the Gospel.

In February 1959, Elisabeth Elliot, her daughter Valerie, and Rachel Saint—the widow of Mission Aviation pilot Nate Saint—moved in with the tribe and lived with the family that had killed Jim, Nate, and the other missionaries. Eventually the Aucan Indians responsible for the death of the missionaries became followers of Christ.

The conversion of this tribe is quite remarkable. But perhaps more amazing is the willingness of Elisabeth Elliot to forgive the tribe and freely offer the hope of eternity. It must have been an emotional journey for Elisabeth and we can only imagine the feelings of bitterness that knocked repeatedly at the door of her heart—feelings that were continually served with an eviction notice as God’s love made room in Elisabeth’s heart for the Aucans.

Forgiveness is a choice to let go of resentment and retaliation and let God redeem the pain. Have you made the choice to forgive those who have hurt you? Do you need to seek forgiveness from the person you’ve offended? Perhaps God wants to redeem the pain of offense and use it from something great in and through your life.