One of the biggest problems many people have today is an inability to forgive and move forward in their lives. I’d like to say that Christians do better in this area than non-Christians, but this is not always the case — even though it should be. In my time as a pastor, I’ve found that Christians quite often struggle with unresolved hurt and anger. And many flat out refuse to forgive people who have wronged them in the past. And they refuse to move forward in their lives. In order to become more like Christ (something all Christians should strive for), we need to learn to forgive, to love, and to move forward.
Forgiveness is Commanded by Christ
Jesus says it clearly: “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 6:14-15, NKJV) This doesn’t mean that you will lose your salvation, but it does mean that you will never enjoy clear fellowship with the Lord, including the joy of your salvation and the calming assurance of His continual presence and forgiveness, if you refuse to forgive others. It’s more than audacious and quite hypocritical to ask for (and expect to receive) God’s forgiveness for your wrongs, when you in turn refuse to forgive those who have wronged you.
Forgiveness Reflects the Character of God
God is in the Forgiveness Business. It’s in our nature to sin. It’s in God’s nature to forgive. This is what the prophet Daniel referred to, when he wrote so many years ago the following: “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against Him.” (Daniel 9:9, NKJV) And it’s what Paul meant when he told the Ephesian Christians: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace…” (Ephesians 1:7, NKJV). And it’s this nature of forgiveness that moved God to love us and send Christ for us “even while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). If you want to be like the Lord, learn to forgive. It’s His nature. It should be our nature too.
Forgiveness Doesn’t (Necessarily) Mean Approval or Agreement
A year ago, I heard a great sermon preached by David R. Stokes, a bestselling author and the pastor of Fair Oaks Church. Pastor Stokes was visiting Olney Baptist Church for our Homecoming. In his message, he made the point that Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery, but did not endorse or approve of their motives or actions. On the contrary, Joseph told his brothers they “intended [what they did] for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph wasn’t endorsing or approving of what his brothers did, but he did refuse to hold it against them any longer.
I realize that some hurts are intense. When you think about all the wrongs over the years that have been done to people, the list is heart-wrenching. Whether we’re talking about catastrophic crimes against humanity like the Holocaust or slavery or personal grief like a woman who has been raped or parents who have lost a child to a drunk driver, pain is real and forgiveness can sometimes be excruciatingly difficult. All I can say is that God understands. Imagine what the Father was feeling when He watched His Son get nailed to the cross. Imagine how Jesus felt when Peter, his closest disciple, denied Him the night He was betrayed and arrested. Yet God’s Love always exceeds His pain. This is why we are encouraged in Scripture to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
When you forgive someone, it doesn’t mean that you endorse what they did or why they did it. You’re not agreeing with how they hurt you. What you’re doing is choosing not to hold it against them or seek any kind of retribution against them. You’re releasing them to the Lord and granting them (as far as you are concerned) a pardon for their actions and/or attitudes. And you’re doing this with the knowledge that they are still accountable to God for what they did. This is precisely what Paul meant when he wrote the following to the Christians in Rome: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19, KJV). This doesn’t mean that you should wish God’s vengeance on those who have wronged you. It means you should trust the All-Knowing and Righteous Judge to take care of righting all wrongs and handling all matters of justice.
Sometimes…the Problem (or at least Part of the Problem) is in the Mirror
Let’s be honest. There are times when we are as much to blame (if not more so) than the person or persons we think have wronged us. This is why Jesus tells us to go to our brother who offends us and seek reconciliation (Matthew 18:15). Yet one of the most common tendencies of Christians today is to go to everyone but the brother (or sister) who has allegedly caused the offense in the first place. This would be gossip and (quite often) slander. Alternatively, some will try to “bury” the offense and then allow resentment to build over time until it boils over or erupts like a volcano! This is foolishness.
If someone has wronged you, you need to confront that person and try to work things out. This doesn’t mean shout at the person or personally attack the person. It means to lovingly, patiently, and kindly explain to the person how you felt about what they said or did. If you are unwilling to do this, then please be honest enough with yourself to admit that at least part of the problem with the unresolved conflict, anxiety, or stress with which you’re dealing is….you. If you are unable or unwilling to follow Jesus’ clear instructions in Matthew 18, then you need to let the matter go. And that means no longer holding that issue against the person in question and not allowing it to build and fester within you like a cancer. If you are unable to let it go, then you need to talk to the person in a loving, kind, and constructive manner. If the person is uncooperative, then Matthew 18:15-17 lays out the process you are to follow.
No matter the specifics and no matter how much you think you’ve been a victim, self-examination is something we are commanded to do as Christians (I Corinthians 11:28). What’s more, we’re told to let the Lord examine us (Psalm 139:23). In my life, I’ve found that, in just about every painful situation, there are lessons to be learned and things I can do to grow. This is even when I honestly believe, after much prayer, that I’ve been genuinely wronged. I’m not perfect. I’m not Jesus. There’s always room for growth and improvement. Always.
When Reconciliation is Impossible…
There are times when you will be wronged and, even after attempting reconciliation, the person will not relent from continuing to harm or hurt you. I’ve been there. I know what that’s like. And there will be times when you’ve hurt someone else, and you will attempt to apologize or explain, and the other person will be unforgiving.
I know how much this can hurt. Believe me. I’ve had families whom I’ve invested in as their pastor walk away from the church with anger or bitterness – and who have held onto that bitterness despite sincere efforts on my part to reconcile. I’ve had people whom I consider to be friends essentially renounce that friendship, despite several and repeated efforts on my part to express my heart. I’ve had people get angry over misunderstandings and then refuse to participate in any effort to resolve those misunderstandings. It hurts…deeply. I know.
But these things happen, because it’s the world in which we live. We will not always be successful in reconciliation (at least not on this side of eternity), because we’re sinful human beings dealing with other sinful human beings. Sometimes, our best efforts will not be enough to mend relationships, fix friendships, or heal the hurts from the past. When that is the case, there comes a point where we must be willing to forgive (even when the other person hasn’t asked for forgiveness) and move forward in our life — and stop living in the negatives of the past.
Moving forward sometimes entails leaving a bad relationship, changing churches, getting a new job, closing down a business, or setting some boundaries with a difficult person in your life. In the book of Acts, we read that missionaries Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp contention” and parted ways as a result (Acts 15:36-41). If it can happen with great Christians like Paul and Barnabas, it can happen to you and me. And when it does happen, you need to know when you’ve done all you can and when it’s time to move on with your life.
Obviously, this requires wisdom. And the source of wisdom is God Himself. We need to ask Him for wisdom (James 1:5) and then follow Him as He leads us. We also need to be in the Scriptures and among our Christian friends (our God-honoring, Bible-believing, spiritually mature, loving Christian friends) as we prayerfully seek wisdom from God and godly counsel from others.
And when we do make the choice to move forward, we must leave all bitterness and wrath behind (Ephesians 4:31). I know of Christians who have chosen to leave churches by throwing metaphorical bombs on their way out. Many spouses have left broken marriages trying to cause as much pain to the other person as possible. And many employees who have been mistreated by their boss or company leave and do everything they can to cause as much damage as they can on their way out. None of that is what Jesus would do. None of it reflects what the Bible means by moving forward with our lives. We are to move forward in love and forgiveness. We are to move forward ”with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2, KJV).
Bitterness is Always Bad
If you’re feeling bitter and continually angry over matters within your past, recognize that this is neither healthy nor God-honoring. As the writer of Hebrews says: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.” (Hebrews 12:14-15, NKJV)
Sometimes, we have to make tough choices with respect to our friends when it comes to this area. In order to remain uncontaminated by bitterness, we must make sure we make the right choices with whom we invest our time. Paul addresses this at the church level in two of his letters. To the Roman Christians, he wrote: “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” (Romans 16:17, NKJV). And to his protege Titus, he wrote: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.” (Titus 3:10, NIV) Sometimes, you must make some tough choices regarding fellowship, church discipline, or whatever when it comes to these matters. This doesn’t mean you hold bitterness toward these people or try to hurt them. It simply means that you must, at least for a while, withdraw from them so they don’t drag you down.
Bitterness is always bad. And it’s cancerous to the body of Christ. Don’t let your heart become “defiled” by bitterness. It will only hurt you – and those around you. And that’s why we must…
Focus on the Positive
The key to living positively is to focus on that which is positive. Paul says that we should give thanks “in everything” (I Thessalonians 5:18) and that we should meditate on ”whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report.” (Philippians 4:8, NKJV).
Most people do the opposite. Most people focus on the negatives in their past, present, and future. Look at the news. Do you hear or read about stuff that’s mostly good or bad? Consider what your co-workers spend most of their time talking about? Are the subjects good? Do they reflect what Paul is talking about in Philippians 4? Most of the time we let our minds focus on (and our mouths talk about) things which are negative. And then we wonder why we are so often stressed, discouraged, or depressed.
If I can use a church example again, I’ve seen this numerous times with Christians who leave a church. They will leave because of a bad experience or set of experiences and then forget all the good things that also happened to them in that church. They’ll have a falling out with one or two families, and forget all the other families who love them and with whom they have warm relations (or at least should have warm relations).
A friend of mine recently told me of a group of Christians who left a church over some conflicts, drama, and perceived wrongdoing. It’s been several years, but these folks continue to regularly get together and bash their former church in conversation. Mind you, these folks have not been to the church they bash in several years! These people clearly need a new hobby. But whether we’re talking about church-bashing or job-bashing or anything else, this sad story illustrates an important point: Living in the negatives of the past will rob you of the joy in your future.
I’ve seen it with friends who, after years of friendship, will allow one or two disagreements to shatter that friendship – even after years of standing with one another through good times and bad.
And I’ve seen marriages fall apart because husbands and wives will focus on the few things that irritate or frustrate them with respect to the other rather than the positive aspects of their spouse or relationship.
The same dynamic is at play when it comes to when you’ve been legitimately wronged. When it comes to people who have wronged you in the past, how much time do you spend re-living those wrongs? How much time do you spend thinking about and meditating on how deeply you were hurt, how unreasonable or sinful the other person (or people) were, or how much it negatively affected your life or the direction of your life? If you continually focus on those things, you will never experience victory or peace. You are choosing to live in a prison of your own making.
As a side note…I’ve found that most people and all organizations (including businesses, jobs, churches, etc.) are multi-dimensional. It’s extremely rare that you’ll meet someone who is thoroughly 100% evil or that you’ll have an experience (if you’re completely honest) that’s 100% bad with absolutely zero redeeming value. Thus, I can usually look back on people who have caused me grief or pain — and recognize that there was good in those relationships too. I can look back on bad experiences I had in previous jobs — and see that there were good experiences too. We tend to focus on the negative and, at times, completely forget about the positive. Life is multi-dimensional. There’s typically both good and bad involved, and it’s us that choose what we remember and focus on. Paul would say to learn from the past (both the good and bad aspects of it), but to then meditate and focus on the POSITIVES of the past.
Once again, I know that some relationships and some experiences can be particularly painful — so much so that the pain legitimately outweighs the past. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust will be hard pressed to find the positives in their concentration camp experience and women who survived a horrific marriage full of physical abuse will likewise find it difficult to “focus on the positive.” I do understand that and, most importantly, so does God. But let’s be honest. Most of us haven’t had to endure these extremes. Most of us make situations more extreme in our minds than they actually are. But for those of you who have had horrific experiences in the past, I would still urge you to apply Philippians 4 to your life. If Paul and Silas can worship and praise God from a dungeon, so can you. No matter what life may throw at you, you still have the Lord. No one can take Him away from you. That’s the best positive there can be.
Forgiveness can be tough, but it’s absolutely essential to your happiness as a person and growth as a Christian. And moving forward isn’t always easy, but it’s critical to your joy and progress in life. If you are still continually re-living (in thought or conversation) all the frustrations, problems, heartaches, and pain from your past (whether we’re talking about past relationships, past friendships, past church experiences, past jobs, or whatever), you will never experience true peace and happiness!
Learn to forgive and make it a habit to move FORWARD (not backward) in your life.
- Get Out of That Pit: Straight Talk About God’s Deliverance by Beth Moore
- Where is God When it Hurts? by Philip Yancey
- Authentic: Character Traits of a Genuine Christian by Brian Tubbs
- Why Does God Allow Suffering? by Brian Tubbs