Unforgiveness: Is It Really a Problem?

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As long as we’re alive, people will hurt us or cause us harm, even if it’s unintentional. That’s the nature of the world we live in. But for us Christians, our response to those offenses depends on how important we think forgiveness is. If we don’t actually do anything to the ones who hurt us, does it really matter what our attitude is toward them? Specifically, is unforgiveness really a problem?

Let’s begin by considering God’s forgiveness. The New Testament instructs us to be kind and compassionate and to forgive others as God forgave us (Eph. 4:32). So, why and to what extent did he forgive us? We all deserved to die for our sin, but he didn’t want any of us to perish, so he sent his Son, Jesus, to die in our place (Rom. 6:23; 2 Pet. 3:9; John 3:16). Jesus died for the sin of the whole world and reconciled us to God, so he no longer holds our sins against us (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:19). Jesus died for sins once for all; that is, for all sins committed by all people for all time (Heb. 10:10; 1 Pet. 3:18).

Now it’s up to us, whether we’ll acknowledge Jesus’ death as payment for our sins and receive God’s forgiveness. If we choose to accept this, we commit ourselves to serving God and living a life that pleases him with his help. If we instead reject Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, then we’re still guilty and will receive the full punishment we deserve (2 Thess. 2:10, 12). Here’s the main point: God forgave us completely while we were still sinners and allows us to either accept or reject his forgiveness.

Jesus clearly died for sin once for all, so his death covers all of our sins, including our future ones. But we deceive ourselves if we think God automatically forgives us even if we refuse to forgive others.

We all can remember something someone said or did that really hurt us, but how we respond to those memories might prove we haven’t really forgiven that person. We keep thinking about what they said or did. We keep thinking about how much it hurt us. We rehearse what we wish we’d done to retaliate or get even with that person. We might become bitter or hold a grudge against them. We may never forget what happened to us, but these actions are proof we haven’t forgiven the person responsible. Is that really a problem?

Although Jesus paid the total penalty for all the sin we’ll ever commit and God no longer holds our sins against us, as Christians we need to forgive others as God forgave us (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). In fact, God will not forgive us if we refuse to forgive others. The Lord’s model prayer is very clear about this: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus then emphasized the point: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14-15). That is, God our Father will not forgive our sins if we don’t forgive others when they sin against us.

We see this point again in one of Jesus’ parables about a king settling accounts with his servants. One servant owed the king a huge amount of money and begged him for patience, promising to pay back everything he owed. The king knew the servant likely could never repay him, but he canceled the debt and let him go. That same servant went to one who owed him a very small amount he couldn’t pay, so he put the indebted servant in prison. When the king heard what the man did, he reinstated his huge debt and had him put in prison. The king asked the servant, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matt. 18:33). After finishing the parable, Jesus explained, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).

We’re in the same position as that servant. Before we accepted Jesus’ death as payment for our sin, we owed a debt to God we could never repay and we were destined for hell. When we asked him to forgive our sin, he cancelled our debt and erased the record of it, so it’s as if we’d never sinned. Now he expects us to forgive others the same way he forgave us.

In the parable, the king ordered the unforgiving servant to be tormented until he paid his debt, which was customary in those days. Today, when we think or act like the world, such as by refusing to forgive someone, we in fact authorize Satan to influence or even torment us. God allows that to happen because he uses the torment to get our attention so we’ll change our ways. So if we’re tormented in some area of life, we should consider whether we’re holding a grudge then choose to forgive as God expects.

Does this apply only to forgiving our “brothers,” other Christians? No, because Jesus also requires us to forgive “men,” including non-Christians, just as he requires us to love our enemies (Matt. 6:14-15; 5:44).

We saw earlier that God our Father won’t forgive our sins if we don’t forgive others. Does that mean we’ll lose our salvation and go to hell if we don’t forgive? That’s entirely possible, if not likely. Even if it doesn’t, unforgiveness definitely disrupts our relationship with God, and why would we ever want to do that?

To ask God to forgive our sin while we refuse to forgive others is both hypocritical and inconsistent with godly character. We don’t earn God’s forgiveness or favor by forgiving others; rather, we forgive others because God forgave us. God reconciled us to himself through Jesus’ death on the cross and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. Now we’re to present that message to people everywhere, as “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). That requires us to forgive and reconcile with others as God forgave and reconciled with us.

We are God’s representatives on earth, yet we misrepresent him if we accept his forgiveness but refuse to forgive others. Please consider that God totally forgave you and erased the record of your offense against him, then extend forgiveness to others in the same way.

How can we develop a forgiving attitude? First, by humbling ourselves as servants of God and focusing on serving him, rather than focusing on ourselves. Second, by choosing to forgive. Think about what the person did, decide not to hold them accountable and turn the incident over to God. He’ll do what’s best for everyone involved.


To ask God to forgive our sin while we refuse to forgive others is both hypocritical and inconsistent with godly character. We must humble ourselves and choose to forgive, by not holding people accountable for how they hurt us.

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6 comments on “Unforgiveness: Is It Really a Problem?

Larry Blythe on June 19, 2015 10:04 pm

Very good and SO TRUE

Ed Holben on July 12, 2015 8:47 pm

Hard to do, but a must. Thanks for the reminder!

elango on March 24, 2017 10:11 pm

Responsibility and authority to forgive is very important concept.The statement of Pharisees about the authority of Jesus to forgive sins is the starting point to study about the authority.When Jesus says ” your sins are forgiven”, what things are likely to have happened? I believe that Jesus has taken those sins on his head.Is it possible for us to forgive others in that way& authority?
What about sins of personal nature and corporate nature? Do we have authority to forgive those who have harmed us not in a personal way but spoiling and soiling us in the capacity as God’s ministers or representatives?
May I request you to do a thorough study about all the statements of Jesus regarding this subject and come to some worthy conclusions or fundamental concepts.

yours in Christ

Kathy Johnson on March 26, 2017 6:11 pm

Excellent word on forgiveness. This is clearly written, based on the Word of God. In the Summary, at the top you mention “when we refuse to forgive others is both hypocritical and inconsistent with godly character” but to my understanding it is blatantly disobedient to what the Word commands us to do. We do it in obedience and in Faith that healing, if needed will follow.

Thank you for another in depth word.

Sylvia on March 27, 2017 12:40 pm

Excellent word, Larry! Once I learned this valuable insight into forgiveness years ago, it made all the difference in my walk with Christ. I hope all of your readers will take this step of faith. It’s not an option according to God’s plan for us. We must forgive. Praying everyone will put this into practice in their everyday life so that they can walk in freedom and love in a way they’ve not known before. Thank you for all the work you put into your publications!

Pat hein on April 11, 2017 11:33 am

Hi Larry, I think you know how much I not only agree with your article but think it should be shouted from the rooftops! So many ill taught or unbelieving christians living tormented lives because they haven’t forgiven. I do think they need to be encouraged that as they choose to forgive, God will do the work in them. Be blessed!

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