Forgiving When It Hurts
(Reading time: 7.5 minutes)
People can commit major offenses against others and even feeling justified in doing so. It’s amazing at times to hear people justify their obnoxious or destructive behavior. Yet that is so typical of the world system we live in, which is dominated by self-centeredness (pride). Even unintentional offenses can damage relationships, and the offender may even wonder why the person is angry with them or suddenly cool toward them.
Offenses happen. People get their feelings hurt. Misunderstandings, unfulfilled expectations, careless remarks and other similar experiences in life can cause offenses. So how should we respond when it happens to us?
God gave us free will and says we need to forgive, which is proof we can choose to do so. We decide whether to forgive, regardless of the severity of the sin against us. Our willingness to forgive is important to God, as we see in Matthew 6:14-15 (NIV). “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” That couldn’t be much clearer. There’s a direct correlation between God’s ability to forgive us and our willingness to forgive others.
Who and what was Jesus talking about when he referred to forgiving people when they sin against us? Earlier in the same teaching he talked about people who insult, persecute and falsely say all kinds of evil against us because of him (Matt. 5:11). He included those who want to sue us and take our possessions, or force us to serve them (Matt. 5:40-41). He said we’re to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). All of these would be opportunities to be offended or forgive.
Forgiveness is especially important when the person who offends us also is a Christian. Jesus told a relevant parable about a servant who was unable to repay an enormous debt to his king, but begged the king to be patient with him. In response, the king was more than patient; he canceled the servant’s debt.
That servant immediately found another servant who owed him a meager amount and began choking him, demanding the man pay him. When the man asked for patience, the first servant refused and had the man thrown in jail. When the king heard about it, he called the servant in and reprimanded him for not extending mercy to the other servant as he had received from the king. The king then had the unforgiving servant thrown in jail.
At the end of the parable, Jesus stated his main point about forgiveness: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). He said very bluntly that if we refuse to forgive other believers – our spiritual brothers and sisters – our Father won’t forgive us. Why not? Because he set the example.
“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). The phrase, “as the Lord forgave you,” suggests he expects us to forgive others to the same degree he forgave us, which was completely. Notice these verses apply to other Christians we should forgive. So whom should we forgive? Believers and nonbelievers, regardless of how they treat us. We can forgive others because God forgave us; that is, his forgiveness enables us to forgive.
Some people want us to believe that we should forgive those who commit crimes against us and not prosecute them. But as it is God’s responsibility to protect and avenge us when appropriate, it’s our judicial system’s responsibility to protect us and punish those who commit crimes against us. The legal system is to be God’s human agency for justice, so let it do its job (see Rom. 13:1-5). If criminal laws were simply a means by which society vents its collective anger against criminals, then imprisonment would be cruel and inhumane punishment, and capital punishment would be nothing short of murder. Those who make such charges against our system of justice apparently assume it’s motivated by revenge, rather than God’s principle of accountability for sin.
God is in covenant with us. He is responsible for protecting us and even avenging us if appropriate and he knows what is appropriate better than we do. His justice is such that if someone offends us and we take matters into our own hands by retaliating or seeking revenge, he won’t avenge us or punish our offender. And not seeking revenge for ourselves so God can get them “better” than we could is missing the point, because we still want revenge.
Ephesians 4:26-27: “‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” This passage quotes a statement in the Old Testament, then explains it or gives an application. If we use this passage to justify our anger, we’re missing the point, because a few verses later we see another reference to anger: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Eph. 4:31). Any anger based on a personal offense is a sin.
I once heard someone protest, “But God gets angry!” Yes, but God can be angry and still be sinless. God’s anger is always a response to sin’s effect on us, not to a personal offense. There are many things God can and will do that we should not. His word to us is always, “Get rid of your anger.”
We must realize we benefit ourselves by forgiving others. As we’ve seen, our unwillingness to forgive limits God’s ability to forgive us. It affects us mentally and physically, and can even cause a serious illness.
We also can forgive people based on our faith in God’s care for us. If he’s taking care of us, then we don’t need to protect ourselves from offenses or retaliate for them. We must realize he can work every incident to our benefit, including every hurt and offense. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). People may deliberately injure or harm us, but God is in control and can cause their efforts to benefit us. Consider, for example, Joseph’s evaluation of his brothers’ actions: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).
How can harm other people cause us actually benefit us? By motivating us to turn to God for help, which we should do even when we don’t think we need it. By providing opportunity for us to address our worldly thinking, including our perspective, attitudes, values, priorities and such.
Because God works everything together for our benefit, we might even conclude it can be beneficial to remember painful experiences after we’ve forgiven the person responsible. If the event led to significant personal growth or maturity, helped us develop a godly character trait or overcome an undesirable trait, then we can benefit from remembering it. It becomes a milepost in life, always reminding us of the progress we made. It can help us persevere in our current difficult experience. It also helps us become more pliable, willing to change without having to experience pain or hardship first.
Painful experiences become part of our history and identity, so we can’t deny their existence or their effect on us. Once we have forgiven, we can remember the events and the pain without feeling angry, bitter or frustrated. If we still have self-centered feelings when we think about what happened, we should use the occasion to practice forgiveness. There are benefits to forgiving and remembering, rather than forgiving and trying to forget.
- “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (Matt. 5:39-40).
- What basic human trait or attitude makes it difficult to do what these verses say? Why?
- In what ways does protecting yourself from other people demonstrate a lack of trust in God’s promise to care for you?
- “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (From the Lord’s Prayer, Matt. 6:14-15).
- How would a Christian’s relationship with God be affected by their unwillingness to forgive?
- How would a Christian’s present spiritual condition be affected by their unwillingness to forgive? Their present mental and emotional state? Their present physical state?
- What are some of your attitudes and actions that reveal a lack of forgiveness?
Forgiving is a choice and it produces definite benefits.