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Forgiveness Article

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Forgive Those Who Have
Hurt You in the Past

Victory over the Darkness By
Dr. Neil Anderson

Why should you forgive those who have hurt you in the past?

First, forgiveness is required by God. As soon as Jesus spoke the amen to His model prayerwhich included a petition for Gods forgivenessHe commented: "For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions" (Matthew 6:14, 15). We must base our relationships with others on the same criteria on which God bases His relationship with us: love, acceptance and forgiveness (see Matthew 18:21-35).

Second, forgiveness is necessary to avoid entrapment by Satan. I have discovered from my counseling that unforgiveness is the number one avenue Satan uses to gain entrance to believers lives. Paul encouraged us to forgive "in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes" (2 Cor. 2:11). I have had the privilege to help people around the world find their freedom in Christ. In every case, forgiveness was an issue and in many cases it was the issue that needed to be resolved.

Third, forgiveness is required of all believers who desire to be like Christ. Paul wrote: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Ephes. 4:31, 32).

What Is Forgiveness?

Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgetting may be a long-term by-product of forgiving, but it is never a means to forgiveness. When God says He will remember our sins no more (see Hebrews 10:17), He is not saying "I will forget them." God is omniscient; He cannot forget. Rather, He will never use the past against us. He will remove it as far from us as "the east is from the west" (Psalm 103:12).

Forgiveness does not mean you must tolerate sin. A young wife and mother, attending one of my conferences, told me of her struggle to forgive her mother for continual manipulation and condemnation. She tearfully continued, "I suppose I can forgive her tonight, but what am I supposed to do when I see her next week? She will be no different. She will undoubtedly try to crowd between me and my family as she always does. Am I supposed to let her keep ruining my life?" No, forgiving someone doesnt mean you must be a doormat to the persons continual sin. I encouraged her to confront her mother lovingly but firmly and to tell her she would no longer tolerate destructive manipulation. It is okay to forgive anothers past sins and, at the same time, take a stand against future sins.

Forgiveness does not seek revenge or demand repayment for offenses suffered. "You mean Im just supposed to let them off the hook?" you may argue. Yes, you let them off your hook realizing that God does not let them off His hook. You may feel like exacting justice, but you are not an impartial judge. God is the just Judge who will make everything right in the end. "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord" (Romans 12:19). "But where is the justice?" ask the victims. It is in the crucifixion of Christ. Christ died "once for all" (Romans 6:10). He died for his sins, her sins, your sins, my sins.

Forgiveness means resolving to live with the consequences of another persons sin. In reality, you will have to live with the consequences of the offenders sin whether you forgive that person or not. For example, imagine someone in your church says, "I have gossiped about you all over town. Will you forgive me?" You cant retract gossip any easier than you can put toothpaste back into the tube. You will have to live with the consequences of that persons gossip no matter how you respond. We are all living with the consequences of someone elses sin. We are all living with the consequences of Adams sin. The only real choice is to live with those consequences in the bondage of bitterness or in the freedom of forgiveness.

Twelve Steps to Forgiveness

The victim may say, "I cant forgive these people. You dont know how bad they hurt me." The problem is, they are still hurting you. How do you stop the pain? Forgiveness is what sets us free from the past. What is to be gained in forgiving is freedom. You dont heal in order to forgive. You forgive in order to heal. Forgiveness is to set a captive free and then to realize you were the captive. You dont forgive others for their sake; you do it for your sake. Those you need to forgive may never be aware of your choice to let them off your hook. Forgiveness is the fragrance that is left on the heel that crushed the violet.

Following are 12 steps you can use to walk through the process of forgiving others from your heart. Following these steps will help you unchain yourself from the past and get on with your life:

1. Ask the Lord to reveal to your mind the people you need to forgive. Then write on a sheet of paper the names of those who offended you. Of the hundreds of people who have completed this list in my counseling office, 95 percent put father and mother as numbers one and two. Three out of the first four names on most lists are close relatives. When making a list, the two most overlooked people are God and yourself. Concerning your relationship with God, only He can forgive your sins, and He has never sinned. We havent always appropriated that forgiveness, and sometimes we are bitter toward God because we hold false expectations of Him. We need to release God from those false expectations and appropriate Gods forgiveness.

2. Acknowledge the hurt and the hate. As you work through the list of people you need to forgive, state specifically for what you are forgiving them (e.g., rejection; deprivation of love; injustice; unfairness; physical, verbal, sexual or emotional abuse; betrayal; neglect and so on). Also state how their offenses made you feel. Remember: It is not a sin to acknowledge the reality of your emotions. God knows exactly how you feel, whether you admit it or not. If you bury your feelings, you will bypass the possibility of forgiveness. You must forgive from your heart.

3. Understand the significance of the Cross. The cross of Christ makes forgiveness legally and morally right. Jesus took upon Himself all the sins of the worldincluding yours and those of the persons who have offended youand He died "once for all" (Hebrews 10:10). The heart cries, "It isnt fair! Wheres the justice?" It is in the Cross.

4. Decide you will bear the burden of each persons sin (see Galatians 6:1, 2). This means you will not retaliate in the future by using the information about their sin against them (see Proverbs 17:9; Luke 6:27-34). All true forgiveness is substitutionary, as was Christs forgiveness of us. That doesnt mean you tolerate sin or refuse to testify in a court of law. You may have to do that for justice to prevail. Just make sure you have forgiven that person from your heart first.

5. Decide to forgive. Forgiveness is a crisis of the will, a conscious choice to let the other person off the hook and to free yourself from the past. You may not feel like doing it, but it is necessary for your sake. If God tells you to forgive from your heart, be assured He will enable you to do it. The other person may truly be in the wrong and subject to church discipline or legal action. That is not your primary concern. Your first concern is to receive freedom from your past and stop the pain. Make that decision now; your feelings of forgiveness will follow in time.

6. Take your list to God and pray the following: "I forgive (name) for (list all the offenses and how they made you feel)." Stay with each person on the list until every remembered pain has been specifically addressed. That includes every sin of commission as well as omission. If you have felt bitter toward this person for some time, you may want to find a Christian counselor or trusted friend to assist you in the process. Dont say, "I want to forgive so and so," or "Lord, help me to forgive so and so." That is bypassing your responsibility and choice to forgive.

7. Destroy the list. You are now free. Do not tell the offenders what you have done. Your need to forgive others is between you and God only! The person you may need to forgive could be dead. Forgiveness may lead you to be reconciled to others, but whether or not that happens is not totally dependent upon you. Your freedom in Christ cannot be dependent upon others whom you have no right or ability to control.

8. Do not expect that your decision to forgive will result in major changes in the other persons. Instead, pray for them (see Matthew 5:44) so they, too, may find the freedom of forgiveness (see 2 Cor. 2:7).

9. Try to understand the people you have forgiven, but dont rationalize their behavior. It could lead to incomplete forgiveness. For instance, dont say, "I forgive my father because I know he really didnt mean it." That would be excusing him and bypassing your pain and the need to forgive from the heart.

10. Expect positive results of forgiveness in you. In time you will be able to think about the people without triggering primary emotions. That doesnt mean you will like those who are abusive. It means you are free from them. Old feelings may try to recycle themselves. When that happens, stop and thank God for His provision and dont pick up those old offenses again. You dealt with it; now let it go.

11. Thank God for the lessons you have learned and the maturity you have gained as a result of the offenses and your decision to forgive the offenders (see Romans 8:28, 29).

12. Be sure to accept your part of the blame for the offenses you suffered. Confess your failure to God (see 1 John 1:9) and to others (see James 5:16) and realize that if someone has something against you, you must go to that person and be reconciled (see Matthew 5:23-26).

A Second Touch

One of the greatest personal crises I have faced in the ministry revolved around the problem of forgiveness and a board member I will call Calvin. I struggled relating to this man, so I asked if he would meet with me weekly. I had only one goal: trying to establish a meaningful relationship with him.

About four months after Calvin and I started meeting, I asked the board if I could lead a tour group from the church to Israel. Calvins hand shot up. "Im against it because, as the tour leader, the pastor will go free, and thats like giving him a bonus." After assuring Calvin and the board I would pay my own way and use my vacation time for the trip, they agreed.

Despite the burden I carried in my heart about my conflict with Calvin, the trip to Israel was a tremendous spiritual experience for me. On one of my free days in Jerusalem, I spent several hours alone in the Church of All Nations pouring out my heart to God about Calvin. I sat there staring at the rock where Christ reportedly had sweat great drops of blood as He anticipated taking upon Himself the sins of the world. I concluded by telling God that if Jesus could take all the worlds sins upon Himself, I could surely endure the sins of one difficult person. I left that historical monument thinking I had let it go.

Two weeks after I returned, Calvin shifted his attack to our youth pastor. That did it. I could handle Calvins resistance to me, but when he started blasting my youth pastor, I reached the end of my patience. I confronted the board and demanded they do something about Calvin. If they didnt, I would resign. Although they agreed with me in private, they wouldnt stand with me in public, so I decided to resign.

The week before I was going to read my resignation to the congregation, I got sick. I was flat on my back with a 103.5 temperature and I totally lost my voice. I had never been so sick before; nor have I since. It doesnt take a genius to recognize that God was not pleased with my decision. When you are flat on your back, you have nowhere to look but up. So I began reading the Gospels and came to Mark 8:22-26 where some people led a blind man to Jesus. After Jesus touched him, the blind man said, "I see men . . . like trees" (Mark 8:24). I got the message. I was seeing Calvin like a tree, an obstacle in my path. He was blocking my goal! Oh no he wasnt. I was. I am the only person on planet Earth who can keep me from being the person God created me to be. God used that man more than any other man to make me the pastor God wanted me to be.

Then Jesus touched the blind man again and he began to see people as people, not trees. "Lord, I dont love that man, but I know you do and I want to. I need a second touch from You." God did touch me, and I chose at that moment to forgive Calvin completely.

The next Sunday I went to church, not to resign, but to preach. My voice was still so husky that I almost couldnt speak. I croaked out a message from Mark 8:22-26 about our tendency to be independent in the face of our great need for God and for each other. I confessed to the congregation my own independence and my desire for the Lord to touch me, to help me see people as people and not as obstacles in my path. I explained that there are three kinds of people. Some are blind and need to be led to Jesus. Others see people like trees. They scratch one another or compare their leaves with one another. But we are not trees. We are children of God who are created in His image. Finally, there are those who have been touched by God and consequently see others for who they really are.

At the end of the sermon, I invited anyone who needed a touch from the Lord to join me at the altar. We sang a hymn and people streamed forward. Soon the altar area and the aisles in the front were packed with people. They were going across the aisles to ask forgiveness and to be forgiven. We opened the side doors and people spilled out onto the lawn. Eventually, all but a few people had come forward. It was a revival!

Would you care to guess who was one of the few who did not go forward? To my knowledge Calvin never changed, but I did. I continued to take a stand against what I believed was wrong because I was not about to tolerate sin. I no longer responded in bitterness though. I also learned a hard lesson in life. God is fully capable of cleaning His own fish. My responsibility is to catch them and love them the way Christ loves me. I thank God to this day that God put me flat on my back to make me the pastor He wanted me to be.

Bitterness vs. Forgiveness

We need to forgive others in order to be free from our pasts and to prevent Satan from taking advantage of us (see 2 Cor. 2:10, 11). We are to be merciful just as our heavenly Father is merciful (see Luke 6:36). We are to forgive as we have been forgiven (see Ephes. 4:31, 32). Ask God to bring to mind the names of those people you need to forgive by expressing the following prayer aloud:

Dear Heavenly Father,

I thank You for the riches of Your kindness, forbearance and patience, knowing that Your kindness has led me to repentance (see Romans 2:4). I confess that I have not extended that same patience and kindness toward others who have offended me, but instead I have harbored bitterness and resentment. I pray that during this time of self-examination You would bring to my mind those people that I need to forgive in order that I may do so (see Matthew 18:35). I ask this in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.

As names come to mind, list them on a separate sheet of paper. At the end of your list, write "myself." Forgiving yourself is accepting Gods cleansing and forgiveness. Also, write "thoughts against God." Thoughts raised up against the knowledge of God will usually result in angry feelings toward Him. Technically, we dont forgive God because He cannot commit any sin of commission or omission. But we do need to specifically renounce false expectations and thoughts about God and agree to release any anger we have toward Him.

Before you pray to forgive these people, stop and consider what forgiveness is, what it is not, what decision you will be making and what the consequences will be. In the following explanation, the main points are in bold print:

Forgiveness is not forgetting. People who try to forget find they cannot. God says He will remember our sins no more (see Hebrews 10:17), but God, being omniscient, cannot forget. Remember our sins no more means that God will never use the past against us (see Psalm 103:12). Forgetting may be the result of forgiveness, but it is never the means of forgiveness. When we bring up the past against others, we are saying we havent forgiven them.

Forgiveness is a choice, a crisis of the will. Since God requires us to forgive, it is something we can do. However, forgiveness is difficult for us because it pulls against our concept of justice. We want revenge for offenses suffered. However, we are told never to take our own revenge (see Romans 12:19). You say, "Why should I let them off the hook?" That is precisely the problem. You are still hooked to them, still bound by your past. You will let them off your hook, but they are never off Gods. He will deal with them fairlysomething we cannot do.

You say, "You dont understand how much this person hurt me!" But dont you see, they are still hurting you! How do you stop the pain? You dont forgive someone for their sake; you do it for your own sake so you can be free. Your need to forgive isnt an issue between you and the offender; its between you and God.

Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another persons sin. Forgiveness is costly. You pay the price of the evil you forgive. Youre going to live with those consequences whether you want to or not; your only choice is whether you will do so in the bitterness of unforgiveness or the freedom of forgiveness. Jesus took the consequences of your sin upon Himself. All true forgiveness is substitutionary because no one really forgives without bearing the consequences of the other persons sin. God the Father "made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21, NASB). Where is the justice? Its the cross that makes forgiveness legally and morally right: "For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all" (Romans 6:10, NASB).

Decide that you will bear the burdens of their offenses by not using that information against them in the future. This doesnt mean that you tolerate sin. You must set up scriptural boundaries to prevent future abuse. Some may be required to testify for the sake of justice but not for the purpose of seeking revenge from a bitter heart.

How do you forgive from your heart? You acknowledge the hurt and the hate. If your forgiveness doesnt visit the emotional core of your life, it will be incomplete. Many feel the pain of interpersonal offenses, but they wont or dont know how to acknowledge it. Let God bring the pain to the surface so He can deal with it. This is where the healing takes place.

Dont wait to forgive until you feel like forgiving; you will never get there. Feelings take time to heal after the choice to forgive is made and Satan has lost his place (see Ephes. 4:26, 27). Freedom is what will be gained, not a feeling.

As you pray, God may bring to mind offending people and experiences you have totally forgotten. Let Him do it even if it is painful. Remember, you are doing this for your sake. God wants you to be free. Dont rationalize or explain the offenders behavior. Forgiveness is dealing with your pain and leaving the other person to God. Positive feelings will follow in time; freeing you from the past is the critical issue right now.

Dont say, "Lord, please help me to forgive" because He is already helping you. Dont say, "Lord, I want to forgive," because you are bypassing the hard-core choice to forgive which is your responsibility. Focus on each individual until you are sure you have dealt with all the remembered painwhat they did, how they hurt you, how they made you feel: rejected, unloved, unworthy, dirty, etc.

You are now ready to forgive the people on your list so you can be free in Christ, with those people no longer having any control over you. For each person on your list, pray aloud:

Lord, I forgive (name the person) for (verbally share every hurt and pain the Lord brings to your mind and how it made you feel).

After you have forgiven every person for every painful memory, then finish this step by praying:

Lord, I release all these people to You, and I release my right to seek revenge. I choose not to hold on to my bitterness and anger, and I ask You to heal my damaged emotions. In Jesus name, I pray. Amen.