A very experienced Christian counselor once told me that he thought that 80 to 90 percent of the problems people face are the result of their unwillingness to forgive others. The reason he believed that — and why I agree with him — is that when you withhold your forgiveness, you very nearly cut yourself off from God’s grace and make it extremely difficult for Him to help you with all the other challenges you have in life, whether they’re emotional, relational, marital, financial, or psychological. Cutting yourself off from God’s grace is like cutting the anchor line from your boat when you’re in the middle of a stormy sea. It’s dangerous. And that’s why you really have to think twice before you withhold your forgiveness from anyone.
There’s an awful lot of confusion surrounding this topic. Many people have a mistaken notion of what forgiveness means. Forgiveness does not mean that you give up your right to self-defense. Everyone has the right to protect themselves from harm, from abuse, from lies. If you’re in some kind of abusive relationship, God doesn’t expect you to stay in it. He expects you to change it or leave it. Never forget that you have an immortal soul made in the image and likeness of God. You have more value than all the stars and planets put together. You should never be a doormat or a punching bag for anyone.
Forgiveness also doesn’t have anything to do with good feelings. It’s simply impossible for human beings to have full control over their emotions. If someone hurts you badly, God doesn’t expect you to feel all warm and fuzzy toward that person. When someone does something wicked, it deserves condemnation. Forgiving someone doesn’t ever mean calling evil good. That’s a lie. And the father of lies is the devil — not God.
The fact is that forgiveness doesn’t reside in the emotions at all but rather in the will. If you had to calmly decide the destiny of the person who harmed you, what choice would you make? It’s perfectly okay to want bad people to be brought to justice on earth if they’ve done something wrong. But what you can’t ever do is wish evil upon them. You can’t hope that they get a disease or go to Hell. That’s up to God — not you.
Forgiveness basically means that even if you have negative feelings toward certain people, you still wish them well; in fact, you still wish them the greatest possible good, which is Heaven. It means that even if you’re revolted by the thought of those people, and even if you’ve legitimately chosen never to associate with them again, you still hope that they embrace God, that they’re sorry for their sins, and that they ultimately receive salvation. Christ spelled it out very clearly when He said that we have to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” (see Matt. 5:44). Praying is really the acid test when it comes to forgiveness. It’s the bare minimum we have to do for those who have hurt us.
Now, how do you pray for people who have hurt you — maybe even hurt you badly? In some cases, it can be so extraordinarily difficult that the only thing to do is pray that God helps you to forgive them; that God gives you the strength and confidence to relinquish your pain and trust in His justice.
If you can’t do even that, then your hatred has gone so far that it really has separated you from God. Is that something you really want to allow them to do? Think about it — someone wrongs you, and on top of the original crime, the person also causes a rift between you and God. Now you’re letting that person harm you even more! That’s something you simply can’t permit. You can’t give anyone — especially your enemies — the power to interfere with the most important thing in your life: your relationship with the Lord.
Did you know that you can’t even pray the Our Father if you’re unwilling to forgive others? Think about what that prayer says: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When you say those words, you’re basically asking God to forgive you in the exact same way that you forgive other people. So if you can’t forgive your mother-in-law because she’s done something bad to you, then you can’t expect God to forgive you either. He’s going to treat you the same way you treat others. In fact, when you pray the Our Father in an unforgiving state of mind, you’re actually asking God not to forgive you!
And guess what? He won’t!
There’s a parable in the Gospels that illustrates this point perfectly (Matt. 18:23–35). It’s about a servant who owes his master a tremendous amount of money — the Bible says “ten thousand bags of gold” (Matt. 18:24, NIV), but in today’s currency it would probably be something like nine million dollars. The master demands payment, but the servant begs him to give him more time. The master—a merciful man—forgives him the entire debt. Naturally the man is overjoyed, but on his way out of the master’s house, he happens to run into a fellow servant, who owes him one hundred silver coins — in today’s money, a mere fifteen dollars. The man grabs his fellow servant by the neck and demands to be paid what he’s owed. The servant begs him to be patient, but the man instead throws the servant into prison until he can repay the debt.
Now, when the friends of the servant hear about this, they go to the master and tell him what happened. The master, seeing how unmerciful his servant has been, unleashes all his fury on him: “You wicked servant,” he says. “I cancelled that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?” And in his anger, he hands the man over to the jailers to be tortured.
So what does this story mean? Obviously, it’s about us! We’re the ones who owe our Master, God, a tremendous debt — in fact, an infinite debt. God gave us our very lives. We can’t ever pay Him back for that. And instead of being grateful, how do we act? We disobey Him all the time! And yet, whenever we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness, God grants it. He not only welcomes us back with open arms, but He offers us eternal life in Heaven. In other words, God gives us everything and forgives us everything.
Meanwhile, when our “fellow servants” sin against us, what do we do? We throw the book at them! We refuse to forgive them. We put a big X on them. Sometimes we even wish them cancer and everlasting damnation. “To Hell with them,” we say. Don’t you see? We’re the wicked, unmerciful servants in the parable. We’re the ones who have been forgiven a nine-million-dollar debt and then refuse to forgive the measly fifteen dollars that’s owed to us!
Well, how do you think God is going to treat us for acting this way? In the Gospel story, the master hands the man over to the torturers. That sounds pretty harsh. But in truth, that’s exactly what happens to us when we become hardened by unforgiveness. We cut ourselves off from God and His graces. Essentially, we hand ourselves over to torturers of a different kind—torturers of fear and loneliness and alienation and anxiety and depression. When we purposely separate ourselves from God, that’s the kind of life we’re doomed to live, irrespective of how much money we make or how much success we achieve.
Once and for all, we’re called to forgive everyone who sins against us, every time they sin against us. We’re called to forgive all sins — even the most painful ones. We’re called to forgive people even if they never ask us for forgiveness, even if they’re not sorry, and even if they keep sinning against us. We’re called to be perfect in our forgiveness.
So why not try being perfect for a change? Why not wipe the slate totally clean? Why not unload all the baggage of unforgiven sins that you’ve accumulated over the years? Why not make a decision here and now to forgive everyone who has ever hurt you?
Once you do that, I guarantee you’ll be surprised by the burden of weight that’s lifted from your shoulders.
Editor’s note: this article is the third of a five-part series. It is adapted from a chapter in Anthony’s forthcoming book 30 Days to Your New Life, available for pre-order at Sophia Institute Press. The book will be released June 20, 2023.