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Forgiveness and Unforgiveness

Forgiveness is a difficult subject because it affects all of us to some degree of other and, often, it's not easy to do.

What's the point of forgiveness? Why Should We Forgive?

When we've been hurt, we sometimes feel it deeply - very deeply indeed. It may be a physical hurt from a trauma or an illness; it may be the trauma of emotional pain that follows a loss. Wherever it comes from, it's very real to us on the inside.

Pain is one of the things that makes us alive, rather than an inanimate object.

What actually is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is letting go of a wrong against us; of our anger, of our need for revenge, of our negative thoughts; letting go of bitterness, resentment and maybe hatred. If God can forgive us as repentant sinners, then we need to forgive others. And they don't have to apologise first - I'll come to that later on.

Why is it that we refuse to forgive, cannot forgive?

Is it our own stubborn pride that gets in the way?

Are we controlling those who hurt us by punishing them?

Are we trying to manipulate others through unforgiveness?

You may have heard people say, "I'll never forgive them for that"

A few years ago, I used to go on regular short retreats to a certain Christian centre (an abbey). On one occasion, I met another visitor who was also there for a few days' retreat.

It turned out that he had been travelling from one monastery to another for many months, relying on the Benedictine principle of hospitality to strangers; he had travelled all over the country and some parts of Europe.

Some time before, many months back, he had suffered what we would call an "industrial injury" when working for one of the railway companies. He could no longer work at that kind of job any more. They paid compensation; they paid for his considerable medical treatment, but they would not apologise, they would not admit liability. And this had made him so angry that it had burdened him ever since it happened. It just went over and over in his mind, and he couldn't let it go.

He had a faith - that's why he was on retreat; but he was getting nowhere with his problem.

He shared his story with me over a couple of days, and I prayed as I listened. On day three, he said to me, out of the blue, "It isn't right, is it?" - all this travelling from one place of refuge to another. I paused a moment, and quietly said, "No."

We discussed a few scriptures on forgiveness, and then he agreed to pray. I led him through a prayer of forgiveness, and he was able to release the burden of the past. I could almost see the weight lifting off his mind as he released it all to the Lord.

The next day he seemed a whole lot better, and said he was going back home, up north somewhere; and off he went. He seemed to be walking taller as he went -- he had a spring in his step!

Praise God!

Why do we need to forgive?

Jesus asks us to forgive those who have hurt us, not just for their sake, but for ourselves.

Friends, "Life is more tragic than orderly" -- Oswald Chambers.

As we know, stuff happens in life. We go through good times and bad times. We cannot escape it - these things just happen. Sometimes it is by accident, or by an event of nature, and sometimes because of the thoughtless or deliberate actions of another.

Even the best and kindest people we can think of, have bad things happen to them. But one thing that makes them different from other people is their ability to forgive. Forgiving is a way to let go of the past.

We forgive because we have been forgiven by God.

Who are we not to forgive, if he forgives us?

Unforgiveness hurts us

When we do not forgive someone, we hold onto the bad experience, to the pain, to the trauma. We also react to these things with negative feelings of anger, hatred, resentment, a secret desire for revenge, refusing to speak to them, and so on.

This can cause fear, depression, frustration, anxiety, self-hatred, and loneliness. It's quite a catalogue of problems, isn't it?

Any of these can become a barrier between us and God. It can cut us off from God's forgiveness; it can stifle our prayers, it can destroy our peace of mind.

It's self-destructive, as we cling to our self- righteousness and the knife that stabs us.

Those who caused the harm may not even realise that they've upset us. Or they may have thought it trivial and forgotten it long ago; but the pain still gnaws at our soul. If we continue not to forgive, it hurts US. That's why Jesus told us so many times, FORGIVE, FORGIVE, FORGIVE! He said it because he loves us, and he knows that it's BAD for us to cling to the wrongs of the past.

Friends, the chains of unforgiveness BIND US in body, soul and spirit.

Jesus LONGS to set us free, but if we don't let go and forgive, then he can't.

Why is it good for us to forgive?

When we forgive, it brings peace and restoration. It's like cutting the chains that bind us and setting ourselves free.

Did Jesus forgive?

When Jesus was being nailed to the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.' (NIV Bible, Luke chapter 23 vs 34).

They really had no idea of the enormity of what they were doing, as they had no idea who Jesus was.

Even for Jesus, unforgiveness was a sin; so he forgave them.  They didn’t have to apologise first.

What happens to us if we don't forgive? What is the effect on us?

There are Spiritual Consequences

In Matthew ch 6 vs 14-15, Jesus said, “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.”

So there are eternal consequences for our immortal souls, if we don't forgive.

There are other effects that we come across.


There can be emotional, physical and spiritual bondages caused by unforgiveness. For example, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, and there was a woman who was "crippled by a  spirit", the Bible says, "crippled by a  spirit for 18 years".   And she was bent over, and couldn't straighten up. Jesus called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." He put his hands on her, and she straightened up. You know, after 18 years, this must have been "Wow!" - quite amazing. And the synagogue ruler - up on his high horse of course - said to the people, "There are 6 days for work, so come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath." But Jesus said to them, "You hypocrites! Don't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey and lead it out to water? Then shouldn't this woman ... whom Satan has kept bound for 18 years, be set free on the Sabbath from what has bound her?"

So there are spiritual bondages that can cause physical problems in our health.

Foothold for evil spirits

Another aspect is a foothold for evil spirits. Unforgiveness is a sin, so when there is a sin like that which continues, then it becomes a foothold for evil spirits to come and affect us - infest us, if you like. If you remember, in the story of the paralysed man, lying on the ground, Jesus said to him, "Son, your sins are forgiven. Take up your mat and go home. And he did."

Forgiveness of sin released him from his paralysis.  

Mental Burdens

Ask any Christian Healing Centre, and they'll tell you about the connection between mental problems, mental health, and sin, unforgiveness and so on.

Health Problems

Unforgiveness causes a lot of stress and a lot of health problems.

A few years ago, I met an elderly, blind woman in church - a lovely lady - but her husband was not a Christian, so she invited us round to meet him - two of us went to their home. He was in a wheelchair, unable to walk. He was full of anger because his wife had had an affair 20 years ago. That's a long time.

She had repented, apologised, asked for forgiveness, but stubbornly he had refused to let it go, and was always giving her a really hard time and this was a real concern to the church. And he'd been making her life a misery for years.

So we listened to him; we talked for a while about forgiveness and God, and about our own responsibility to forgive, because God deals with the injustices in life: it's not down to us.

Eventually we led him to a prayer of commitment, and he gave his life to Christ. We prayed and chatted a bit more and left. Unfortunately it didn't last, and by the next day it had gone, and he gave her hell again. Ah well, we sowed some seeds of a thought.

But I am convinced that his anger and his unforgiveness had put him in that wheelchair.

One Christian minister wrote about unforgiveness:

I read a true story written by a church minister, who wrote this.

"When I was first ordained a priest, I believed that over 50 percent of all problems were at least in part due to unforgiveness.

After ten years in ministry, I revised my estimate and maintained 75 to 80 percent of all health, marital, family, and financial problems came from unforgiveness.

Now, after more than twenty years in ministry, I have concluded that over 90 percent of all these problems are rooted in unforgiveness."

"90 percent of all health, marital, family, and financial problems came from unforgiveness."

In case you're not sure about this, a little research on the internet backs it up. I found nearly 4,000 research articles (in a separate category in Google) on Unforgiveness and Health Problems. These reported on the physical, mental and emotional problems caused by unforgiveness.

This graph shows you the number of papers published each year:

About 500 papers were published in 2011, each of them researching this very subject. Look at the growth of interest! More and more researchers are looking into the connection and its importance.

So it seems the researchers reckon that forgiveness is a good idea.

Funny, that – it's been in the Bible for 2,000 years or more… Now I maintain that science can only discover what God has put in place. Yet they keep hammering away at their research trying to find the answer. (... Er ... 'scuse me? ... Have you got a Bible? ... Tried reading it?)

Forgiving yourself

Sometimes, something goes wrong in our lives, and we cause harm to someone else. We can see the result of what we did, and we see it as so terrible that we say to ourselves, "I'll never forgive myself".

These very words can bring a curse upon us, they can bind us for years, maybe to the end of our lives. It becomes a foothold for Satan: and we don't want that, do we?

How can we get out of this trap?

One thing is to apologise to the other party and ask their forgiveness. Whether they accept it or not, we have done the Godly thing.

Next we repent to God and ask him to forgive us. And as we know, if we ask God to forgive us, by our faith in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross, God promises to forgive us.

It's in the Bible.

Psalm 103 vs 12 says, "as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us".

Isaiah chapter 1 vs 18 says, "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall as white as wool."

Jesus even asked his Father to forgive those who were nailing him to the cross. If God can forgive that terrible sin, can he not forgive us, if we repent?

Isaiah chapter 43 vs 25 says, "I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more."

So if God has forgiven us, and has chosen to remember our sins no more, then it's washed away, the slate is wiped clean. Therefore, how can we not forgive ourselves if there's nothing left to forgive? Do we know better than God? - of course not! It's dealt with. So take a deep breath, thank God for his forgiveness, and then tell Him that you now forgive yourself. It might be a struggle: ask Him to help you, by all means, but do it. Keep hammering away at it until it has gone.

Once it has gone, it’s dead; it’s dealt with. So don’t keep digging it up, don’t keep revisiting it. This just gives Satan a foothold - he loves stirring it up: we need to move on. It's gone; finished!

When "old nick" has a go, when he whispers in your ear, flick him off your shoulder and tell him to get lost. The Bible says, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you." (James ch 4 vs 7.)

A story from the Amish

The Amish are members of an Anabaptist Christian denomination, which is especially known for its separation from society, for living in isolated Amish communities, for the rejection of most modern technology, and for their distinctly conservative dress. Their way of life differentiates them from other Christian denominations.

The story goes like this, form one of their members.

"We grow up hearing about how important it is to forgive others but no one really takes the time to explain why…we just must.  I remember watching a show about the Amish one time and someone had killed one of their members. When someone asked them how they could forgive the one that did it, one man looked up and said something to the effect of Forgiveness is for the one that was hurt more than the one that did the hurting. If a person harms someone…if they need forgiveness…they will ask for it. But, our hearts can never heal until we forgive them and let go of it.

"I thought a lot about that. I was always told that I was too forgiving but I don’t think so. I think it was my way of just embracing life and not letting the ugly things pull me down. Everyone that knew me has always said what a happy and contented person I was and I believe it is because I choose not to carry negative baggage around with me. Forgiving is a powerful thing to do for one’s self.

"See, many people think that in order to forgive someone, the person who did them harm must be sorry and must tell them. The truth of the matter is they may never tell you they are sorry and they may never think they were wrong. So, if you can forgive them … you can move on with your life. It does not matter what they do: it matters what you do.

"I have heard people say “I will never forgive them!”.  Well, "never" is a mighty long time to be carrying such negative energy. I learned (old wisdom here) that many people don’t care if you forgive them or not, many love to hurt and don’t want to be forgiven….so how much of your life are you going to let them have?  When they hurt you…they took part of your life. As long as you carry the resentment, anger and hurt around…you are letting them take even more of your life. But, if you forgive them, the burden is lifted off you. Our lives are our choice and how we react to what others do…is our choice. Each moment we carry those negative emotions inside us are moments we can never regain and moments we have let the one that hurt us take away from us."

Sometimes it's hard to forgive, isn't it?

  •  Think about how much God has forgiven us, over the years.
  • Forgiveness is not something we do for other people. We do it for ourselves, so we can get well and move on.
  • Forgiveness is for the one that was hurt more than the one that did the hurting. If a person harms someone…if they need forgiveness…they will ask for it. But, our hearts can never heal until we forgive them and let go of it.
  • Scenario: Suppose you had been hurt in a car accident 20 years ago; the other person may not even have noticed the bump; or had forgotten all about it; or may not still be alive. But if it still binds us up, we're the one who is hurting, not the other person. Our hearts can never heal properly until we forgive them and let go of it.

Forgiving somebody is an act of will

It's not to do with our feelings. Our feelings may feel really terrible about it, but we need to decide to forgive. We may need to struggle with God over it; "Lord, I don't want to do this, but please, I forgive them as far as I can. Please help me to forgive more." And we may need to come back to it from time to time, and forgive a bit deeper still. Keep hammering away at it until it's gone.

There is a saying in Christian healing circles, "We can only be healed by forgiving as deeply as we have been hurt." 

They weren't born that way

It may help to remember that people are affected by their upbringing. Some of them go really bad. But remember, they weren't born that way; something happened in their lives to make them like they are. They can't help the way they turned out. There's inherited stuff; the way they were brought up...

We're all broken people. Every single one of us is broken in some way or other - we aren't perfect - so we need to lean on Jesus while he puts us back together. Some people don't have Jesus, which is worse for them; because only Jesus can change their lives.

How to pray

Here's a suggested prayer. Try to pray this from your heart.

"Holy Spirit, please come, in the name of Jesus. Holy Spirit, please touch my heart and bring to mind those things that you want me to deal with right now.

Lord, unlock those doors inside me, and bring to the surface those things that you want me to deal with by forgiving.

Father God, I give that person who hurt me, to you."

Imagine you're walking beside that person, into a church. You go in through the doors, and up the main isle towards the altar. And at the altar you can see Jesus waiting for you both, with kindness on his face. And you walk up until you're standing in front of Jesus; and you take the other person's hand and you put it into the hand of Jesus, and say "Lord Jesus, I forgive this person, and give him/her into your hands. I'm sorry for holding this against him/her for all this time. Please forgive me. I forgive him/her; I choose to forgive. Please help me to forgive as deeply as he/she has hurt me. Lord please help me to do this, and to mean it. It is my decision, my act of will. I forgive, I let go.

Please wash away the hurt of that event, maybe many events over the years. I release him/her from me and give him/her into your hands, Lord Jesus.
You will deal with what needs dealing with. But I choose to set myself free, in your sight. Holy Spirit, please come and wash us clean, each one of us. Help me us to release those resentments, or own negative attitudes.

For my part, I say sorry for anything I have done or said to upset that other person. And Lord please set me free, and wash away any trace of that sin of unforgiveness. Take away any foothold that the devil might have been using in me; and cast out any of those evil spirits that have been hanging around and stirring up trouble. Wash me clean Lord.


What does the Bible say about Forgiveness? (New International Version)

Here are a few examples.

Psalm 103:11-13

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.

Colossians 3:13

Paul wrote, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you.”

Matthew 18:21-22

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Matthew 5:7

Jesus spoke about forgiveness in terms of mercy: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

Mark 3:29

Jesus said, “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”

Matthew 5:23-24

Jesus said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Mark 11:25-26

Jesus said, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Luke 6:27-29

Jesus said, "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.”

Luke 6:36-37

Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Lena: Luke 7:36-50

(Woman in Pharisee's house; poured ointment on him. Much has been forgiven.)

Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is— that she is a sinner.”

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you”. “Tell me, teacher”, he said.

“Two men owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned towards the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven— for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little, loves little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, Who is this who even forgives sins? Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

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