[Note: This lesson is adapted from Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004). For more information, see Peacemaker® Ministries (https://pm.training).]
Raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled to forgive someone. What are some strategies you’ve tried in order to help yourself forgive?
For the rest of our time together this morning, we’re going to talk about what to do if you’re struggling to forgive. But first, let’s ask for God’s help in prayer.
What to do if you’re struggling to forgive:
- Confirm Repentance.
It can be difficult to forgive someone who hasn’t confessed his or sins very clearly or specifically. Sande gives this example. He talks about a time in which he sinned against his wife by criticizing her in front of a group of people. Later on, when the two of them were alone, she brought it up to him, and he quickly replied, “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have done that. Will you forgive me?” She said “yes,” but over the next couple of hours, she struggled with a lack of forgiveness.
So here’s what she did. She went back to him and said, “Honey, I know I said, ‘I forgive you,’ but I’m still struggling with this. Could we talk about it some more? I don’t think you realize how deeply you hurt me.” He said, “Sure,” and once they were done talking, he finally got it. He really felt bad about what he had done, he apologized sincerely, and he promised to be more sensitive in the future. That freed up his wife not only to vocalize the words, “I forgive you,” but to truly move on.
All that to say that if you are struggling to forgive, one possible reason might be that you feel the other person’s confession was flippant or insincere, and one possible solution would be to go back to that person and continue the discussion. Are there any questions or comments about that?
- Renounce Sinful Attitudes or Expectations.
Sometimes people have very unbiblical attitudes and expectations when it comes to forgiveness. They may think that the other person needs to earn their forgiveness. But that completely contradicts the way God forgives us! “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” So God’s forgiveness of us is a free gift! And you may remember that one of the two Greek words for “forgiveness” means “to bestow freely,” as a gift. So it is unbiblical to demand that the other person earn your forgiveness.
It is also unbiblical to expect some kind of guarantee that the offense will never happen again. Like we said a couple weeks ago, forgiveness is not based on guarantees, otherwise Jesus’ instruction to forgive someone 490 times would make no sense! If you’re waiting for some kind of guarantee that the offense will never happen again before you forgive from your heart, you are going to struggle with forgiveness, because that is not a biblical expectation!
Another unbiblical attitude people have toward forgiveness is a desire to make the other person pay. Again, as we said, forgiveness means you cancel the debt! You cannot say, “I forgive you,” and then think to yourself, “But I’m still going to make your life miserable.” Those two ideas are incompatible. And if you’re trying to force them together, it’s no wonder you’re struggling to forgive, because what you’re trying to do is impossible! You’ve got to let go of the grudge.
- Reassess Your Contribution to the Problem.
If I focus solely on the other person’s sins and fail to remember my own contribution to the problem, I am going to find it harder to forgive. For instance, if all I think about all day is, “I can’t believe my boss called me out in front of everyone and made fun of me. That was totally unprofessional; and what’s more, some of the things he said weren’t even true!” then my boss’s sins are going to seem like a mountain. But if I have the humility to say to myself, “Ya, but I did show up thirty-five minutes late. And I have been late several times before. And he has warned me about it. I guess I can understand why he was angry,” then I’m going to find it much easier to forgive him.
- Remember that God is Working for Good.
One of the most incredible stories for forgiveness in the Bible is the story of Joseph, and one of the greatest insights from that story is found in Genesis 50:20: “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”
One of things that helped Joseph to forgive his brothers was his unshakeable faith in God’s sovereignty. Do you see that? It’s actually difficult for you to withhold forgiveness when you really believe that God is using even the bad things in your life to bring about good for you and for others!
If some scam artist tries to take advantage of you by selling you a looser stock, and yet by some freak coincidence, that stock takes off and you make a fortune, it’s going to be hard for you to be angry! And yet, if you’re a Christian, that is exactly the kind of thing that’s happening over and over again in your life! Except it’s no freak accident. It’s the eternal plan of a sovereign, good, and wise Heavenly Father.
So the more you meditate on God’s sovereign goodness, the easier it will be to forgive.
- Remember God’s Forgiveness.
One of the best things you can possibly do if your struggling to forgive is to take some time to think about God’s forgiveness. That’s why Jesus told a story that highlighted the Father’s forgiveness when Peter asked Him how many times he had to forgive.
Meditate on God’s holiness. Isaiah 6:3 says that the angels around His throne cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory.” You have not just sinned against just anyone; you have sinned against the one-and-only holy, all-glorious creator God of the universe!
Write down the ways that you’ve sinned against Him! (You’ll be writing for a very long time.) Have you sinned against God in the same way that person sinned against you? It’s very likely that you have! How can you be so angry at that other person and just give yourself a pass?
Then, take some time to meditate on Psalm 103:12: “As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” The best way to gain victory over unforgiveness is to meditate on the gospel.
- Draw on God’s Strength.
One of Pastor Bryan’s favorite verses was Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Christian athletes love to claim that verse, but unfortunately for them, I don’t think Paul’s talking about scoring the winning touchdown. What’s he talking about? He’s talking about doing what’s right, even when it’s really, really hard. You can forgive through Christ who strengthens you.
So draw on His strength! Go to Him in prayer. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” I can guarantee you, if you pray, “Lord, help me to forgive so-and-so,” it is God’s will to answer that prayer! So pray boldly! And then step out in faith and obedience.
Sande includes a powerful story about God’s power to answer prayer and help us to forgive sin. He says this, “God’s grace was powerfully displayed in the life of Corrie ten Boom, who had been imprisoned with her family by the Nazis for giving aid to the Jews early in World War II. Her elderly father and beloved sister, Betsie, died as a result of the brutal treatment they received in prison. God sustained Corrie through her time in a concentration camp, and after the war she traveled throughout the world, testifying to God’s love. Her is what she wrote about a remarkable encounter in Germany.”
Now these are the words of Corrie ten Boom. “It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there–the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.” [If you know anything about PTSD and flashbacks, that’s what was going on here.]
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, he has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendall about the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? “Lord Jesus, I prayed, “forgive me and help me to forgive him.”
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. “Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
So I discovered [she concluded] that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on him. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
Can you imagine? That story makes our struggles to forgive seem pretty puny, doesn’t it? The God who enabled Corrie ten Boom to forgive her captors can also enable you. The question is, will you obey? Will, you, like Corrie, stretch out your hand in obedience to His revealed will, even when everything inside of you is screaming, “No! No! No!”
That’s actually a great Segway into our next section, which has to do with the replacement principle. If you’re going to succeed at forgiving those who’ve sinned against you, you will have to replace sinful thoughts, words, and actions with biblical ones.
Turn with me to Luke 6:27-28. These verses are about loving your enemies. Hopefully, the people you are struggling to forgive are not enemies anymore–you’ve already technically been reconciled–but there’s a principle here that still applies (Luke 6:27-28).
Notice that Jesus didn’t just say, “Don’t hate your enemies.” He said what? (“Love your enemies.”) He didn’t just say, “Don’t say unkind things to them.” What did He say? (“Bless them.”) He didn’t just say, “Don’t treat them badly.” What did He say? (“Do good to them.”)
So we have here the replacement principle. Have you ever found it’s very hard to just stop a sinful behavior? You have to replace it with a new, Christlike behavior. And we’ve got to do this in the realm of our thinking, our words, and our actions.
Let’s talk first about replacing sinful thoughts. What are you going to do when you’re tempted to think ugly thoughts about the other person?
We’ve got to replace those ugly thoughts with kind and generous thoughts. One of the best ways to do this is by praying. And there are two ways that you can pray. Number one, you can ask God to bless that person. And number 2, you can thank God for specific manifestations of His grace in that person’s life.
This is the way that Paul prayed for the churches. The church at Corinth? You think he didn’t have reason to be angry and bitter against them? How did he guard his heart against that? One of the ways he seems to have done it is through prayer.
Let me also say this: it is especially important that you practice the replacement principle in the realm of your thinking, because your thoughts naturally flow over into your words and your actions.
I often think of the military strategy of George W. Bush when it comes to fighting sin in my thought life. (I don’t know what you think of George W. Bush, but I’ve found this illustration helpful.) Do you remember the justification that the Bush administration gave for going after terrorists abroad? They said, “If we take the battle to them, they’ll be forced to invest themselves fighting over there, and their capacity to attack us will be depleted.” In other words, it was kind of like, “The best defense is a good offense.” I’ve often thought about that logic in relation to fighting sin in my mind. I’ve thought that if I will aggressively attack sinful thoughts, I won’t have to deal with nearly as many sinful words or actions. And that’s biblical, because Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
So when it comes to forgiving in your heart, it is crucial that you replace unkind thoughts with kind thoughts, with loving thoughts, and specifically, with prayers of thankfulness and petition for the other person’s well-being and spiritual growth.
What are you going to do when you’re tempted to say something unkind? Sometimes, you may just need to bite your lip! As the old adage goes, “If you can’t find something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
But as we’ve just seen, it can’t stop there! You’ve got to replace unkindness with words that minister grace. This may be even more important for the other person than it is for you! If someone sins against you and has to come as for forgiveness, that can be embarrassing! It can be awkward! So at the same time that you are struggling with lack of forgiveness, they may be struggling with embarrassment or guilt. And their guilt and embarrassment… coupled with your lack of forgiveness… can be like a wedge that comes between the two of you and keeps you from completely restoring the relationship. So it’s very important that you reaffirm your love for that other person.
This is exactly how Paul counseled the church in Corinth in 2 Corinthians 2. There was a man who had been disciplined out of the church, but then he repented and was restored, and Paul said, “Make sure that you reaffirm your love for him”–verbally– build him up with encouraging words, truthful compliments, lest he be overwhelmed with too much sorrow.
So make sure you replace sinful words with encouraging words.
Finally, replace sinful actions.
C.S. Lewis said, “Don’t waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.”
Do you agree with that statement?
I’ll give you a brief response to C.S. Lewis. That’s all we have time for. This philosophy is not uncommon. Some people say, “Right feelings follow right actions,” or “Fake it till you make it.” Do I agree with that? Yes and no. On the one hand, the fruit of the Spirit includes what we would have to call emotions (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.). So when I am walking in the Spirit, there should be an inside-out dynamic to my Christian living. And if I’m giving in to the flesh (perhaps walking in pride or refusing to repent of some specific sin) and still trying to work up things like love, joy, and peace, “fake it till you make it will never work.”
However, even though there should be an inside out dynamic to your Christian life, the Bible NEVER gives the impression that following God will be easy. Galatians 5 says there is this constant battle between the flesh and the Spirit. So many times, you will have to do things you don’t want to do. I’m sure Abraham didn’t feel like sacrificing Isaac, and Jesus didn’t feel like going to the cross.
When we do what’s right regardless of how we feel, that’s a profound expression of faith. And God often blesses that faith with more grace so that we begin to desire His will, and our feelings change.
So there are two different dynamics taking place in the Christian life. There’s the inside-out dynamic in which the fruit of the Spirit gushes from a heart that’s humble and surrendered to God… and then there is the faith and obedience dynamic, in which sometimes, you just have to ignore your emotions and do what’s right. But BOTH sides are biblical and BOTH are VERY IMPORTANT. If we leave out one side or the other, our Christian lives will go hey-wire.
That was all sort of an aside; the point is, if you’re struggling to forgive, part of the answer is to ignore your emotions and just do what’s right. Be kind to the person (bake them some cookies, invite them over to your house, write them a note), and trust God to change your feelings.
Sande gives the example of being grumpy with his wife because she had sent him to the store to buy groceries. As he was walking down the coffee aisle, a particular blend that he knew his wife loved caught his eye and he said to himself, “If Corlette hadn’t been so unkind to me today, I’d buy her that coffee.” Then he realized what he’d just said and started to feel guilty. He told himself he’d pick it up, “just to check the price.” And kind of like the story of Corrie ten Boom, he said when his hand touched the coffee, something magical happened. His heart melted with love for his wife. He was choosing to be kind, even when he didn’t feel like it, and right emotions followed.
We’ve spent four weeks on forgiveness now, and I hope God has touched your heart, because this topic is so important!
Recently I read an incredible book about an American POW survivor from WW2. He faced unspeakable atrocities at the hands of the Japanese. In two of the camps he was sent to, he became the personal target of one of the most notorious war criminals of WW2. And he came back a broken man. He was angry, he was vengeful, he was an alcoholic, he had PTSD, he couldn’t hold down a job, he became a danger to his daughter, his wife decided to leave him… and then, in a tent in downtown L.A. at a Billy Graham crusade, he received Christ as His Savior–and in an instant, much of his suffering was healed. His marriage was restored, he went home and dumped out all his alcohol, he never had another flashback, he even travelled to Japan and visited some of his former guards who were being held in prison, and told them he forgave them. And all the rest of his life, he was known as a happy, light-hearted man and an incredible servant.
The book was a New York Times Bestseller. They made a movie out of it. But the author wasn’t a Christian. I read an interview with her and they asked her, “This story was relatively unknown before you wrote about it. What made you decide to spend seven years of your life telling this story?” Her answer caught my eye. She said, “So many elements of Louie’s saga were enthralling, but one in particular hooked me. He told of having experienced almost unimaginable abuse at the hands of his captors, yet spoke without self-pity or bitterness. In fact, he was cheerful, speaking with perfect equanimity. When he finished his story, I had one question: How can you tell of being victimized by such monstrous men, yet not express rage? His response was simple: ‘Because I forgave them.’ It was this, more than anything that hooked me. How could this man forgive the unforgivable? In setting out to write Louie’s biography, I set out to find the answer.”
What a statement! That what caught this unsaved author’s eye most was simple forgiveness. Let that be a lesson to you. When we forgive as God forgave us, it is a powerful testimony. So be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.