Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

How to Truly Forgive and What Happens When You Do

  • Kyle Blevins Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jan 12, 2021
How to Truly Forgive and What Happens When You Do

To forgive, by definition, is to absolve an offense or mistake made against you, for the mutual benefit of you and your offender. Whether you stop feeling angry or resentful right away, which usually doesn’t happen for most people, forgiveness presents an opportunity for you and your offender to move forward. There are other ways to define forgiveness, such as canceling a debt or pardoning someone for impoliteness or ignorance. But the most important thing to know about forgiveness is that it’s a choice. As Christians, we know what it’s like to need forgiveness and we know what it’s like to actually be forgiven. Our experience with forgiveness allows us to have compassion toward others.

There is some form of the word, or the concept to, “forgive” mentioned in the Bible approximately 150 times between the Old and New Testaments. It is universally understood that forgiveness is a spiritual concept and one that we should all learn to implement more often. After all, it is a guiding factor that brings us closer to being like Christ. It’s funny, many times when telling stories, people will say things like “Now I know Jesus would want me to forgive them…” We all have a good laugh, but many of us are stirred inside around this topic.

We understand that forgiveness is necessary for our own spiritual and mental health, but how do we do it? Jesus hung on a cross after his accusations and somehow mustered up the power to forgive the ones who put him there. What came over Jesus to unlock that kind of authority? Is it something we can all access? What happens if we do and when should we use it? Let’s explore the source of this power and how to tap into it.

What Is Forgiveness?

Luke 23:34 is where we read about Jesus forgiving his accusers after his brutal treatment. After everything that went on and all the justification Jesus had to hate these people, he says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” To add insult to injury, we read that even after his proclamation of forgiving them, it falls on cold hearts as they continue to gamble for his clothing. I think it is safe to say that even if we had a surge of courage to openly forgive someone like that, we would immediately lose that energy the moment we saw our courage was not appreciated. This would cause us to revert back to our bitter state of anger. So what was it that Jesus connected to, that empowered him to display this kind of power, regardless of the outcome?

The key to true, irrevocable, bondage-breaking forgiveness is found in compassion. When Jesus looked at these people, he didn’t focus on his damaged body, the false accusations, or the anger he would have been justified to feel. His actions support that his focus was on his offenders in that moment. He could see, and he knew, that his offenders were so bent on displaying their own power that they lost sight of what it meant to live according to God’s plan. In other words, Jesus was saying “Father, forgive them. They do not understand the magnitude of this. They have been led astray. They are not considering the real impact.” Jesus knew what they were missing . . . they were missing Him. When we remember what it’s like to be forgiven, the only thing left is compassion, and when we have compassion, we are naturally moved to forgive just as we have been forgiven.

How Can You Forgive?

Having compassion leads to an immediate change of perception. Consider how you feel when you imagine the following people: An absent father, a bully at school, a rude person, a thief, or an unfair leader. You probably think back to times when one of these people impacted you personally in a negative way. We tend to remember emotions impeccably well, so this could stir up feelings of anger, resentment, even hopelessness—even if you have already forgiven this person.

Now consider what happens when you focus more on the possible driving factors of these people. For the absent father, imagine his own broken childhood. For the bully, imagine his lack of attention and direction. For the rude person, imagine their misunderstanding of people, or themselves, leading them to be calloused. For the thief, imagine their poverty. For the unfair leader, imagine their insecurity. The principle found in John 15:5, where Jesus teaches us that “apart from the vine, we can do nothing,” is at work here.

Compassion is rooted in the practice of looking behind the scenes—or considering what drives someone to make the choices they make. If we look at these examples, we can see that all of these people were simply missing something. John 15:5 says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. Apart from the vine, you can do nothing.” We cannot give what we do not have and we cannot meet where we have not been met. This change in perception allows a tangible release of pressure in our hearts. There is relief in choosing forgiveness despite how we may feel. This is the power that Jesus expressed and this same power is available for us through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.

What Is the Difference between Compassion and Pity?

Compassion is defined as sympathy and empathetic concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Pity is closely defined as the feeling of sorrow caused by the suffering and misfortune of others. While these definitions are similar, their use in our culture is quite different. Compassion is used to describe an emotion that provokes action because you empathize with the person, while pity is often used to describe an emotion that may or may not provoke action—based on feeling bad for the person or shallow gratitude that it hasn’t happened to you. The difference between compassion and pity, according to cultural standards, can be summarized by the following statement: Compassion looks into people, while pity looks down on people.

Compassion moves us into action, while pity simply gets our attention. When we look into people, we intentionally look for motivating factors in their life and look to apply ourselves as helpers. When we pity someone, we tend to shake our head, look away, or talk about their misfortunes. We want to be moved by compassion because Jesus called us to act more than he called us to acknowledge. James 2:14 says, “What good is it if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?” In other words, what good is having discernment, or an encouraging word, or provision to share, if we don’t use it?

When we pity people, they can feel it. When a sharp-dressed man gives a poor man a dirty look, sure it might get his attention, but it belittles the man. When that same sharp-dressed man treats the poor man as his peer with the intention of giving him hope, he empowers that man to think differently. In the famous Chinese proverb commonly mistaken as a biblical Scripture, we read, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We can teach people through hope in the gospel, and we can spread hope through encouraging actions. Pity does not produce hope but acts of compassion do.

How Forgiveness Fits into Our Purpose

It is often accepted that everything worth having requires a sacrifice of some kind. Forgiveness is never an easy decision. Even when we are moved by compassion, we may have doubts about whether we did the right thing. We might fear we didn’t stand up for ourselves properly. We might fear the person is getting away with something or that they can just do it again. We may fear we will be taken advantage of. Some may even feel peer pressure from those who may not have been moved in the same way as we who choose to forgive. The source of this fear is pride. When we lay down our pride, we get closer to our true selves, that is, ourselves connected with Christ.

We often find our purpose through trials, and there is certainly purpose in forgiveness. In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus gives us the two great commandments that fulfill the law:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Our purpose is founded in these two commandments and the foundation is love. Per the pure love definition found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, love is patient and kind. It keeps no record of being wronged. Love is always hopeful and endures through every circumstance. If you love someone, chances are you’re going to need to forgive them for something at some point, and when you’re faced with the choice to forgive remember the commandment to love and the commandment to forgive. God has set these commandments in place for our good and His glory. Love is a fruit of the spirit as found in Galatians 5:22. Our purpose is to love others, and forgiveness is one of the most powerful ways we can love.

Should I Forgive Them?

It is clear now that forgiveness is powerful, both for us and those we forgive, but are there any times we should not forgive someone? Jesus says we should forgive “seventy times seven” but what about situations of abuse, or intentional manipulation? Scripture is very clear that forgiveness is what we are called to do no matter the situation. Having said that, the more appropriate question is not whether or not we should forgive, but rather, should we stay in certain situations. If we are in an abusive relationship, we should never sacrifice our safety and justify our means to stay as “forgiveness.” This is a warped view of forgiveness that is more accurately described as enabling. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to stay in relationships or situations that you are at harmful risk in.

When we forgive someone, we give them a chance to change. As Laura Petherbridge put in her “What Forgiveness is NOT” Crosswalk article, “Forgiveness is not relieving the person of their responsibility.” Often when people realize the magnitude of the grace they have been given, they take action to change—though not everyone will. This is what happens in our hearts when we realize the place that Jesus took for us. We must remember that it is not our responsibility to make someone change. Our responsibility is simply giving them that chance. Whether they take it or not is out of our control.

When we connect to compassion, we unlock the power of forgiveness that Jesus uses. This compassion causes a change in perception, and further empowers us to fulfill part of our purpose of loving others. Exercising compassion and determining healthy boundaries for forgiveness make it as effective as it was intended to be. The outcomes of compassion have been studied heavily. Per this UC Berkeley study, it was found that compassionate acts lead to both physically and mentally healthier lives, and is considered necessary for sustaining ourselves.

What Is Forgiveness? Forgiveness Is Continual

As believers, we know that, through the Holy Spirit transforming our lives, we can have compassion on others and exercise the choices of forgiveness and love. As further motivation, love and forgiveness are actions that God commands us to do in Scripture. We can’t do this on our own though; the Holy Spirit will give us the tools we need to carry out these actions and God will use these opportunities to grow us. We can look at the lives of Joseph and Moses in the Old Testament, for example, and see how their suffering and ability to trust God through their circumstances produced strength and spiritual growth. I pray you would make conscious choices to continually forgive those who’ve hurt you, remembering God the Father’s forgiveness of your sins and Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s constant intercession for you.

If you find yourself remembering past hurts and are tempted to begin a cycle of anger and resentment anew, say out-loud to God “I’m choosing to continue forgiving this person because You have forgiven me.” The wrongs done against you may belong to a person who is far or near, alive or deceased, friend or foe . . . they don’t need to be present for you to forgive them in your heart. Forgiveness is for the mutual benefit of both parties, but if they choose to ignore your forgiveness or they are ignorantly unaware of it that’s on them. You will be able to keep growing in your life knowing that God’s forgiveness of you enables you to live with eternal purpose, and part of that purpose is to love and forgive others.

Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/chaunpis

This article is part of our larger resource library of Christian practices and disciplines important to the Christian faith. From speaking in tongues to tithing & baptism, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about Christian living.

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