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What’s Happening When I Won’t Forgive Someone?

What's Happening When I Won’t Forgive Someone

Forgiveness is one of the most challenging concepts for the Christian to come to terms with, particularly when someone has hurt the believer. The victims of crimes suffer the most. I know that was true for Jesus: He suffered for my sins, making the call to follow Him all the more complex, challenging, and compelling.

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For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this, you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:19-23).

When it comes to forgiveness, Christ is our best example (Ephesians 5:1). To follow Him in His death will take you to redemption, progressive sanctification, and eternal glorification (Romans 8:28-30). Anyone can be set free from the relational problems that entangle them because the gospel speaks to both the offender and the victim. But beware: that freedom comes with a price (Galatians 5:1).

The smell of death is always in the air when forgiveness is the need of the hour. I believe that is one of the reasons there was such an active call to die attached to the message of Christ.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).

Are You Ready to Die?

There are few things more complicated than forgiving someone who has hurt you. Though it is a complex message to hear, there is only one right answer for relational reconciliation. If that correct answer is not applied practically, the outcome will never be right. Some of the saddest people you will ever meet are those who refuse to forgive those who have sinned against them. I have counseled scores of these hurt people, and their stories are truly heartbreaking.

Individuals have profoundly hurt them, and their pain is real and ongoing. Any discussion about forgiveness with them is nearly always met with deep emotional angst, and sometimes, hostility. Many of them need not a rebuke but a gentle, courageous, and biblical caregiver (Galatians 6:1). With as much patience and compassion that you can muster, you must lead them to the only freedom they can have, which they will find through the forgiveness of Christ for the one who has hurt them (1 Thessalonians 5:14; Colossians 3:13).

To care for the victim of a crime, you will have to be able to steward two contiguous realities: (1) the hurt they are experiencing and (2) their need to forgive the person who hurt them. Sometimes uncaring caregivers will press a person to forgive someone when they cannot do it—at this time. They may be able to mouth the words, “I forgive you,” but it won’t be authentic until the heart produces those words (Luke 6:45). Though they must not hold on to unforgiveness forever, it may take time to work through the complexity of the soul to let it go, even if they are only releasing the offender from the heart (attitudinally) because the offender has never come forward to transact relational forgiveness (transactional).

Foolishness of God

Forgiveness, like nearly everything else in the Christian life, is upside down. Paul talked about how God’s ways, when compared to our ideas (Isaiah 55:8-9), appear to be either weak or foolish, or both.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25).

The cross of Christ was amazingly foolish to His disciples. It was so hard to comprehend that they ran away when they were supposed to stay put and make a stand for their leader. A dying man on a tree was counter-intuitive to everything they believed and hoped for from God.

In time, the disciples began to see how the gospel was not what they thought it was. After being re-envisioned, they reacquainted themselves with the foolishness and weakness of God. And when they did, it began to look like real power and true wisdom. Forgiveness is one of those counter-intuitive planks in the gospel’s platform. No matter the pain, no matter the regret, no matter the disappointment, we are called to forgive each other.

Unjust Suffering?

One of the ironies of unforgiveness is how the victim of the crime is the one experiencing unending suffering. Unwillingness to forgive the perpetrator of the sin will only perpetuate the victim’s suffering. It’s like the incremental sipping of bitter water. Each time the victim thinks about what was done to them while holding on to an unforgiving attitude, the more they hurt themselves.

In most cases, the unforgiving person does not fully realize how holding on to unforgiveness makes things worse for them. Unforgiveness never makes things better because God will not bless anyone who persists in holding on to an unforgiving attitude toward someone else (James 4:6; Romans 1:18). Paul teaches us how the Lord’s displeasure rains down from heaven on any person who presses His truth out of their lives. That was the testimony of King David. As long as he kept silent about the sin he carried in his heart, the more he experienced the Lord’s wrathful displeasure.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night, your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (Psalm 32:3-4).

If the unforgiving person continues to hold on to unforgiveness, he will experience the deterioration of both the body and the soul. Ironically, the perpetrator (the offender) of the pain is usually unaware of this soul deterioration effect on the person he has hurt.

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Practical Deterioration

Unforgiveness is just one sin, but like cancer, it will never abide alone. If you leave cancer to its own devices, it will eventually take over the whole person. A gathering constellation of sins will soon emerge with the intent of devouring its prey (1 Peter 5:8). Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the more common problems that unforgiving people experience. You can use this list for self-analysis as you examine yourself to see if you are holding on to unforgiveness toward another person.

  • Gossip – The unforgiving person regularly talks negatively about others, especially the person who hurt them.
  • Criticalness – The unforgiving person tends to express more negativity than positiveness about life.
  • Joylessness – You would not characterize the unforgiving person as happy, joyful, or hopeful.
  • Self-deceived – The unforgiving person is not willing to see their situation with biblical clarity.
  • Lying – The unforgiving person tends to spin the truth to put themselves in a better light.
  • Anger – The unforgiving person exhibits various forms of anger.
  • Bitterness – The unforgiving person’s ongoing anger eventually turns into bitterness. (This is the downward spiral effect of unrepentant sin.)
  • Offended – The unforgiving person is defensive and quick to retaliate because they view life through the lens of their hurt.

Sin will not discriminate. Just because you’re the victim of a crime does not mean you are impervious to sin’s encroachments. The list I gave you is only a few possibilities of what can happen to the victim of someone else’s offenses. Refusing to forgive a fellow sinner is a posture that perpetuates pain while keeping the victim in a self-erected prison. You have a choice.

Choose Freedom

Living in the freedom of a forgiving spirit is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, especially if someone has hurt you. I vividly remember working through the process of forgiving my sister-in-law for murdering my brother. That process did not come easy. I struggled to take my soul to task, especially since she was not asking for forgiveness.

Without the opportunity to forgive her transactionally, I had to wrestle with God to free my soul from the hurt that I carried in my attitude toward her. In time, I was able to forgive her, at least attitudinally. I do not know if she has asked God to forgive her (1 John 1:9). I hope she has. She has not received mine because she has never asked for it, but her lack of asking did not stop me from being fully released from what she did to our family.

God has done a miraculous work in my heart for which I am eternally grateful. Though I can still cry when I think about my brother, I have been set free from the soul entanglements that so easily capture the unforgiving heart. Perhaps you are struggling to forgive someone who has hurt you. It’s a pain that I do not need to explain to you because you are living it each day. The reminders are everywhere, and your mind can be so quickly captivated by what that person did to you (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).

Now, the Hard Part

For you to walk out of that dark tunnel, you will need to pray often. And as you pray, you will need to ask yourself a few hard questions, all of which center on why you are unable (or unwilling) to forgive the person who has hurt you. When I did my self-examination, there were at least seven reasons why I was unwilling to let it go. I will share those reasons with you while asking you a question for each one. Will you reflect on these questions as you take them to the Lord—especially if you struggle with unforgiveness toward someone?

  • Punishment – Do you have any desire for someone to punish the offender?
  • Fearfulness – Are you afraid that forgiving them will permit them to hurt you again?
  • Unbelief – Do you believe that God will fully take care of what happened to you?
  • Control – Does unforgiveness allow you to stay in control of the situation?
  • Righteousness – Do you believe you are better than the offender? (See Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10-12.)
  • Acceptance – Do you desire the sympathy that others can give you for what happened to you?
  • Identity – Are you finding your identity in your suffering rather than in Christ?

Only the Lord can grant the repentance necessary for you to let go of unforgiveness. He does this by working His good will in you while expecting you to work it out practically (Philippians 2:12-13). The call to repentance is both a passive and active action. (See 2 Corinthians 3:18 and James 1:22.) God grants forgiveness (2 Timothy 2:24-25), and you are to respond to His good work in you.

We all have hurt others, and others have sinned against us. I trust that you will be able to model your Savior as you appropriate His grace in areas where you need to be changed. If we can help you in any way, please let us know. Below are some questions for you to think about as you process this article. If you have a friend who can walk with you, please get with that person, and both of you pray through this content and these questions.

Call to Action

    1. Have you been sinned against by someone? Has a person hurt you? Describe what happened.
    2. How do you think about that person today? What is your attitude toward the offender?
    3. Are you able to forgive them attitudinally, even though they have not come to you seeking your forgiveness for what they did to you? If not, what is keeping you from doing this?
    4. If you cannot at least forgive them in your heart, will you seek the help you need until you can accomplish this? Will you fight for your freedom in Christ?

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