As a pastor and blogger, some of the most common questions I hear (both online and in person) have to do with steps to forgiveness. We’ve ALL been hurt before, and we don’t always know how to deal with the pain of heartbreak or betrayal in a healthy way. Most people want to live a grace-filled life free from bitterness or grudges, but they aren’t sure how to do it.
Does forgiveness mean pretending the offense didn’t happen? Does it mean the other person is completely off the hook?
This is a HUGELY important issue in helping us have healthy relationships and a healthy life in general. Below, I’m going to outline four key steps that need to happen for true forgiveness to take place. If you’ll apply these timeless steps to your own areas of anger or hurt, this could make a world of difference in setting you free and helping you move forward.
For true forgiveness to take place, we need to…
1. Choose to pursue healing instead of payback.
My friend Derek Elam was shot and killed in his early twenties while he was working behind the counter at a music store. Derek’s mom, Diana, responded to that tragedy with an incredible amount of grace and faith. After Derek’s killer was caught and convicted, instead of allowing bitterness and rage to steal her joy, she decided instead to pray for Derek’s killer and extend grace in the hopes that this young man would eventually find forgiveness through Christ.
Although he will spend the rest of his life in prison for his crime, through faith in Christ he could live in freedom even while he’s in a prison cell, and he could be reunited with Derek in heaven as a brother in Christ and not as an enemy.
Diana’s faith has not only given her peace, but it has touched the hearts and lives of many around the world who are struggling to forgive. I share more of her remarkable story in my new book “The Seven Laws of Love: Essential Principles for Building Stronger Relationships.”
When we’ve been wronged, there may need be be consequences as there clearly were with Derek’s killer. When consequences are required, we need to trust God to take care of that part. It’s never our job to take revenge. It’s only our job to trust God. He’s the only judge. It’s our mission to pursue peace and healing. God gives us His best even when we’re at our worst and He calls us to do the same for others.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. ” Romans 12:18-19
2. Refuse to keep score of past hurts.
In any relationship, you’re eventually going to be hurt. When a loved one hurts through their words or their actions, your natural instinct will be to hurt them in return, but instead, you must consciously choose to let go of the right to “get even” and pursue healing for yourself and healing for the relationship. Just like we have a natural tendency to want to get “payback,” we also have a temptation to “keep score” of someone offenses and use them for leverage in the relationship.
True forgiveness requires us to tear up this invisible scorecard.
Healing can’t happen when we’re constantly reminding each other of past offenses. In a relationship where you keep score, both people lose. In a relationship where you choose to forgive, both people win. It’s been said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and then hoping the other person dies! Don’t get caught in the scorekeeping trap.
“Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someonewho sins against me? Seven times?” “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven.” Matthew 18:21-22 (Jesus isn’t saying we can stop forgiving after exactly 70X7=490 offenses, but rather, He’s using hyperbole to remind us that we shouldn’t be keeping score in the first place.)
3. Recognize that forgiveness and trust are two very different things.
When we struggle to forgive, it’s often because we’ve believed the myth that forgiving someone requires trusting them. The truth is that forgiveness can’t be earned, it can only be given (that’s called “grace”), but trust can’t be given, it can only be earned (that’s called “common sense”). When someone wrongs you, give your forgiveness instantly but give your trust slowly. Trust isn’t required to forgive, but forgiveness is required to make trust possible again.
4. Accept the apology even if it never comes!
Some of us are holding grudges against people who may never apologize. Perhaps, you’re even holding onto some bitterness against someone who has already died. We may never hear the words, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me, ” but even when we don’t hear them, we need to find the faith to put these wrongs into God’s hands so that we can move forward with peace instead of bitterness. As C.S. Lewis has said, “It’s like crossing the monkey bars. At some point, we have to let go if we ever want to move forward!”
Don't give up on your marriage. It is worth the effort and investment. If you feel like your marriage is struggling, or even failing, there is hope. There is healing.