“… forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
We all know that as Christians we must forgive if we are to receive forgiveness ourselves, but the path to forgiveness is often not an easy one. Long after we have been hurt, cheated or abused by others – and long after we have tried to forgive and forget the injury – we may still have vivid memories of the hurtful situation, or ongoing reminders of what happened to us.
But if the hurt still feels real when memories do surface of ways we have been hurt in the past, we may need to ask if we have truly forgiven the individual or people who hurt us. Given what Christ said regarding the forgiveness of our own sins, it is imperative not only that we forgive, but also that we know we have done so.
How Can We Know if We Have Forgiven?
How can we know we have truly forgiven someone? The apostle Paul’s writings touch on four principles that we can use in our own lives in making sure we have indeed forgiven someone who has offended us. We can access those principles by simply asking ourselves the following questions.
Whenever you think of what the other person did to you …
1) … Do you think of how much you need forgiveness yourself? This may seem backwards at first, but it is a baseline principle. Paul wrote: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Ultimately, we may never really forgive someone unless we come to see that the person’s betrayal of us is no worse than our own betrayal of God in every sin we have committed. We can never presume that someone else’s sins are worse than ours, because only God knows the heart and mind – just as Jesus said that even persecutors who kill the people of God “will think they do God a service” (John 16:2). Remember this was exactly Paul’s own situation before his conversion. Paul reminds us that: “… God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32).
2) … Do you think about the fact that despite their faults, God loves the person who has hurt you just as he loves you? (Matthew 5:45, Romans 5:8). If you cannot see the offender’s good points and do not see him or her as someone loved by God, you may well not have forgiven them. Forgiveness involves reaffirming in our own minds the spiritual potential of the wrongdoer. When we forgive we stop defining the wrongdoer by the wrong he or she did. Only when we can really think of the other person as having sinned against us through weakness, a failure of empathy, or a lack of understanding can we begin to see them with the kind of compassion that is necessary for forgiveness to happen.
3) … Do you think of ways you might be able to help them? Jesus commanded his followers to “… love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Paul specified a way we might do that when he wrote: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14). Of course, in keeping these commands in mind, we can substitute “hurt,” “injure,” “mistreat,” “abuse,” or anything else someone might do against us. The end result is the same: we must bless such people. To love and bless someone means taking the opposite approach from resenting them and refusing to get over a wrong that they have done to us. This aspect of forgiveness often involves thinking of ways we might initiate or increase reconciliation with the other person, when this is possible. Regarding a person who had sinned against the members of the church at Corinth, Paul wrote: “Now … you ought to forgive and comfort him” (2 Corinthians 2:7). It is not coincidence that Paul says we should forgive and comfort in the same breath – this is just one example of truly loving those we forgive. In this case the person had repented of what they had done, but in every case we must come to the point where we love the person who harmed us and we are willing to pray for them and bless them in any ways that we can.
4) …Do you think that the offense – whatever it was – is ultimately not important? This is a shocking concept for many people and perhaps the hardest stage of forgiveness to reach. But when we truly and deeply forgive, we begin to feel that the ways in which others have injured us really do pale into insignificance by comparison to what our sins did to Christ. With this level of forgiveness we come to the point where we can honestly downplay the other person’s offense against us almost as though it did not happen. Notice something Paul said in this regard to the Corinthians: “… And what I have forgiven –if there was anything to forgive –I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake” (2 Corinthians 2:10, emphasis added). Did you notice the significance of Paul’s words when he says “… if there was anything to forgive…”? Paul knew there was indeed something for the Corinthians and for him personally to forgive and specifically discussed this sin in his first letter to the Corinthians, yet after forgiving the sinner he shows us the attitude of downplaying the offense as though it was not ultimately important.
We may never be able to forget memories we have of ways in which others have hurt us – in the same way that we may still have scar tissue from an old physical wound. But forgetting is not necessary for forgiving, and we must never feel that because we cannot forget, we cannot forgive. People sometimes say “I have tried to forgive the person who hurt me, and I just cannot.” But God does not give us this option – not forgiving others is choosing that God will not forgive us. Some people also think that they cannot forgive because the pain they feel is “too great,” but ironically the pain will always be there until we forgive.
When the first thought we have about a person who hurt us is not the pain they caused in our life, we are certainly beginning to forgive. But the process must be completed. We must ask God’s help to reach the point where we always think more about how we need forgiveness than we do regarding the sins of another against us. We must reach the point where we firmly accept that God loves the offending person just as fully as he loves us – whatever our opinion of their failures. We must come to the point where thoughts about the person include thinking of ways we might pray for them and bless them, and where we come to realize that in the larger picture of God’s plan for all humanity, what others have done to us is ultimately not important compared to his plan being fulfilled in our – and their – lives.