Forgiveness: What It Is, What It’s Not, & How To Do It
When my ex-husband and I first separated, I was angry.
Like throw-everything-in-the-garbage angry.
After my ex had removed his things from the home, I spent the better part of three weeks clearing out my garage, screaming and crying as I sifted through box after box of nearly twenty years worth of memories. Old photos, letters, keepsakes, even articles of clothing from special occasions – all of it ended up in a dumpster, along with life as I knew it.
We all have different approaches to dealing with grief. Apparently rage cleaning is mine.
My trashing fit did help me feel a little better, but only a little. I was still angry, and to make matters worse, I didn’t know if it was okay with God that I was.
What the Bible Says About Anger
The Bible gives clarity to the complex emotional experience that is anger. Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and do not sin.” The first thing we have to recognize is that we can be angry, that the emotion of anger is not a sin. Not only that, we are actually called into the recognition of our anger, into the recognition of injustice that’s been done against us.
But with this invitation is a caution not to be moved into sin. In our imperfect humanness, unmanaged anger will inevitably drag us into sin and unrighteousness. When someone harms you it’s like you have been given this ticking time bomb, and if you are still holding on to it when it goes off, it’s going to eventually destroy you and hurt the people around you.
But how do we honor the anger of having been wronged while simultaneously avoiding the tendency to sin? The answer is not something we often want to hear: forgiveness.
Forgive & Forget? Not Exactly.
There are great misconceptions amongst Christians about what forgiveness is, what it’s not, and how to do it. Romans 12:17-19 says, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.’”
Forgiveness seems daunting because somehow we’ve developed the idea that it means the person who offended us is completely off the hook. But what’s striking about this section of Scripture is that in this guidance to avoid retaliation, that there’s also an invitation for us to leave things to the wrath of God.
Bet you’ve never heard that in church before.
In our anger we are given to unrighteousness and injustice, but God in His anger embodies perfect, righteous justice. He will see that this wrong is dealt with, in His way and in His time. On the one hand, that can mean this person will be so impacted by His grace that they genuinely repent and turn away from the evil they’ve done. On the other hand, should the person choose to reject that grace, they will face the destructive consequences of their choices.
And that’s something none of us wants to be in the middle of.
In forgiveness, you are saying, “I don’t want to hold onto this ticking time bomb anymore. I don’t want this destructive force in my life, and I’m letting go of the need to avenge myself. Instead, I’m giving this situation to God to deal with as He sees fit, in His way and on His time.” When we forgive someone, we are not saying that the wrong that has been done to us is suddenly not wrong. It’s still wrong. But we are saying we aren’t going to be the ones to administer justice. It’s a job that’s too big for us.
Forgiveness is choosing to let God be God.
Forgiveness is meant to set you free, liberating you from the anger that will otherwise destroy you. Through forgiveness, we learn to trust God more deeply as anger is overwhelmed by peace. And God does not forget what we have given over to Him; He sees to it that goodness comes of it all.
Walking Out Forgiveness (Even When They’re Not Sorry)
Forgiveness allows us to embrace what it is to “live peaceably with all,” which we can only do if we are experiencing the peace with God that comes through giving and receiving forgiveness. When you know that God cares for you and that He’s taking care of this thing, you find yourself less and less concerned with what this person is doing or what they’ve done to you. You can focus more intently on maintaining that peace, and continuing your life in the direction where He is calling you to go.
When it comes to living at peace with others, Paul is clear in this passage to state “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you” – implying that it’s not always possible and it won’t always depend on you. Taking responsibility for your part of this means choosing forgiveness and walking in the peace that God has extended to you in doing so.
But if in extending your peace, the other person continues to retaliate and/or remains unrepentant, then you are not at any greater responsibility to bring about peace in that situation. In those cases, reconciliation is not possible and not advisable. Reconciliation requires the efforts of two people living their lives submitted to the Lordship of Christ, and nothing one person does can make up for the lack of commitment on the part of the other.
It can’t be overstated: forgiveness and trust are not the same thing. You can absolutely forgive someone without ever trusting them again. Trust is only established with consistency, meaning that both what a person says and does match over a long period of time (and often, this takes years). Trustworthiness is a mark of character, an outflow of a person’s relationship with God. An untrustworthy person is likely to apologize and promise change, only to turn around and behave offensively again.
When we have done our part to forgive and walk in peace, it becomes so much easier to notice when a person like this is bent on destruction. You can see their anger. You can see how it causes them to act. They may continue lobbing the time bombs, but now that you can see things for what they are – that they are just trying to transfer their anger on to you.
And because of the peace you now know, you are empowered to keep a distance from such a person and to establish healthy boundaries. You can see that picking up the offenses and giving space in your heart to them is just not worth it. And you experience greater degrees of freedom as you instead focus on relationships with people you can share your peace with, who will likewise share it with you.
How Do I Forgive?
As far as the process of forgiveness is concerned, forgiveness is not a feeling; it’s a choice. It is something you decide to do, and you may have to train your heart to it. Whenever your anger is triggered, you will have to experience that grief while reminding yourself that you’ve already given the situation to God. Forgiveness is not going to magically cut off the pain but without it healing cannot begin.
Forgiveness is something we can walk through with God, spending time in prayer with the Lord. In a time of quiet, unhurried prayer, consider the following steps:
IDENTIFY the source of the hurt. Name the person and create a list of specific things they have done or have failed to do that have injured you.
ACKNOWLEDGE how this person’s behaviors have harmed you and how these things have caused you to feel.
RECEIVE God’s compassion. Sit in His presence, knowing that God is grieving with you over how you have been wronged.
STATE your choice to forgive. Tell God you desire get far away from the devil’s attempts to drag you into sin, and that in choosing forgiveness you are choosing the path of peace.
ASK God for comfort and strength as you open your heart to heal. Ask Him for wisdom to know how to set boundaries with or separate from this person.
REPEAT. Forgiveness is a major part of healing, but it’s not the only part. The wounds may still be fresh, and you may feel angry again (especially if this person continues to hurt you). If you feel angry again, it doesn’t mean you haven’t forgiven, only that your head must remind your heart that this is now in God’s hands.
As single parents, we’re not always able to fully remove ourselves from the people who have hurt us most. This means we will likely have to forgive the same person again and again. But every offense and every trigger is an opportunity to grieve again, And when you grieve with the Lord, you experience what it feels like to be held by Him and to be known by Him. And every time you are confronted with anger, you can trust that through forgiveness it will yield to peace.
For more on forgiveness, check out Episode 117 of The Christian Single Moms Podcast- Forgiveness: What It Is, What It’s Not, & How to Do It with Michelle Donnelly
See our expanded resource on forgiveness in our Bible study program, Made for More: 30 Days of Experiencing God’s Redemption in Your Disappointment in The PlusONE Parents Collective All Access Membership.