How to forgive people in practical terms – some advice on what to do and how to go about it

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 14 – How to forgive people in practical terms – some advice on what to do and how to go about it

21Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”  22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

Matthew 18:21-22 (NASB)

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.

Psalm 37:8 (RSV)

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Romans 12:14 (RSV)

See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.

1 Thessalonians 5:15 (RSV)

How to actually forgive, in practical terms

Where forgiveness is proving to be difficult, you would always be well advised to begin with prayer.  You might find that although basic forgiveness is a decision made by your will, you somehow feel unable to achieve forgiveness on your own, solely by willpower.  The very fact that it can be difficult is what makes it essential to seek God’s help.  Without Him we may not always be able to bring ourselves to do it. 

Moreover, we may not be able to overcome the feelings of bitterness, or even rage, that we might be experiencing.  So, begin by telling God exactly how you feel, without any pretence, and without hiding anything, because He knows anyway.  The reason for telling Him is not so that He can be better informed.  It is so that you can recognise the reality of your position and begin to seek His help. 

God knows all about your feelings anyway, but it will help you if you express it all to Him, preferably out loud.  It will also help you to be real and to identify exactly what the wrong is, or at least what you believe it to be.  It may also help to spell out to yourself exactly what it is that you are seeking to achieve. 

For example, are you still trying to get to the stage of even basic forgiveness, where you ‘recuse yourself’ and hand the case over to Jesus?  It could be that you are struggling to get rid of intense feelings of bitterness, which are overwhelming you?  Or it could be that you have got beyond that stage and are now seeking for the grace to go further and become capable of being reconciled with the wrongdoer, or of working alongside him again.

If you spell all of this out, purely for your own sake, it will help you to define your current position and your objectives more clearly.  It will also help you to avoid confusing yourself about what your duty is and what exactly it is that you are struggling to achieve.  It could be that setting this out, in plain words will cause you to realise that you are trying to go too far too fast and that you are actually going beyond what Jesus has commanded you to do.

Ideally, write it all down on a piece of paper, so that you can see your own thinking and force any error or confusion to come to the surface.  It will probably be staring up at you from the page.  Then, you will be better placed to ask God to give you the ability to forgive the wrong, at least in basic terms, or even to go further than that, if that seems appropriate. 

It may be that you feel so low, and so damaged by the actions or words of the wrongdoer, that you do not even feel capable of praying for the ability to forgive them.  If so, go back a stage.  Ask God to help you even to be “willing to be willing“.  God is totally realistic about us and He is very practical.  He knows that we are frail, weak and sinful.

He also knows our difficulties in the area of forgiveness, because He is our Creator and He made our emotions as a valid and essential part of us.  He created us with emotions because we need them, but also because He has emotions Himself and we are made in His image and likeness.  So, the point is that God really does understand that we feelthings, as well as merely thinking ordecidingand He knows that we find those feelings hard to handle at times.

In addition to that, Jesus was, and still is, a man.  Therefore He knows exactly how you feel from first-hand experience.  He felt very similar feelings Himself.  The difference is that when He felt violated or traumatized He reacted in a totally sinless way, whereas we usually don’t.  So, for all those reasons, He really does understand you, and He also sympathizes.  He will therefore honour an honest prayer, perhaps along the following lines:

“The truth is I’m not yet willing to forgive, even in the narrow, basic sense of the word.  However, I want to be obedient, so I want to get to a place where I could become willing to do so.  Therefore, please help me to change my heart attitude, so as to become willing to forgive person X”.

God strongly desires to answer a sincere and unpretentious prayer like that.  You can be sure that He will readily respond to it by changing you on the inside and by giving you the grace that you need to take difficult decisions and steps.  Therefore pray like that, and continue doing so, for as long as it takes.

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