“Forgiveness heals,” I told my friend.
“Why should I forgive?” she asked. “He doesn’t deserve it.”
“Because forgiveness heals and you deserve healing.”
It took God a long time to teach me this lesson. Sometimes I must relearn it, or at least be reminded of hard-won lessons of the past.
Years ago, I went to a secular counselor to help me overcome depression. We talked a lot about trauma I had endured, including multiple times I was date raped in high school. She told me I had a right to be angry with all the guys who had hurt me.
Maybe she was right. For a long time, I believed her, and I clung to my grudges. I nursed them like a tumbler of expensive whiskey. They had ruined my life, I reasoned, and I only wanted vengeance.
I sought out this counselor for healing, but her advice did not result in healing, only more pain. Although I was a Christian, I felt far from God during this time. I served as a poor witness to His love and mercy, because I couldn’t feel it myself.
Forgiveness Heals the Forgiver
I quit seeing that counselor and moved on to other means of trying to find healing. Nothing seemed to work, as my anger and unforgiveness continued to poison my soul.
Then God brought me an unmistakable message of forgiveness in a dream. Once I forgave all those who had hurt me—with God’s help—healing began. The immediate effects of forgiveness were palpable. A darkness lifted and I felt lighter than I had in years.
When God commands us to do something, it is for our own good and is not meant as a constraint. My “anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20 NIV). Although I might have a right to have my old boyfriends pay for what they did, I needed to forgive the transgressions and trust God to work out the consequences, for my own mental and spiritual health.
The act of forgiveness is not just about absolving the offender; it is equally, if not more so, about liberating the forgiver from the weight of negative emotions. Dr. David K. Ewen, “Forgiveness and Mental Well-being in Christian Faith”
God knows the damage unforgiveness can do. That’s why He tells us so often in the Bible to forgive.
Forgiveness Doesn’t Replace Justice
Some, like my friend in the intro to this article, argue that someone who has committed a terrible crime—like rape—don’t deserve forgiveness. They claim that to forgive lets the perpetrator off the hook. These people misunderstand the purpose of forgiveness and justice. They are not mutually exclusive.
Justice has its place. If someone commits a crime, they should be held accountable in the justice system. If someone assaults you, then you should call the police and report the crime. When I write about forgiveness, I do not mean to suggest the forgiven person should get off scot-free.
But vengeance is not the attitude God calls us to. God calls us to forgive even the most hurtful of sins against us. Jesus calls us to, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:36-37 NIV). Paul admonishes us to, “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others” (Colossians 3:13 NLT).
Justice is the province of God and the official justice system, not of the human heart.
Forgiveness Protects the Forgiver
Forgiveness protects us from the desire of Satan to separate us from God and make us unproductive Christians. Paul further admonished the Corinthian church, “If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:10-11 NIV). Paul reiterated how anger and unforgiveness give Satan power in our lives in his letter to the Ephesian church: “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27 NIV).
In my own life, I’ve learned that unforgiveness opens the door for a return of my depression.
Forgiveness Heals in the Old Testament
Forgiveness is not only a New Testament idea. Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, modeled God’s call for us to forgive, as recorded in Genesis. Joseph suffered terribly at the hands of his own brothers. (See Genesis 37). Because they were jealous of how their father treated Joseph, they sold him to slave traders and told Jacob he had been killed by a wild animal. The traders sold him in Egypt, where his master’s wife falsely accused him, then imprisoned him, and mistreated him. Many years later, after he had been raised to a position of power in Egypt, Joseph and his brothers were reunited. Eventually, Jacob and all of his family moved to Egypt to escape a famine.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. (Genesis 50:15-17 NIV).
Joseph could have insisted his brothers pay for their sins. He certainly wielded sufficient power in Egypt to make this demand. Instead, he chose to forgive his brothers. He recognized that only God could determine the appropriate punishment, if any, brothers deserved.
Jesus Modeled How Forgiveness Heals
Jesus never sinned against any of us. Yet he suffered terribly at the hands of the Jewish leaders and the Romans. They beat Him, mocked Him, spit upon Him, and crucified Him. He bore the sins of all of us. He endured the agony of feeling separated from His Father for this first time in His existence, all because of our sin. He suffered more in that one day than any of us have in a lifetime, more than we are capable of comprehending. And what was His response? Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NIV). Jesus paid the price for us and pleaded that we be forgiven, rather than demand we pay for what we have done.
Jesus taught His disciples, and us, to pray “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12 NLT). When others hurt us, let us remember these words. God has forgiven much. He has forgiven all our sins. In the same manner, let us always forgive both the small and large transgressions against us. In this way, we will remain close to God, be a witness of His love and mercy, and grant healing and comfort to others.
Closing Prayer of Forgiveness Heals
Heavenly Father, thank You that You do not demand that we get what we deserve, but grant us forgiveness instead. Help each person reading this article to thoughtfully consider how unforgiveness may be causing them pain. Help them to forgive and trust You for justice. May each reader experience the love and forgiveness that You offer through the atoning sacrifice of Your Son Jesus. Bring peace and healing as we set aside grudges and embrace mercy. In Jesus’s name, amen.