Connections Christian Counselling


Forgiveness Case Study

Myths About Forgiveness

Forgiveness Is Not About Feeling

How many times have you either said, or been told that forgiveness is not possible, because feelings are too strong. 'I canít forgive because I donít feel as if I can. In my heart I still feel that so much injustice was done. Therefore I canít forgive. Iím not yet ready to do so.'

The problem is that we are commanded to forgive and failure to forgive is a sin. We may treat failure to forgive lightly, but God warns us that it hinders our prayers. (Mk.11)

If forgiveness is dependent on feelings, isnít that unjust, because God cannot condemn us for our feelings. Our feelings flow from our thoughts and actions.

So many people say that they cannot do things because it doesnít feel right. I donít feel love for my wife and therefore I will leave her. The Bible says: Think whatís right and do whatís right and the right feelings may follow. Never use feelings as the sole basis for moral decision.

Forgiveness and unforgiveness is a choice. We are to obey the commands of God as an act of will. Forgiveness is not about feeling, but about making a conscious decision to release someone else from an obligation. When they sin against us, we want them to carry something. An obligation to feel guilty and to feel indebted to us. By not forgiving them, we want to get even in some way. We want to hold something over them until we feel that everything has been put right or restored to normal.

When we forgive we are saying: I have decided that this may never be put right in the way that I want. I release you from the obligation I feel you have to me. I set myself free from these chains that binds me to you and to those actions. I resolve not to hold those things against you or to raise them with you or to use them against you anymore.

Forgiveness Doesn't Depend On Forgetting

People say: 'I canít forgive because I canít forget!' Where do they get this thinking from? There are various verses in the Bible about God remembering our sins no more.

'But this is the covenant which I will make with Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will set my law within them and write it on their hearts; I will become their God and they shall become my people. No longer need they teach one another to know the Lord; all of them, high and low alike, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their wrongdoing and remember their sin no more.' Jeremiah 31:33-34

But we are nowhere told that our forgiveness is contingent on our forgetting. You can easily pull some chips out of the memory of a computer, but it is difficult to delete memory from the human brain without serious illness or surgery.

I think that what those verses may mean is this:

That God resolves never to bring the matter up again and to act as if it has been forgotten. That when we face eternity with God, we can be confident that it will be as if it had never happened, so complete will be his dealing with the situation.

God is talking about how he will regard sins as far as eternity is concerned, but Iím sure that on a day to day basis he hasnít obliterated parts of our life. It is just that he chooses not to dwell on them because of Jesus.

If someone steals your car so that you have to walk to work everyday, you can forgive, but it is difficult to forget.

Go to a parent who has seen their child killed by a drunken driver and say you can only forgive if you feel OK about it, and if you can forget. Clearly they can't forget, but they can forgive.

My Christian duty to forgive is not dependent on my feelings, nor is it dependent on the sharpness or dullness of my memory.

Forgiveness Can't Be Superficial

Some people cannot forgive properly because they donít know what they are forgiving. They think that sweeping things under the carpet is the same as forgiving, but itís not. Itís just sweeping things under the carpet.

'Oh, we donít want to dwell on that,' they say. And thatís right, we donít want to dwell on unhelpful things. But in my experience, when people say they donít want to dwell on something In 99 cases out of a 100, what they actually mean is that we donít even want to face up to it in the first place.

At a conference recently I listened to a lady in her fifties tell her story about forgiving her parents who had physically, emotionally, and sexually abuse her over a number of years. She described going into a room and writing down short sentences on a pad of paper. She was writing to her father. 'I forgive you for ....' And she described the physical, and emotional pain and the consequent difficulties caused in her life and in her marriage. The list went into several pages. Having described the pain in full and acknowledged the seriousness of it, she was then able to forgive.

Forgiveness Doesn't Depend On Repentance

'I canít forgive because he isnít even sorry.' Some people are put off forgiveness because they believe it improperly tells the offender that he or she did nothing wrong. 'God demands repentance before he forgives, and therefore, so should we,' they say.

God alone knows a personís heart when he decides to forgive for eternity. But we are not qualified to judge that before we should decide whether or not to forgive.

We forgive, regardless of repentance. Whether or not the people who hurled insults at Jesus on the cross were forgiven for eternity, I cannot say, but on the cross, Jesus released them from an obligation to him.

We say, Iíll leave the issue of repentance to God. If there are eternal things to be sorted out, Iíll leave that with God I am not going to carry this burden of trying to make you feel an obligation to me. I release you. God will deal with your obligations to him. My life is not going to be burdened with or controlled by your lack of repentance But your eternity may well be burdened with it.

Forgiveness Affects Us More Than Other People

We think forgiveness is really about the other person. Itís their fault. Itís controlled by them. But the Bible says that the focus of attention in any unforgiveness is us.

Until Ron Cotton went to prison in 1984 for two rapes he didn't commit, the worst thing anyone had ever done to him was to steal his bicycle when he was 12.

In 1995, Ron Cotton was freed from prison after DNA testing proved he had been wrongfully convicted of rape. 'I learned to let go of the hatred, the grudge, the desire for retaliation. I learned to let go and let God.'

Sentenced to life plus 54 years, the Gibsonville man was filled with anger at police and prosecutors, his own lawyers and even the victims. But after three years in prison, Cotton began to change. He had found himself venting his anger through rude remarks to other inmates, and he wanted to stop.

An expert on a punching bag, he wasn't worried about being attacked, but he didn't like himself when he made such remarks.

'I learned I couldn't continue to live with the hatred and the bitterness,' he says. That process, so simple for Cotton to summarise, took another two years. But eventually he realised, 'Time goes on. Life moves on. And I figured I might as well live my life to the fullest, regardless of the circumstances.'

Cotton spent nearly 11 years in prison before a new lawyer, using DNA evidence, won his release. But from the moment he forgave, Cotton's spirit was free.

The person who forgives often benefits far more than the person who is forgiven. If we wonít forgive, we are the ones who are harmed. If we forgive, we are the ones who are blessed.

If we wonít forgive, apart from hindering our prayers we harm ourselves in at least two other ways:

First, you freeze yourself in a particular past wrong and cannot move ahead into anything else.

Second, you enjoy the self-perpetuating pleasure and pain of being angry. We develop and cultivate a victim outlook and status and we start to enjoy the pain too much to get out of it.

Forgiveness Can Be Repeated

Making a big stand of forgiveness, perhaps with a witness to the event, can often help people move forward. But sometimes people are troubled by their feelings after they have forgiven somebody.

Some well-meaning Christian fool will come along and say: 'Well, you never really forgave them in the first place.'

But there are at least three reasons why forgiveness may have to be a repeated process.

1.But what about the person who repeats the sin? We are to forgive them seven times 70 if necessary.

2.What about the discovery of new material to be forgiven. Horror stories often come in instalments. (See the case study.)

3.What about the repeated resurrection of issues in the person doing the forgiving? If we dig up issues, we may need to forgive again.

Forgiveness Is Not The Same As Reconciliation

People want reconciliation and often wonít accept that forgiveness has happened until reconciliation has taken place. In a rape case, do you force the victim to go to the offender, be reconciled, and then to live happily ever after? In forcing the victim to face the offender you can just end up repeating the initial abuse?

Some Christians want that, but I think that the Bible is more realistic. You see, thereís a legal aspect to sin - the law of God is broken. But thereís also a human aspect to sin - the human pain and consequences. And the Bible acknowledges that forgiveness is good, and that reconciliation is good But it also acknowledges that sometimes the pain, or the difficulty is so great, that reconciliation is not possible this side of eternity. Romans 12:18 says live at peace with others as far as is possible. In a case where a Church Elder had been systematically abusing his daughters over a number of years, many people in the church wanted everybody to be able to worship as family again. However, the issues were too painful for all concerned, and he eventually joined another church, separate from his family.

If two people in a church are discovered in an adulterous relationship together, it may be best to insist that they have no more contact with their former lover in the church. The spouses need that protection and security. Forgiveness can be given, but reconconciliation may be very unwise.

A victimís feelings, or the protection of a marriage, are of more importance than reconciliation.

Case Study

A woman returned home from church one Sunday morning with her three children to find a note from her husband. She thought it strange that he wasnít going as he was a deacon in the church, but he had been under a lot of stress recently and she decided to let sleeping dogs lie.

The note simply said that he was sorry, that he was in no danger, that he wouldnít be coming back, and that she would understand soon.

By noon on the Monday she understood only too well that he had run off with his secretary, and that the police were hoping he would be able to help them in their enquiries about various accounting irregularities at major national insurance firm where he worked. A fortnight later the church also discovered several hundred pounds were also missing from their accounts that this man was also responsible for. Within another fortnight the wife was seriously ill in the local mental hospital. and the children were living with their grandparents.

A couple of years later the man was out of prison and his wife, who had come out of hospital and he and his wife were seeking to rebuild whatever was left of the ruins of their marriage. Despite loud protests from his mother-in-law (who said she always knew that he was a rotter!), he had moved back in and was seeking to get his life right before God.

About two months later, the man turns up again at church where he had laboured so faithfully for many years where he had stolen hundreds of pounds where he had hurt his family and where he had damaged the health of a woman who was very precious to most of the other members. One, or two people stormed out. Most people were polite to his face, and a few were even warm and friendly. However, in the cars going home, and around the lunch table, and later across the pillows These godfearing people tried to find answers to the following questions.

Should they forgive him?

If they should forgive him, how could they forgive him after what he had done?

How could they forgive him if they werenít sure that he had really repented?

Should they wait a time and watch closely?

Should they forgive him, even though they felt they werenít sure if he would do it again?

Should they forgive him, even though many of them now felt anything but forgiveness towards him?

Should they forgive and just pretend that nothing had ever happened?

And even the ones who thought they had forgiven him were troubled by the feelings of unforgiveness they often felt whenever they saw some of the consequences of what had happened. They certainly didnít feel totally reconciled with him.

You are the cell group leader for these people. And after a few days, the phone starts to ring and the real questions start to emerge. You are also the cell group leader for the few people who stormed out of the church when he first came back.

What do you think the Bible teaches about forgiveness?

Case Study


What should a Christian do if he has forgiven someone
but cannot forget the offense?

By: Wendell E. Miller

Q. A former friend hurt me deeply, and I have tried to forgive and forget. I have asked God to help me to forgive, but I have not been able to forget. Does this mean I have not forgiven? How will I know if I have forgiven?

A. Many Christians believe that forgetting is an inseparable part of forgiving.

Quite possibly, this idea comes from the fact that God forgets our sins. The Scriptures say that God will remember our sins no more (Heb. 8:12). To "remember" or "not to remember" in Scripture refers to remembering or not remembering in blessing, or remembering or not remembering in vengeance.

The thief on the cross wanted to be "remembered" when Jesus came into his kingdom (Luke 23:42). His request was like that of a person in our day who wants to be "remembered" in a wealthy person's will, not merely by being thought about, but by being included among those who obtain financial benefits from the deceased. So, when we think about it, the biblical meanings of "remember" and "remember no more" are not so strange to our culture.

Further, God knows everything; so He cannot forget anything; or He would not know everything. In contrast, we know very little, and many things may slip our memory; but we do not have the power to forget. If we try to forget, the act of trying to forget will impress the facts even more firmly in our memories.

There are two prerequisites for knowing that you have forgiven: first, you must understand forgiveness (what the Bible says about forgiveness), and second, you must have forgiven (been obedient to God's commands regarding forgiveness).

Forgiveness is an act of the will in which a person relinquishes any "right" to get even with an offender. It does not necessarily have anything to do with "feeling" that the person has been forgiven. Again, it is an act of the will, relinquishing the "right" to "get even."

If another person asks to be forgiven, then, in saying, "Yes, I forgive you," all rights to "get even," or even to remind the offender of his previous offense, or to talk to others about it, are relinquished, unless talking about it is an act of love.*

Even if the offender does not ask for forgiveness, God's command is to forgive (Mark 11:25). This means praying and relinquishing to God, the "right" to "get even." Actually, we have no "right" to "get even." God reserves to Himself the right to settle all accounts (Rom. 12:19).

As an example of forgiveness, imagine that I owed you a sum of money, and you came to me to be paid. I gave you a long hard-luck story; and you sat quietly, not believing my story. Then I asked you to forgive me the debt. You thought to yourself, He will never pay me; so I will not lose anything by saying that I forgive him the debt. So begrudgingly you said, "Yes, I forgive you the debt." As you left theoffice, you got very angry at yourself for saying that you would forgive the debt. In a few days you decided to try again to get me to pay you. So you came in and asked to be paid. Then I said, "I do not owe you any money."

You had relinquished all rights to collect the debt by your act of forgiveness. You had not wanted to forgive the debt, you had not forgotten the debt, and you were angry at yourself because you forgave it. But you had forgiven it. You knew that you had forgiven it because we had made a verbal contract that I no longer owed you the money. I had asked to be forgiven, and you had granted forgiveness.

Notice in the example that your "feelings" did not agree with your verbal agreement to forgive. You may feel like you have forgiven immediately after forgiving, or it may be quite some time until you "feel like" you have forgiven. Forgiveness is an act of the will. It is a contract. Feelings may or may not change at the time that you forgive.

Another misconception about forgiving is that "feeling like forgiving" is a prerequisite for forgiving. Forgiving is an act of the will, a contract, that is volitional. You can forgive because God commands it; or you can refuse to be obedient to God's command; but there is no requirement for "feeling like" forgiving or for "wanting to."

There are at least six good reasons for forgiving, and none of these includes "feeling like it" or "wanting to." First, God commands forgiveness when asked (Matt. 18:22) and even whenever the offense is remembered (Mark 11:25); second, God proclaims that He is the One who has a right to "get even" and promises that He will "square all accounts" (Rom. 12:19); third, refusing to be obedient to God's command to forgive results in a breakdown in fellowship with God (Matt. 6:15); fourth, God has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32), and we are commanded to follow His example and forgive others; fifth, we have offended a holy God more, and He has forgiven us more, than others could offend us (Matt. 18:23-33); and finally, there is the danger of chastisement (Heb. 12:6) if we will not forgive others (Matt. 18:34,35).

However, if there were only one reason to forgive others--the command of God (Mark 11:25)--then forgiveness should be done as an act of obedience, and "feeling like it" would not be necessary.

Jesus did not "feel like" going to the cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane, His feelings were screaming, "No! I cannot do it" (Luke 22:44). He was sorrowful (Matt. 26:37,38). He prayed that He would be able to avoid the cross (Mark 14:35). Then, in spite of His feelings, as an act of the will, He committed Himself to the will of the Father (Mark 14:36), and He endured the cross, despising the shame (Heb. 12:2). His determination to do the Father's will and to suffer and die as the Sin-Bearer kept Him on the cross, when legions of angels would have rescued Him (Matt. 26:53).

Where then do we get the idea that God is more pleased by obedience when we "feel like it" and when obedience is easy than when we do not feel like it and obedience is hard? Who loves most: he who does for another what is easy, or he who does for another what is hard?

Clearly, being obedient to God by forgiving another is no more dependent upon "feeling like it" than the obedience of Jesus in going to the cross when He did not "feel like it." In this, too, He is our example.

The feeling of anger toward a forgiven person may, or may not, subside immediately upon forgiving the offender. Also, the feeling of anger may come back to a lesser degree from time to time; but eventually, the fact of forgiveness overcomes the fact of the offense, and the memory of the offense loses its power to cause negative feelings.

But be sure that you have prayed, turning the penalty of the offense over to God. Sometimes Christians only pray, asking God to help them forgive. He may honor this kind of prayer; but His command is to forgive. So be obedient and pray, relinquishing all "rights" to "get even."

If the angry feelings do not subside, or if they come back from time to time, pray, telling God that you have been obedient to his command to forgive, that in obedience you have turned the offense over to him, that He has promised to square all accounts, and that you know that He will square all accounts. Then ask him to change your feelings toward the offender in His good time.

While you are waiting for God to change your feelings toward the offender, obey another of God's commands; and it is likely that He will change your feelings toward the offender as you are obedient to this additional command.

He has commanded that you love your enemy (Luke 6:27,28). This Scripture passage does not mean that you must "feel good" toward your enemy (the one who has offended you). Instead it means that, as an act, or acts, of the will, you dedicate yourself to doing good for him, without regard to how badly you "feel" toward him.

Jesus gives three ways to love your enemy. The first way to love your enemy is to do good things for him. That is, to do good and helpful things for him or to provide good or necessary things for him. The second way to love your enemy is to "bless him." "Blessing him" means complimenting him or saying good things about him to others. Be careful that your compliments and what you say about him to others is truth and not flattery. The third way to love your enemy is to pray for him. Pray for God's will to be worked out in his life. Pray for his good, not for God to change him according to your desires.

There may be situations where it is inappropriate or impossible to do good things for an enemy, but it is always possible to pray for an enemy as long as he lives.

Do not let your feelings control you. Instead, be obedient to God's command to forgive. Be obedient to God's command to love your enemy. Leave the feelings to God. You may be surprised how quickly He will change your feelings toward the offender. But if He does not choose to change your feelings as soon as you would like, you can still be obedient to His commands, and he will be pleased with your obedience.

*Editorial Note: Neither vertical forgiveness (releasing the penalty of the offense to God through prayer--Mark 11:25) nor horizontal forgiveness (releasing the offense to a repentant offender--Luke 17:3-4) require that the offended person act as if he has forgotten, if love demands otherwise. For a detailed study of all six kinds of forgiveness, see Forgiveness: The Power and the Puzzles by Wendell E. Miller.

Copyright 1986 by Wendell E. Miller
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