How can I develop a forgiving spirit?
When you’ve been wronged, becoming bitter toward your offender feels like a way to get revenge. However, this response actually harms you more than it harms your offender, because to be bitter is to be in bondage to hatred and wrath. You will experience the destructive consequences of bitterness until you choose to walk in the freedom of forgiveness.
It is not easy to forgive, but God makes it possible through the gift of His grace. (See Hebrews 12:15.) An understanding of the following foundational truths can help you respond to an offense with a forgiving heart.
Consider how much God has forgiven you.
Jesus spoke of a servant who owed a great deal of money to his master. The servant had no hope of repaying the debt, and his master mercifully released him from it. Later that very servant refused to be merciful to someone who owed him a small amount of money. Because of the servant’s choice to not forgive the one who owed him a small debt, the master reinstated the servant’s original debt and punished him severely. (See Matthew 18:21–35.)
Men and women tend to act like the unforgiving servant. We hold onto grudges against one another and ignore, downplay, or excuse the magnitude of our debt of sin against God.
Receiving God’s mercy should motivate you to forgive others. (See Luke 7:40–50.) Truly, any wrong that is done to you falls short of the punishment you deserve because of how deeply your sin has offended God. Forgiveness extends to others the same mercy that God showed you when He forgave the debt of sin you could not pay.
Realize that God is working through the actions of your offender.
Many individuals in Scripture recognized that their offenders were instruments in God’s hand as God worked to accomplish His purposes in their lives. This understanding helped them forgive their enemies and seek God’s redemption in painful situations. (See Genesis 50:20, Job 1:21, and II Samuel 16:5–13.)
If you focus on your offender and the offense, you will have a hard time avoiding bitterness. However, when you view the offense as something God can use for good in your life (to develop your personal character, to open new opportunities, etc.), the significance of both the offender and the offense is greatly diminished, and your response to the offense becomes the major concern.
Jesus Christ is the greatest example of One Who forgave freely. In the midst of His suffering, He was not bitter toward those who beat Him and nailed Him to the cross. Jesus knew they were carrying out the purpose of God for His life, and He prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He chose to love instead of hate. He chose to trust and obey His Father rather than take vengeance on His enemies.
When we are offended, we should respond in faith, thanking God for the good purposes He will accomplish through the experience. “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (I Thessalonians 5:18).
Recognize the difference between forgiveness and pardon.
Forgiveness and pardon are separate issues. Forgiveness is a personal decision to release an offender from your condemnation. Pardon is a release from the legal penalties of an offense. You can forgive an offender and no longer hate him or wish him harm, but you cannot pardon him unless you have the authority to do so.
For example, if a man killed someone in your family, you could forgive him and want to help him come to repentance, but you could not pardon him. He would still be guilty before God and before the law and would be held responsible for his actions.
In a similar fashion, unless you are in a place of authority, it is not your responsibility to dole out consequences for wrong actions. You can trust God to be just in every situation. “Recompense to no man evil for evil. . . . Avenge not yourselves . . . for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:17–19). God works through authority structures (family, church, employment, and government), life circumstances, and final judgment at the end of time to bring justice to offenders. (See Matthew 18:6–7.)
Voluntarily invest in the life of your offender.
In appropriate instances, an important aspect of forgiveness can be the ability to invest in the life of your offender. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). When you willingly give to an offender, God can supernaturally give you sincere love toward him.
Ask God how He wants you to demonstrate His love to your offender. You should be able to invest in his life through prayer, words of affirmation, acts of service, or material gifts. “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20–21).
Whether the offense was intentional or not, forgiveness enables you to have a greater concern for a person after he offends you than you had before he offended you. It opens your heart to cooperating with God’s work in his life, and your sincere love for him allows you to minister to him and help him mature.
Understand that suffering is part of the Christian life.
Scripture states, “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29). “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Timothy 3:12). “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (II Timothy 2:12).
As a follower of Christ, you can rejoice in suffering because of the good work God intends to accomplish through it. When offenses usher you into the classroom of trials and tribulations, you have an opportunity to grow in maturity and be filled with a greater understanding of God’s love.
“We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:3–5).
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1:2–5).
This material is adapted from the Basic Seminar Textbook, pages 79–81, and pages 80–90 of the Basic Seminar Follow-Up Course.