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How can I develop a forgiving spirit?

Receiving God’s forgiveness and sharing it with others

5 min

When you’ve been wronged, becoming bitter toward your offender is natural and seems like the way to get revenge. However, this response actually harms you more than it harms your offender! To be bitter is to be in bondage to hatred and wrath. You will experience the destructive consequences of bitterness, including the separation from God, until you choose to walk in the freedom of forgiveness.

Forgiving someone is not easy to do, but God can empower you to do so through the gift of His grace. (See Hebrews 12:15.) An understanding of the following foundational truths can help you respond to an offense supernaturally and 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 same servant refused to be merciful to someone who owed him a much smaller amount of money! Because of the servant’s lack of true repentance, shown by choosing to not forgive the one who owed him the smaller debt, the master reinstated the servant’s original debt and punished him severely. (See Matthew 18:21–35.)

Men and women tend to respond like the unforgiving servant. We hold onto grudges against one another but ignore, downplay, or excuse the magnitude of our own debt of sin against God and His great mercy toward us.

Recognizing God’s mercy should motivate you to forgive others. (See Luke 7:40–50.) If you cannot forgive from your heart, then ask God to open your eyes to see your sin for what it is, and to value the forgiveness He has lavishly given you! Forgiveness extends to others the same mercy that God showed you when He forgave the debt of sin you could never repay.

Forgiveness extends to others the same mercy that God showed you when He forgave the debt of sin you could never repay.

Realize that God is able to work good, even through the actions of your offender.

Many individuals in Scripture recognized that their offenders were instruments in God’s hand as He 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 (e.g., to develop your personal character or to open new opportunities), the negative impact of both the offender and the offense is greatly diminished, and you are able to place your focus and your faith on God’s purpose for your life, even if you do not see or understand that purpose yet.

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 you are offended, you should respond in faith, asking God to redeem what was meant for evil and thanking Him for the good purposes that only He is able to accomplish through it. “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (I Thessalonians 5:18). God is always at work, even when people hurt you, and thanking Him takes the focus off of yourself and gives you hope where the real hope is found. God is your Savior in all circumstances.

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 desire to see harm come to him, but you cannot pardon him from the consequences unless you have the authority to do so.

For example, if a man killed someone in your family, with God’s grace you could forgive him and want to help him come to repentance, but you could not pardon him from the effects and consequences of his crime. Under the law, he would still be guilty before God and before the legal authorities and should be held responsible for his actions.

In a similar fashion, unless you are in a place of authority, your responsibility is not to dole out consequences or ensure punishment for wrong actions. A person’s natural response is to demand “payment,” and he may try to execute justice by reacting to his offender with a physical altercation, maligning gossip, the “silent treatment” or the opposite: harsh, hurtful words. But this natural response is not God’s way. 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). Indeed, according to Matthew 18:6–7, offenders are warned regarding the severe judgment their sin will reap. 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. 

Voluntarily bless the life of the one who has caused the offense.

In appropriate instances, an important aspect of forgiveness can be making an “investment” in the life of the one who has caused the offense. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). When you willingly choose to benefit or bless your offenders, God can supernaturally give you His love toward them.

Along with the counsel of a wise mentor, ask God how He might want you to demonstrate His love to your offenders. You can invest in their lives through a variety of ways: 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 others after they have offended you than you had before they offended you. Their offenses can open your heart to cooperating with God’s work in their lives, and your sincere love for them can allow you, or others God brings into the situation, to minister to them and help them 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 1:2–4).

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