The Promise of Forgiveness

When we let go of others’ wrongs, we find true freedom.

Walls have been used throughout human history, for both protection and separation. Perhaps the most impressive one ever constructed is the Great Wall of China, which is an amazing 13,170 miles long. However, the most famous one in modern times was the Berlin Wall, a barrier that cut a city in half and prevented German citizens from traveling freely.

But physical walls aren’t the only ones humans build. Because of our need to feel secure, we sometimes erect invisible boundaries to keep other people from getting too close. Unforgiveness is one of these walls. It’s meant to keep out the one who wronged us, but it also keeps us imprisoned in the self-destructive consequences of bitterness.

When Jesus was asked how many times to forgive a brother, He told a story about a slave who owed an exorbitant amount of money to the king (Matt. 18:23-35). Although the king forgave him, that man then refused to excuse the debt of a fellow slave who owed him a small sum. When the king heard about it, he imprisoned the unforgiving slave.

Why is unforgiveness a problem?

At times it’s obvious when someone is harboring unforgiveness: Mention the offender’s name, and all sorts of negative emotions bubble to the surface. But other times an unforgiving spirit may not be so apparent because it’s been repressed or denied. A person might wonder why he feels critical or distrustful, without realizing these emotions are symptoms of something deeper.

Unforgiveness is like a balloon. If we try to suppress it in one area of our life, it will pop out in another one. This is no way to live, and it’s certainly not what God intends for us. According to Ephesians 4:31, we are to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice—each of which is evidence of an unforgiving spirit. And in Hebrews 12:15, we are warned not to let a root of bitterness spring up, causing trouble and defiling those around us.

Why should we forgive?

The biggest problem with forgiveness is that it doesn’t seem fair. After all, justice requires that a guilty person pay for his offense. Therefore, if the wrong cannot be undone, then holding a grudge seems like the best option. But doing so disregards God’s will and results in devastating lifelong repercussions.

Jesus calls us to forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer, He says to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Then He adds a warning: “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:15). Now, this doesn’t mean we’ll lose our salvation if we hold onto grievances, but unforgiveness brings sorrow to the Holy Spirit, is contrary to Christ’s lavish pardon of our sins, and hinders our communion with God. (See Eph. 4:30-32 NLT.)

Forgiveness is a Christlike characteristic. No one suffered more unjustly than Jesus or forgave more freely. Although He was sinless, all our sins were placed on Him as He hung on the cross and paid the penalty we deserved. When we forgive others as Christ did, His life is displayed in us, and He gets the glory (Gal. 2:20).

Unforgiveness is harmful to us. It not only causes emotional, mental, physical, and relational problems, but like any other sin, it also stifles us spiritually because we’re not walking in the Spirit. John warns that anyone who claims he’s in the Light but hates his brother stumbles around in the darkness of sin, and his eyes are blinded to his true condition (1 John 2:9-11).

How can we recover from an unforgiving spirit?

Through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we Christians have within us the ability to obey God’s commands. And that includes forgiving whoever has wronged us—no matter how great the offense. However, working through forgiveness requires time and healing, much like recovering from an illness.

Repent of the sin of unforgiveness. Repentance means a change of mind and direction. The first step is to take responsibility and confess our sin to God. Then we must change the way we think about our offender so we can begin to respond differently. This is exactly what Paul told the Ephesians to do: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).

Release the offender. The Greek word for forgive means “to let go or give up a debt.” Unforgiveness is an attempt to make the other person pay for what he’s done, and that is what we must release. Instead of demanding justice, we are called to trust God as the Judge. Peter says a person who patiently endures mistreatment finds favor with God (1 Peter 2:19-21).

Recognize that God will often use an offense to reveal a weakness. An unforgiving spirit is an ugly part of us that the Lord wants to bring into the open so we can repent and be free of it. Although we’re focusing on the wrong done to us, God wants to use the situation to produce in us what we are lacking: Christlike character and humility (Col. 3:12-13).

Remember how often and how much God has forgiven us. Whenever we come, confessing our sins to the Lord, we have His promise of forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9). Considering how God has so graciously forgiven us, what right do we have to hold anything against others (Matt. 18:32-33)?

So much is at stake when it comes to forgiveness. We either hold onto our “right” to have vengeance, or we release it to God. The first choice leads to a miserable prison of our own making. But the second results in glorious freedom, restored joy, and restful peace in God. Which will you choose?


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31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.

15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;

12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

15 But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

30 Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.

32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

9 The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now.

10 The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him.

11 But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.

20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.

21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps,

12 So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience;

13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

23 For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.

24 When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.

25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made.

26 So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, `Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.'

27 And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.

28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, `Pay back what you owe.'

29 So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, `Have patience with me and I will repay you.'

30 But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.

31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened.

32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, `You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.

33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?'

34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.

35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."

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