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How to Forgive Others

Posted by Rich McCaskill on

A Preliminary Understanding of Forgiveness

It is ironic that right after studying forgiveness I found myself counseling a friend about forgiveness in his marriage. And then, the following week, I had to ask for forgiveness in my own marriage.

No one escapes this need to be forgiven. And all of us have people in our lives who we will have to forgive.

Needing Forgiveness

All of us mess up from time to time, whether in small ways or big ways. The way the Bible phrases this is interesting. It says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.“[1]

It is quite a bracing statement!

All have sinned? Not just some? Not just those people over there, or those people over there?

Yes! According to the Bible, all have sinned, including this person right here. Me, you, all of us, fall short of God’s glory.

But what does this mean – to fall short of God’s glory?

There are two ways in which God is glorious.

First of all the maker of the universe is glorious in appearance. God’s appearance is more glorious than the moon; he shines brighter than the stars.[2] This is why the nations will tremble before the Lord. The kings of the earth will tremble before his glory.[3] When John saw the glory of Jesus he “fell at his feet as though dead”[4] His glorious appearance was also seen on the Road to Damascus where Jesus spoke to Paul. We are told his glory shone brighter than the sun.[5] But is this what we are falling short of?

I don’t think so.

The second and more significant way that God is glorious, is in his character. The character of God is glorious. We can see this when he reveals himself to Moses and gives us his divine resume.

 The Maker of the Universe came down in a cloud and stood there with Moses; and he called out his own name,

 “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,”[6]

This is the glorious character of God. He is merciful. He is full of love. He is not flaky, fickle, or inconsistent. He is dependable and always keeps his promises. He is patient and slow to anger. He is gracious and when he is wronged he forgives. This is the glorious character of God. And if we know ourselves very well, we will realize that we fall short of it.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit we are quick to judge. We say hurtful things we later regret. Sometimes we say these things to a person’s face and sometimes behind their back. We defend ourselves and make ourselves look good rather than taking responsibility and doing whatever it takes to care for others. When people hurt us, we harbor a grudge and refuse to forgive. We give them the cold shoulder or ghost them.

You already knew this was true of others because you have experienced it firsthand. But the Bible is trying to help us see that we too create the same pain, incur the same debt and bear the same guilt. We too suffer from the same illness, and find ourselves stubbornly sick with sin. This is the reality of being human and the reason why we fall short of God’s glorious character.

If we can humble ourselves enough to swallow this bitter pill about our own shortcomings and imperfections, then it creates for us the possibility of a new life. Like the red pill Morpheus gave Neo, this bitter pill opens up a new world for us to enter.

An ancient proverb explains this nicely-

“Pride leads to disgrace,
    but with humility comes wisdom.”[7]

If we insist in pride that we are “not all that bad” or “just as good as the next person,” then we will miss out on the wisdom that comes from humility. Humbly admitting that we fall short is a sign that we are not hopeless. It is a sign that we are not doomed. In fact, humbly admitting our wrongs is a sign of new life beginning to flower within our soul. Swallowing this bitter pill and admitting in humility that we do need forgiveness, opens up the possibility of a new future both in our relationship with God and in our relationships with the people we have hurt.

God's Response to Us

Admitting we need forgiveness opens the door for us to experience one of God’s greatest gifts – the gift of G R A C E. Grace is undeserved kindness. It is getting something good we do not deserve, did not earn, and cannot afford to buy. And it is grace that ushers us into right standing with God. But we cannot experience grace until we lay down our pride. Then the proverb proves to be true after all – “The path of those in right standing with God is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”[8] 

This grace is how God treats us when we admit our shortcomings! It floods our hearts with hope and spills over into the way we treat each other.

Our Response to Others

As recipients of grace, when someone wrongs us, we do not demand that they make it up to us. In most cases, the hurt they have inflicted on us is so deep that they simply can’t "make it up". As recipients of grace, we do not punish them further and try to get even. As recipients of forgiveness, we hear their apology and by God’s grace forgive their wrongdoing. We practice the New testament command to “Forgive [in the present] as the Lord [in the past] forgave you.”[9]

This all comes through the power of the cross where Jesus suffered and died for the wrongs of humanity. The injustices and the injuries of others were borne in his body and they were swept away when he prayed “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus was taking away all of the guilt, and by removing it, he was removing our need for revenge.

As tough as this is, you will find it very freeing to forgive the person who hurt you and to put their sin on the cross with Jesus. When done sincerely from the heart this act liberates you. Whatever they did to you, Jesus can carry it away and give you the power to forgive them. It is as simple and complex as that.

An amazing example of this was in the news when Dylan Roof, a young white man killed nine members of a Bible Study group in South Carolina at a historic black church. When his initial hearing came up before the judge, many of the family members were there.

But shockingly, instead of anger and rage, these family members of the victims expressed forgiveness. This was a radical and beautiful example of how Christian faith gives people the supernatural ability to forgive others who have hurt them in the most painful ways.

The Huffington Post, in their article “Victims’ Families Meet Dylann Roof” reports that Nadine Collier, the daughter of victim Ethel Lance, said to Roof

“I forgive you, I will never talk to her ever again, never be able to hold her again. I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”[10]

Alana Simmons, granddaughter of victim Daniel Simmons, also spoke to the suspect.

“Hate won’t win,” she said. “My grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate. Everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love and their legacies live in love.”[11]

Asking for Forgiveness

Sometimes we are the ones in the wrong, and need to ask for forgiveness. As Taylor Swift models for us in her song “This is me swallowing my pride standing in front of you saying I’m sorry”   

We all need to say these words to our Creator, and as human beings, we will also need to say these words to the people we do life with. When expressing an apology remember that “humility precedes honor.”[12]

Anytime there has been an injury done to another person an apology is necessary.

But not all apologies are created equal.

I used to tell my wife “I’m sorry that you were upset.” This turned out to be an anti-apology. Essentially my “apology” was just a way to manipulate her and to make her feel guilty for being upset. Instead of throwing myself under the bus, I was throwing her under the bus. I have since learned that a proper apology is just a straight up “I’m sorry.” Period. End of sentence. If a more detailed apology is needed, then I make sure it includes an “I” statement and not a “you” statement. “I’m sorry I was a jerk.” Is so much better than “I’m sorry you were upset.”

The person I have hurt has no obligation to forgive me. In fact they may not be able to. There are several factors here. I may have hurt them very deeply. I may have hurt them repeatedly. They may doubt the sincerity of my apology and think that I am just blowing smoke or trying to manipulate them. Sometimes forgiveness comes right away but many times a person needs time to think pray and read Scripture. A sure way to kill our chances at forgiveness is to keep doing the hurtful behavior even after we have said we are sorry.

To say we are sorry means nothing if we continue to do the same things over and over.

A genuine apology is word AND deed. I must say I am sorry for overspending on the credit card and I must also actually stop overspending on the credit card. I must apologize for being selfish and also stop being selfish.

When we engage in these conversations our tone of voice makes such a big difference. Speaking gently and softly is the path to restoration. A harsh tone, or sarcasm, or eye-rolling, these all spell death. The ancient proverbs are right “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.[13] A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.[14] When reconciling our differences we must answer softly and gently.

Granting forgiveness

Maybe you are like Cori Ten Boom and you have been gravely wronged. What are you to do?

Jesus’ calling to you is to treat others the way he has treated you.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, forgive their sins the way God has forgiven yours.

In Matthew 18 Jesus tells a heart-hitting parable of a man whose exorbitant debts were cancelled by a gracious king only to turn around and go throw his neighbor into debtors prison over a few hundred dollars. When the king heard about this hypocrisy he brought him in and rebuked him. “You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’”[15]

How much debt have you and I been forgiven by God?

The debt was so high it cost Jesus his life to pay it off. Now shouldn’t we have mercy on others? (Consider the Lord's Prayer)

Forgiving someone does not imply that what they did was OK. It wasn’t OK, it was wrong, so wrong that Jesus had to die for it. Forgiving someone simply means that you are going to let God judge them and that you are not going to hold it against them anymore. When we forgive others like this we find a great burden lifted from our shoulders and a new sense of freedom. When we forgive, we reflect the glory of God whose character we already learned is to be merciful and gracious.  We give that person grace – something good that they do not deserve, and in this way, we point them towards the Savior.

Steps for a Christian to forgive someone who has hurt them:

(you will need: your Bible, a journal and a pen)

Step 1. Write down what they did to wrong you and name it as best you can. The bigger the wrong the more names it will need.

Step 2. Write down how it made you feel.

Step 3. Look up these verses and copy them down by hand onto your own paper  (Matthew 18:21-22; Luke 6:37; Acts 13:38; 2 Corinthians 2:7; Colossians 3:13; 1 John 1:9) and sit quietly with your eyes closed meditating on their meaning. Let's God's word sink in.

Step 4. Write out a lament prayer telling God how you have been hurt (For a Biblical Example read Lamentations chapter 3). Be honest in your lament and be raw - God can handle it.

Step 5. Write down a petition prayer asking Jesus to help you forgive. (For a Biblical Example see Luke 22:42)

Step 6. When you are ready, pray these words out loud “Heavenly Father, I put my sins on the cross of your son Jesus Christ. I accept your grace and your love that covers a multitude of my sins (1 Peter 4:8). Thank you Jesus for forgiving me for all of my sins. Now I want to extend that same forgiveness to __ insert the person’s name_. By the power of your Holy Spirit, whose fruit is love, I forgive _insert the person’s name_ for __describe and name the wrong they did___.  I put their sin into your just and righteous hands. I choose to forgive them from my heart. Help me to forgive them from my heart the way you have forgiven me. In Jesus’ name, amen!”

Step 7. You may need to repeat some, or all, of these steps in the following days and months ahead depending on how deep the hurt was.

Step 8. Consider sharing your journey of forgiveness with a trusted friend, a Missional Community leader, or an elder who can pray with you and support you in the journey.


[1] Romans 3:23

[2] Job 25:5

[3] Psalm 102:15

[4] Revelation 1:17

[5] Acts 26:13

[6] Exodus 34:6 English Standard Version

[7] Proverbs 11:2

[8] Proverbs 4:18

[9] Colossians 3:13

[10] The Huffington Post, “Victims’ families meet Dylann Roof: I forgive you and have mercy on your soul” Huffingtonpost.com https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/19/dylann-roof-family_n_7623252.html (last accessed 12/1/2018)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Proverbs 15:33

[13] Proverbs 25:15

[14] Proverbs 15:1

[15] Matthew 18:32-33