Why Is It So Hard to Forgive?
All of us need forgiveness. But too often we treat forgiveness like it’s optional, when in reality, it’s a prerequisite to grow in our faith. Discover hope and truth from different biblical accounts about forgiveness as we receive it for ourselves and extend it to others.
What is forgiveness, and why is it hard?
When we’re born, we have so much to learn. We have to learn how to speak, walk, and write, among so many other things. But no one has to teach us to do the wrong thing. There’s no class we have to take to show us how to be selfish, hurt others, or sabotage relationships. We know how to disobey God and sin against Him and others from the moment we’re born.
That means that every single one of us needs the forgiveness God offers. The amazing news is that God provides a way for all of our sins — past, present, and future — to be cast away from us. All we have to do is say yes to the saving grace offered through the death of Jesus on the cross. God’s love for us is extravagant, and He loves to lavish His love upon us. One way He does it is by extending forgiveness to us. It’s incredibly simple, but not always easy to grasp.
So, what is forgiveness?
It’s a choice. It’s releasing feelings of resentment. It surrenders our desire for retaliation.
Why is it so hard to forgive?
We feel it means no justice for our pain. We can’t stop the hurt, which then invades our thoughts. We think other people’s sin is worse than ours.
What happens when we are forgiven?
We receive an undeserving gift. We get to offer this gift to another. We get to start over.
What happens when we forgive others? We’re spared an embittered heart. We’re given peace of mind. We’re obeying God.
One final thing to know about forgiveness is what it isn’t. When someone wounds us, forgiving them doesn’t mean they aren’t held accountable nor does it mean we ignore what they did. It doesn’t mean we pretend the hurt never happened, that we condone what they did, or think we can actually forget it. Forgiveness simply means we’re letting it go, moving forward, and not allowing it to dictate our lives.
When we allow unforgiveness to take root in our hearts and grow into a bitter product, we’ll never fully experience freedom in our hearts. In order to grow and mature in our faith, we need to extend forgiveness to others.
The story of Joseph comes from Genesis, the first book in the Old Testament. He’s the son of Jacob, whom God eventually renamed Israel. Joseph’s life is one filled with hardship, because his brothers sold him into slavery at age 17.
Shortly after Joseph arrived in Egypt, he was sold to the captain of the guard named Potiphar. Genesis 39 tells us that “the Lord was with Joseph, so he succeeded in everything he did”, and that included serving under Potiphar. Joseph eventually became the personal attendant to Potiphar and was in charge of everything in his home.
While most things seemed to be going well in Potiphar’s house, Potiphar’s wife stirred up trouble. She made continual sexual advances at Joseph, but he remained a man of integrity. In fact, Genesis 39:10 says that “she kept putting pressure on Joseph day after day, but he refused to sleep with her.” Unfortunately, Joseph was thrown into prison where he would spend the next decade being held captive for something he didn’t do.
Heartache and hardship were both prevalent in Joseph’s young life, and yet, he didn’t stop working hard or being a man of integrity. While those traits are to be applauded, the most impressive lesson we can learn from Joseph’s life was his ability to forgive his brothers. They betrayed him so deeply, yet he chose to forgive them and see the bigger picture.
In Genesis 50:20, Joseph said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” When Joseph was 17 and sold into slavery, he didn’t know how God was working out all of the details of his future. Joseph could’ve been bitter and angry, but instead, he worked hard no matter where he was and what his circumstances held. As time went by, Joseph understood why these events occurred in his life.
We’ve all been through things in our lives that were difficult. Some of them were caused by someone else, and some of them we brought upon ourselves. Regardless of how we find ourselves in unwanted situations, God can certainly use them to benefit others.
Perhaps someone betrayed you so deeply that you don’t think you can ever trust again. There could have been a loss in your life that caused your hope to evaporate. Those aren’t enjoyable experiences, but how we walk and heal through them could be the key to unlocking not just our own freedom, but also someone else’s.
Is there an area where you’re harboring bitterness and need to forgive someone for how they hurt you? Ask God to reveal it to you. In time, He’ll show you how He can redeem your pain to benefit someone else.
- Genesis 37:18–28, Genesis 39, Genesis 40:1–4, Genesis 41:14–32, Genesis 41:39–46, Genesis 42:5–7, Genesis 45:1–8, Genesis 50:19–21, 2 Corinthians 1:3–4
The Unforgiving Debtor
One of the most profound examples of forgiveness in the Bible is when Jesus told about a king who wanted to settle his debts. One man owed the king a lot of money and couldn’t repay him, so he fell facedown and begged for mercy. The king had pity on him and mercifully forgave the debt.
After reading that, we’d assume that the forgiven man would be overwhelmed with gratitude, right? The amount he was forgiven was a debt he’d never be able to repay. And not only that, his family wasn’t harmed. Sadly, we see in the very next verse that he did not extend this same mercy to a man who owed him a tiny fraction of what he owed the king. He even had the man arrested and imprisoned until he could pay back the debt.
Something changed in this man’s heart from the time he was on his knees begging the king to have mercy on him for his debt until he got up and saw the man who owed him a much smaller amount. What was it?
One of the greatest components of forgiveness is employing empathy. When we show empathy toward another, we’re placing ourselves in their situation and showing compassion and understanding. The man forgiven the great debt by the king didn’t choose to show empathy toward the man who actually owed him very little.
If we’re all honest, we probably see ourselves in this story. How often have we chosen not to forgive someone for something they’ve done to hurt us yet we happily receive the forgiveness that God offers us? We’ve all sinned. Profusely. And every single last sin of ours falls short of God’s perfect standard.
Often, we view our sin differently. We may consider our sins to be small compared to others’, but all sin is contrary to God’s ways. The only difference? Some sins have bigger consequences — some may be small, while others may be life-altering.
We never know the full story or background in someone’s life. We don’t always understand what experiences have hindered their lives. But, a very important part of extending forgiveness is choosing a perspective that isn’t just our own. Showing empathy requires some work on our part. Often, it’s not natural for us, but could be the very key to walking in freedom by extending forgiveness to others.
Is there someone you’re withholding forgiveness from? Someone whose sin against you wasn’t as bad as you feel it was? Does your punishment of withholding forgiveness not fit their actual “crime”? Ask God to show you who you need to forgive and offer that forgiveness.
The Woman Caught in Adultery
One day when Jesus was teaching in the Temple courts, the religious leaders and teachers brought a woman to Jesus because of her sin. They told Jesus that this woman was caught in the act of adultery. Jesus didn’t need to be reminded about the law, but they did it anyway. “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women” (Leviticus 20:10 NIV). Then they asked Jesus what he thought about the matter.
Calmly, Jesus bent down to do something unexpected — He started writing in the dirt. Then, He said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Mark 8:7 NIV). He bent back down to continue writing in the dirt, and gradually, the accusers slipped away.
An interesting part in this story is that they were trying to trap Jesus with the question. They wanted to see if he would uphold the law or not, and yet, they didn’t uphold the law fully. If this woman was caught in the act of adultery, they neglected to bring the man she was with — because the law said that both were to be killed.
Jesus asked the woman where her accusers went, said that He wasn’t condemning her, and told her to leave her life of sin. There was no speech about “how could you have done this!” nor was there a 10-step process given to her to help her get out of the mess she was in. There was just a simple, yet powerful command voiced by a tender Savior who really did want her to “go and leave her life of sin.”
For Jesus to tell this woman that He doesn’t condemn her and then to send her on her way was a disgrace to the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They abided fully by their laws, which ushered in spiritual elitism. It was all they had and relied on. If only they knew how much forgiveness from Jesus could enrich their lives.
We may be the ones who need forgiveness in any situation. Maybe we’re the ones who’ve committed an unspeakable act that we haven’t even processed. And to that we need to hear from Jesus — He doesn’t condemn us but desires that we leave our lives our sin. But we also may be the ones who need to extend forgiveness. This woman committed a sin that had death as its consequence, and yet Jesus didn’t condemn her.
As you process this story of significant forgiveness and redemption, ask God to search your heart and help you see where forgiveness either needs to be received or extended.
Peter’s Denial of Jesus
The first time Jesus said, “Come, follow me” was to a man named Peter. His resume wasn’t lengthy, for he was just a simple fisherman. However, Peter would come to be one of the most, if not the most valued disciple of Jesus. He was a clear leader, almost always mentioned first when they were listed, and was a part of Jesus’s “inner circle.”
Peter was very outspoken, so much so that he declared in Matthew 26:33, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” Yet, when the time came for Peter to speak up and claim his friendship with the Savior of the world, he froze. And he wasn’t just silent, he completely denied Jesus and disassociated himself from knowing or following him.
Now, that’s something that can’t be forgiven, right? To sin by lying or cheating or stealing is bad, but to deny Jesus Christ feels like something you can’t come back from. You can’t pull those words back into your mouth after they’ve disappeared into thin air. And after the rooster crowed, Peter became keenly aware at what he’d just done, and he wept profusely.
But Jesus — being fully God and fully man — knew what Peter would do before He called him to be a disciple. Jesus knew the depth of anguish Peter would feel once the deafening realization of his actions became clear to him. Jesus knew this incredible misstep in Peter’s life would be the catalyst to push him toward being a world changer and carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus knew, and yet, He still chose him. And later, He not only forgave Peter, but reinstated him.
Maybe you’ve done something in your life that you feel you can’t come back from. Something you said or did had such bleak and disheartening consequences that you have no idea how the God of the universe could ever forgive you. Well, good news — that’s why He sent Jesus.
The sin of the entire world, everyone who would ever live, was placed upon our Savior as He hung despairingly on the cross. Every awful thought, repulsive action, or hateful word that goes against the perfection of God’s standard is covered by the blood that ran down our Savior’s body. And as He took his final breath and departed from this earth, every one of those sins went with Him.
As you process through your own sin and poor choices that have not only affected your life but also the lives of others, consider Jesus. He knew we’d be steeped in our sin and even with that understanding, He still died for us.
And if the perfect Son of God can forgive us, shouldn’t we find a way to forgive others?