One thing about me is that I am very tolerant and willing to “forgive and forget” … until I’m not.  Back in elementary school, I had a girl in my class that I called my friend, but she wasn’t exactly a friend in return. Over the years, I tolerated, accepted her, and even defended her as she excluded me, expected me to do the majority of work on our school projects, and called me names like “uncultured swine.”

It wasn’t until we were both in high school that I snapped one day. She asked me for a small favor as we prepared our presentations for English class, and I told her I wouldn’t help her.  She was so mad that she ignored me for two days. From then on, she became my nemesis. I was angry, bitter, and completely unwilling to forgive.

For those of you like me, who struggle to forgive, I can imagine that the anger you feel consumes many of your thoughts. You may have resentment that you have held on to for so long that it feels like it has rooted deep inside your heart. And the burden of the unforgiveness is so heavy, but it seems like it is impossible to let go. If this rings true for you, I can relate to you well. I have lived with these feelings against many people for many years, and I still struggle at times to let go.

There are three problems with unforgiveness. The first is that Jesus has commanded us to forgive. In Matthew 6:12, Jesus tells His disciples how to pray, saying, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus has forgiven us for a debt we cannot pay, a debt that would lead to death and hell. When we refuse to forgive others, we not only refuse to obey Jesus, we forget the great price Jesus paid for our own forgiveness.

The second problem with unforgiveness is that it prevents us from living in the freedom Jesus Christ offers. 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 says, “And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” When we refuse to forgive and refuse to pass the need for justice (or more truthfully, the need for retribution) to Jesus, we lock ourselves into a cage filled with all-consuming anger, selfishness, and victimhood.

We tell ourselves over and over again, “Oh poor me, life is so unfair. When is someone coming to rescue me?” But Jesus has already come and offered us a way out. As He said in John 8:32, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” And what is that truth? That God is more than enough, that no man can put you in a place where God doesn’t want you to be. But when we hold on to resentment over what has happened to us, we trap ourselves in a self-made pit of despair.

If those two reasons in and of themselves don’t help you want to get rid of your unforgiveness, then consider this. Your focus on the anger you feel towards this other person destines you to become just like them. Without Jesus, the only way to escape victimhood is to become a victimizer. The person you hate with all your might will be you. You will hurt other people the exact same way you have been hurt. Forgiveness is the only way to prevent this from happening.

Before talking about how to forgive, let’s clarify what exactly forgiveness is and is not. Because forgiveness is not making what the other person did okay. It is not making them your friend again, especially if they have no remorse for their actions. And it is not you being weak, or tolerant, or gullible. I see forgiveness as removing ourselves from the situation and passing the burden, the anger, and the bitterness to God. Forgiveness involves recognizing that no matter what anyone does to us, it is God that allowed it to happen. To some extent, forgiveness is giving up our sense of control over our lives and making peace with God’s plan for us.

A great example of forgiveness in the Bible is the story of Joseph. As  mad as I get for what some of the people in my life have done to me, I’ve got nothing on Joseph. Joseph’s brothers tossed him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Then, to top it all off, his owner’s wife lied and got him thrown into prison. I would think that there were many times where Joseph sat there cursing out his brothers and building his plans for revenge. He may have waited and waited for the day when the opportunity for payback would come.

One day, that opportunity did come. God put Joseph in the position of Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and Joseph helped Egypt prepare for a famine after Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of having seven years of plenty and seven years of few. So when the famine came, and everyone around Egypt had nothing to eat, many, including Joseph’s brothers, came looking for food. Instead of letting his family starve, he gave them food, welcomed them into Egypt, and helped them find land in Goshen, some of the most luscious land in all of Egypt.

So how did Joseph do it? How did he not only forgive his brothers, but help them to prosper? Joseph made peace with God. He recognized that God had a good purpose bringing him into Egypt. In Genesis 45:8, Joseph says to his brothers, “So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.” Joseph handed over the responsibility of what happened to him over to God, and then he didn’t have to hold onto the anger over what his brothers did. Joseph could live in the freedom of how God redeemed his slavery and allowed him to save his family.

I love how Joseph sees the good in what God has done, evident in Genesis 50:19-20, where it says, “And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” Likewise, when we accept that God has a good plan for the trials in life that we go through, it no longer matters what someone has done to us.

I encourage you to use Joseph as a role model for forgiveness. Here is what I take away as the steps to forgiveness:

  1. You have to pray and say the words, “I forgive them.” You have to separate yourself from the person.
  2. Ask God to take away any anger and bitterness you hold on to. 1 Peter 5:7 says to “cast all your care upon Him; for he careth for you.”
  3. Trust that you are where God wants you to be and that you wouldn’t be where you are today without going through what you have gone through.
  4. Instead of focusing on that one person, think about Jesus and His goodness. Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Speaking from experience, when you’ve held on to resentment for a long time, these steps are not a one and done thing. You have to keep coming back to Jesus and giving Him your anger, trading it for His joy and His peace. Just start with making the choice to forgive and live out the freedom and peace that forgiveness brings, one day at a time.

— Written by Erin

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