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Why We Don’t Forgive: Four Simple Reasons

“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”- Anne Lamott

“The weak do not forgive.  Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” – Nelson Mandela

We all generally agree with statements like these, so why don’t we do a better job of forgiving one another?

The easy answer is that we don’t want to, but there’s more to it than that.

We don’t forgive because we don’t understand what forgiveness actually is. 

Contrary to what you may have been taught, forgiveness isn’t about feeling ‘okay’ with someone.  If you wait for that to happen, you will likely never forgive some people simply because what they did will always stir negative emotion in you when remembered, even if that emotion quickly subsides as a result of practice over time.

Forgiveness, a financial term, is simply the cancelation of a debt.  To forgive someone is to believe and behave as if they don’t owe you anything, even an apology.  That’s not to say people shouldn’t be allowed to face the consequences of their choices or that justice shouldn’t be carried out.  Not at all.  We serve a just God, after all (Rom. 3:25-26); obstruction of justice fails to glorify Him.

To forgive is simply to free your heart from the responsibility of collecting from another’s.

Don’t trust your emotions.  Subject to factors like circumstance, blood sugar levels, hormonal/chemical imbalance, etc. they will fool you.  Choose in your heart and mind to forgive and walk in that state of forgiveness, ignoring the ebb and flow of feelings you cannot always control.

We don’t forgive because we don’t understand sin. 

Sin is failure to obey God or reflect His character.  This being true, when a person sins, they sin against God only (Ps. 51:4).  Any spiritual debt they owe is to Him.

Now, we can be affected by a person’s sin, of course, but their sin isn’t really against us.  You see, when a person fails to obey God or reflect His character, they are simply doing what we ourselves do on a regular basis.  They reflect our character exactly, so any spiritual debt we believe they owe us is only imagined.

When others hurt you, first ask yourself whether they actually sinned or simply had the audacity to go against your wishes.  If it’s the latter, there’s nothing to forgive.  If it’s the first, any sin that needs to be forgiven is not ultimately yours to forgive anyway.  Either way, you’re off the hook.

We don’t forgive because we overestimate our role in the spiritual transformation process of others. 

From beginning to end, the salvation, transformation, and perfection of souls is the work of God.  He extends mercy.  He extends grace.  He convinces hearts of sin (John 16:8), draws people to Himself (John 6:44-45), gives them the faith they need to be rescued from the consequences of sin through Jesus’ death and resurrection (Eph. 2:8), forgives (1 John 1:9), sanctifies (Eph. 1:13; 1 Pet. 1:2), transforms as they cooperate (2 Cor. 3:18), and perfects them in Heaven (Phil. 1:6).

We are just along for the ride.

To think that God needs us to help Him do in others what we are completely helpless to do in ourselves is both arrogant and stupid.  Our only job where others are concerned is to work through the to-do list He’s given us under the guidance and by the power of the Holy Spirit and to make a conscious effort not to get in the way of what He’s doing in their lives (Eph. 2:10; Rom. 14:13).

When we refuse to forgive someone, we get in the way.  Instead of turning their attention to God like we’re supposed to (1 Cor. 10:31; Matt. 5:16), we force them to look at us instead and delay the very transformation we hope to see.

When someone hurts you, let it go as quickly as possible—even as they are committing the wrong, before and even if they never offer an apology—so God can work on their heart and do what needs to be done.

Craving a little retribution?  Believe it or not, God has provided you with the means.  All you have to do is be kind, or supply the person who hurt you with whatever they might be lacking.  When you glorify God in this way, the effect on those who hurt you will be like burning coals as the Holy Spirit does His work in their lives (Prov. 25:21-22).  Be careful, though.  If the resulting pain they feel brings you pleasure, God will stop punishing them for your sake (Prov. 24:17-18).  After all, it wouldn’t do for one of His children to start thinking more highly of themselves than they ought (Rom. 12:3).

We don’t forgive because we underestimate the effect our refusal to forgive has on us. 

The Bible tells us to forgive others just as God forgave us in Christ (Eph. 4:32)—freely, unconditionally, proactively.  Why?  So those we forgive will 1) believe that the God by whom we claim to have been rescued and changed actually wants and is able to rescue and change them also, 2) let Him do it, and 3) offer Him praise for being Who He is and for doing what He’s done.

Refusal to forgive is refusal to obey.  It is sin (James 4:17).

If you have not yet put your faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection for salvation from the consequences of your sin, your refusal to forgive is just a drop in the ocean of sin that still separates you from a holy God who loves you and wants to set you free (Rom. 3:23; 6:23).

If you have put your faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection and been adopted as God’s child, your refusal to forgive will not change your standing in His Kingdom, but it will cause relational static between you and the God you love and make you miserable (Eph. 4:30; Ps. 66:18-19), so miserable you’ll have no choice but to obey in the long run (1 John 3:9).  If it doesn’t, your standing in God’s Kingdom isn’t what you think it is (1 John 3:6; Matt. 7:21-23).

Want to give yourself a gift this Christmas?

Let it go.

Whatever they are, release the spiritual debts you feel others owe you.  Give God room to work in their hearts and yours and experience the miracle you’ve been aching for, a little peace right here on earth.

Angela Sanders

Author: Angela Sanders

Angela Sanders is a Christian curriculum developer, Bible communicator, and author of 100 Days: The Glory Experiment, published by Lifeway. To connect with her, visit www.angelasanderswrites.com.

View more articles by Angela Sanders.

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