Do Christians understand forgiveness?

Can you identify?

  • “God must be tired of me asking for forgiveness for my sins. Sometimes I feel I’ll never deserve to be forgiven. Does God ever give up on us when we fail too many times?” (Unresolved guilt)
  • “He said I am sorry but this is at least the tenth time! I don’t know what to do. I am told that it’s my Christian duty to forgive so I try. Each time I forgive him, he changes for a while and returns to the same behavior. I have a gut feeling that I am handling things the wrong way. He never really changes and I just stay angry. What should I do?” (Unresolved anger)

I have traveled to many places teaching groups of Christians about forgiveness and restoring broken relationships. There is widespread confusion on these subjects in the Church.

When people share their stories with me, I find that,

  • Some have sinned in ways that make them feel beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. Trapped in a prison of regret and guilt, they’ve lost their joy.
  • Others have been so badly hurt that they find it hard to forgive. Engulfed in the pain of their past, they don’t know what to do with their hurt and loss.

Most of these people know God is forgiving and that He expects forgiven people to forgive. Yet they struggle to apply what they know. “How could God forgive me when I’ve failed so many times?” “How can I forgive the one who hurt me after what he did to me?”

Reconciling broken relationships presents a greater area of confusion and difficulty for people.“I forgive him” one woman told me, “but I don’t want anything to do with him!”

  • Does forgiveness always require reconciliation with an offender?
  • Is it possible to genuinely forgive someone and withhold reconciliation from him?
  • How does forgiveness relate to reconciliation?

There is widespread confusion about this — especially among Christians.

Cheap versions of forgiveness

Misguided thinking about forgiveness and reconciliation has produced cheap versions of forgiveness that send people through cycles of anger and guilt. Trying their best to forgive, some people repeatedly subject themselves to the hurtful behavior of others. Then they vacillate between anger and guilt. These people usually acknowledge deep-seated doubts about whether they are handling things the right way.

I repeatedly encounter people who enable others in the name of forgiveness. They struggle to relate to unrepentant loved ones and often excuse their enabling tendencies as an effort to be forgiving. This response reveals that they do not understand how to apply forgiveness and reconciliation to unrepentant offenders.

Lines of manipulation

Some of these offenders use lines of manipulation to hold well-intentioned Christians hostage to their control.

  • “I guess you can’t find it in yourself to be forgiving.”
  • “You just want to rub it in my face.”
  • “I guess I should expect that you want your revenge.”
  • “Some Christian you are, I thought Christians believed in love and compassion.”

These lines reveal an unrepentant and manipulative attitude. This study will equip you to respond to those who use lines of manipulation.

Angry with God

When speaking on issues related to forgiveness, I often encounter people who feel angry toward God. Detecting this is sometimes tricky because I mostly speak in Christian settings. People who feel anger toward God but retain association with Christians hide their feelings well. When these buried feelings surface and people gain the courage to approach me about their struggles, they usually start by expressing confusion about how God relates to evil in general. Then they share their own story of being deeply hurt.

Some move from confusion to anger and I usually detect it in a change in their tone of voice and facial expression. This is how God detected it in Cain when he asked, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7).

Anger becomes bitterness

Angry people are vulnerable to bitterness. God pictured anger as a vicious animal looking to pounce its’ prey. Anger gains full hold when it turns into bitterness and bitter people are difficult to help. We must deal with our anger before it becomes bitterness (see: Hebrews 12:15; Ephesians 4:26-27).

When bitterness is a fully entrenched condition of the heart, it is more difficult to dislodge and becomes infectious. To gain freedom, we must see bitterness as a protective mechanism used to guard our cherished resentments. Bitterness can become a form of idolatry that rules the heart in place of God.

Opening Questions

  1. Since we must forgive as God does, what does God’s forgiveness involve?
  2. Do we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others?
  3. Why do people struggle with so much guilt when God is willing to forgive them?
  4. When we forgive someone, what are we actually doing? What is forgiveness?
  5. Do we confuse forgiveness with other things?
  6. How can we forgive people who have deeply hurt us?
  7. Does forgiveness require us to enable unrepentant people to continue their behavior?
  8. Can we withhold reconciliation from unrepentant offenders? Would it be unforgiving if we refuse to reconcile?
  9. How can we know if someone is sorry for the wrong she has done?
  10. What does genuine repentance look like?

These are the questions I answer in my series.

Jesus knew our needs

Unresolved guilt and unresolved anger are two main issues related to forgiveness. These matters emerge repeatedly in my counseling sessions. They affect our relationship with God and with other people. There’s a reason why Jesus taught his followers to pray about both issues in the request: “Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we forgive those who have wronged us” (Matthew 6:12 NEB).

Daily we face the need to be forgiven (addressing unresolved guilt) and the need to forgive (addressing unresolved anger).

Audio Link: Forgiveness or enabling?  (717) 872-4260

Steve Cornell 

This entry was posted in Anger, Bitterness, Broken Relationships, Christian Counselor, Christian life, Christianity, Counseling, Enabling, Forgiveness, Marriage, Reconciliation, Relationships and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Do Christians understand forgiveness?

  1. Yvonne says:

    never never… and neither should you. we are human and we make mistakes. we must always forgive are selfs and others. set it free
    .

  2. Lyn says:

    “Unresolved guilt and unresolved anger are two main issues related to forgiveness.”

    Forgiveness & reconciliation is not well taught in churches. But what I learnt through my experience is that unresolved GRIEF is often judged as unforgiveness. Sin produces consequences that usually damages or ruins our ideals, trust, dreams and opportunities – there is usually grief- not just guilt or anger that sits along side the consequences of sin.

    It was extremely painful to be told over and over my anger was unforgiveness without any validation of the grief. Can you imagine telling someone “you just need to stop grieving”? Yet people were constantly saying “you need to forgive them” to me. It was only once I acknowledged and dealt with the grief I was then able to forgive.

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