Ministry Resources

What Is Forgiveness?

Author: The Journey Online Team

“Forgive him? Are you kidding? After what he has done to me? I can never forgive him!”

“Forgive me? How could God forgive me? You don’t know what I have done.”
“How could I have done such an awful thing? I can never forgive myself.”

These are the confessions I hear every day as a pastor. Confessions from people who have grown up in churches, grown up with godly parents and yet grown up without ever fully understanding God’s forgiveness and its intended effect on every level of their lives.

The tragedy of all this is the bondage people find themselves in when they do not grasp the immensity of God’s forgiveness. It is a bondage that stifles their ability to love and accept those they know in their hearts most deserve their love. It is a bondage that cripples marriages from their outset. It is a bondage that is often passed from generation to generation. It is a bondage that chokes out the abundant life Christ promised to those who would believe….


Forgiveness is the act of setting someone free from an obligation to you that is a result of a wrong done against you. For example, a debt is forgiven when you free your debtor of his obligation to pay back what he owes you.

Forgiveness, then, involves three elements: injury, a debt resulting from the injury, and a cancellation of the debt. All three elements are essential if forgiveness is to take place. Before we look in more detail at this process, however, we need to trace the sequence of events that lead to bondage when this process is abandoned. This is important because I believe most people who suffer from an unforgiving spirit do not know that unforgiveness is the root of their problem.

All they know is that they just “can’t stand” to be around certain people. They find themselves wanting to strike out at people when certain subjects are discussed. They feel uncomfortable around certain personality types. They lose their temper over little things. They constantly struggle with guilt over sins committed in the past. They can’t get away from the ambivalence of hating the ones they know they should love the most. Such feelings and behavior patterns often indicate that people have not come to grips with the forgiveness of God and the implications of that forgiveness….


A person who has an unforgiving spirit is always the real loser, much more so than the one against whom the grudge is held. This is easy to see when we take a closer look at the things most people withhold from those they feel have wronged them. Unforgiveness, by its very nature, prevents individuals from following through on many of the specifics of the Christian life and practically necessitates that they walk by the flesh rather than by the Spirit.

Think about your own experience for a moment. Think back to the last time someone really hurt you or wronged you or took something that belonged to you, whether it was a possession or an opportunity. Immediately following the incident, did you feel like running out and doing something kind for the person, or did you feel like retaliating? Did you consider responding in gentleness, or did you think about letting loose with some well-chosen words? Did you feel like giving in and accepting the situation, or did you feel like fighting for your “rights?”

If you were honest, you probably identified more with the latter option in each case. These are the normal responses to being hurt or taken advantage of. But think of these responses in light of what Paul says, and you will begin to understand why an improper response to injury automatically impairs a person’s walk with God.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law…. If we live by the spirit, we must also walk by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-23,25)

In a broad sense Paul’s list here includes all the things we naturally want to hold hostage from the people who have hurt us. We rarely want to give our love to individuals who have hurt us. We certainly have no joy or peace when others have injured us in some way. We are not generally patient with or kind to people who have wronged us. We could go right down the list.


“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are…enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying,…and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

An unforgiving spirit prevents a person from being able to walk consistently in the Spirit. The only choice is to walk according to the flesh. The consequences of such a life are devastating, and Paul discusses what will happen:

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8)

The corruption Paul mentions has nothing to do with hell. He is talking about the consequences on this earth. If a person–believer or nonbeliever–makes decisions according to the impulses and desires of the flesh, the result will always be corruption–a wrecked and ruined life. Those persons who have not come to grips with the concept of forgiveness have by the very nature of unforgiveness set themselves up to walk according to the flesh. When that happens, they are losers every time. By withholding patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and the rest, the individual is held hostage by the flesh and, thus, is the ultimate loser…


I hope you clearly understand this: a person who harbors unforgiveness always loses. Regardless of how wrong the other person may have been, refusing to forgive means reaping corruption in life. And that corruption begins in one relationship including the relationship with God, and works its way into all the rest.

Holding on to hurt is like grabbing a rattlesnake by the tail; you are going to be bitten. As the poison of bitterness works its way through the many facets of your personality, death will occur–death that is more far-reaching than your physical death, for it has the potential to destroy those around you as well.


Have you been hurt? Has somebody, somewhere in your past, rejected you in such a way that you still hurt when you think about it? Do you become critical of people in your past the minute their names are mentioned? Did you leave home as a child or a college student with great relief that you were leaving, swearing you would never return?

Have you worked hard all your life not to become like your parents? Are there people in your past upon whom you would enjoy taking revenge? Have you made a pastime out of scheming about how you could get back at them or embarrass them publicly. Were you abused as a child? Maybe even molested? Did you suffer through your parents’ divorce as a child? Were your parents taken from you when you were very young?

Were you forced by circumstances to pursue a different career from the one you originally wanted to pursue? Were you unable to attend the school of your choice because of financial reasons? Were you pushed out of a job opportunity by a greedy friend? Were you promised things by your employer that never came about?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be on the brink of being set free from a bondage that you did not even know was keeping you a victim. You may be about to understand for the first time why you act the way you do in certain circumstances and why you cannot seem to control your temper. You may be on the verge of receiving the God-given insight you need to restore your war-torn home–this time for good.

Whatever your situation, whatever has happened in your past, remember that you are the loser if you do not deal with an unforgiving spirit. And the people around you suffer too.

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