Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:31–32, esv).
True forgiveness is a miracle, but there are no enduring relationships without it. Choosing to put others’ sins behind us is hard. How much easier to fixate on and replay that offense in our minds—but how toxic to our souls. While forgiveness brings healing and begins the process of forgetting, unforgiveness binds the offense to our hearts and ensures we will never forget.
Even when we know we should forgive, our efforts at forgiveness are often clumsy at best, sharp-edged and vengeful at worst. Though we have ample opportunities in life to be forgiven and to practice forgiving, most of us are amateurs in the art of forgiveness. We know we should forgive, but how do we actually go about it? And once we think we’ve done it, how do we know if we really have?
Forgiveness comes in two parts: a crisis and a process. It begins with a decision, an act of the will. When you choose to release a person from the obligation resulting when he or she injured you, this is the crisis of forgiveness. It’s a decision: I choose to forgive. I’m not trying to get even or looking for vengeance. I don’t wish for bad things to happen to that person, and I’m not focused on the offense. I’ve released him.
After the crisis comes the process, which is where deep healing takes place. In the crisis of forgiveness you say, “I choose to forgive,” but in the process you say, “I will treat you as though it never happened.” In the process, you must hold yourself to these guidelines:
1. I won’t bring up the offense to the person, except for his or her benefit.
2. I won’t bring up the offense to others.
3. I won’t bring up the offense to myself (which is hardest of all). I will not replay it or dwell on it.
The process of forgiveness is not quick or clean, and when you falter in the process, you must return to the crisis. Perhaps you chose to forgive, only to retract that gift of grace and to begin again to nurse the injury. Maybe you committed to forgive but fell back into your old patterns of resentment when you crossed paths with the person again. When you realize the unforgiveness is creeping back, you must revisit the crisis and choose again to forgive. If you do this faithfully, you will be free.
So how do you know if you’ve truly forgiven someone? Ephesians 4:31–32 shows us: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” These verses reveal both the fallout of unforgiveness and the fruit of forgiveness.
When you forgive, bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice are decreasing in your life. These emotions are evidence of unforgiveness and lead to self-destruction. Like a tornado across a Kansas wheat field, an unforgiving heart rips a swath of destruction through your life and the lives of those closest to you.
When you truly forgive, damaging emotions are gradually eliminated and replaced with tenderhearted kindness. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Kindness is a fruit of forgiveness, an action that reveals your heart has truly been changed. This isn’t generic kindness aimed at strangers or your favorite people but unreserved kindness toward the very person you had to forgive. When you try to squeeze kindness from an unforgiving heart, it only drips more bitterness. When you can’t freely show kindness to someone, you know unforgiveness is there lurking somewhere in the shadows.
The fruit of your actions tells the condition of your heart.
Lord, Your example of forgiveness is so strong, so clear, so pure, while I am so small and so petty. My unforgiveness injures me and those I love. Please bring to my mind those people I need to forgive. I choose to forgive [the crisis]. Please give me Your strength to live out that forgiveness [the process]. By faith I believe Your ways are best, so even though forgiveness isn’t natural to me, I choose it. Holy Spirit, please empower me to do what I can’t do on my own: to forgive others “as God in Christ forgave [me].” In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.