The Agonizing Work of Forgiveness


We’ve all said it or at least heard someone say it. “I’ll never forgive myself for…” 

What if I told you there was no such thing as forgiving yourself? The Bible addresses our need for forgiveness from God, us forgiving others, but not us forgiving ourselves. How does that change how you think about forgiveness?

What is forgiveness?

A professor once told me that forgiveness between people is both an event and a process. Much like a marriage begins with a declaration (wedding vows) and is carried out in a process over time (being married), forgiveness starts with the declaration that you will not hold someone’s sin against them anymore and that declaration is demonstrated over time as you sacrifice your just anger in favor of love. 

Unfortunately, like a marriage, the declaration is the easy part, but, as Christians, unforgiveness is not a legitimate option. 

“And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ.” (Ephesians 4:32) 

How can we tell God it is too hard to forgive someone when His forgiving us required the sacrifice of His Only Son? If our aim as Christians is to be made into the image of Christ, we must reflect His love as He did through forgiveness. 

While our sacrifice does not look like bloody sweat dripping down an agonizing man and a blackened sky, it does looks like taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. When you think of how someone has offended you, do not replay it in your mind, or how you’d like to tell them off next time you see them. Remind your anger that it has done its job to protect you from injustice, and it can now rest. Take three deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Trust me, it really will calm you down. 

Over time, as you repeat this sacrifice, your brain will form new neural pathways so that when you think of that person, you will no longer go on the automatic roller coaster of anger. Though this process takes time, the alternative looks like a blackened heart poisoned with bitterness. 

Between you and God

Sometimes the person you are harboring unforgiveness towards is yourself. We’ve all sinned against others and against God. It is our job to ask for forgiveness from others. Whether they choose to forgive or not, our job is to ask for it. 

We must also ask forgiveness from God. We serve and love a living God whose capacity to forgive us is as infinite as he is. If you, his daughter, asks for forgiveness, it is granted. He has both declared over you the tossing of your sin into the deepest sea and simultaneously completed the process of never again holding it against you. It is finished. You can rest. 

And if God has declared you forgiven of that sin, who are you to hold it against yourself? Because in doing so, you will declare God’s declaration of you as untrue. Are you willing to call God a liar? When we walk in the lie that our forgiveness is incomplete, we are misaligned with our identity in Christ. What God has declared about you is truth; when you look at yourself and see only your sin, you commit the same sin as Eve and doubt that God’s word is true and trustworthy. 

A visual aid

I must credit my friend, Linda, with this visual aid. She once told me that the unforgiveness I was harboring was like handcuffing myself to that person all the while holding the key (forgiveness) in my back pocket. Every time I felt the anger and hurt rise up in me as I was driving, walking to class, or watching TV, I would picture that person there handcuffed to me. At the time, they were the last person on earth I wanted to be around. It was a good reminder that my growing bitterness would tie me to them and allow them to ruin more of my days than they already had. 

I learned that forgiveness between people does not have to mean a fully restored relationship with them this side of heaven. I know some of you reading this have been hurt and violated in incomprehensible ways. Forgiveness does not mean condoning the sin of another. It is, however, the means by which you release that person from controlling your thoughts and heart to be free from them.

Forgiveness can be agonizing work, but the resulting freedom is more than worth the labor.

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Meet the Author!

Phoebe is a therapist in private practice at Bethany Counseling Center, mom to the very lively Vivi and very chill Charlie, and wife to Jeff. You may spot her out and about at almost any Target in the area with a coconut milk latte in hand. She enjoys nonfiction books, Disney movies, and helping others find peace and healing in the hope of the Gospel.

This blog is meant to further the conversation about mental health and is not intended as medical or professional advice.