Forgive and Set Your Soul Free!

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William Gaultiere, Ph.D.
Director of New Hope at the Crystal Cathedral

"Forgive and forget," some say. "Just let it go to God and move on," urge others. Often it's not that easy. Maybe you grew up in a family in which it wasn't okay to express anger. Or the pain and violation seem too great. Or you're not sure how to forgive. Read on and you'll see that you can forgive and set your soul free!

They Needed to Forgive
JoAnne's (names and identifying information are changed in this and other cases) father was an alcoholic who had been verbally abusive of her throughout her childhood. Now she had children of her own and she was wary of being around her dad. She was told that she need to forgive him and to "put it behind her" for the sake of her kids. She had been trying to do this for years, but the bad names he called her, the anger on his face, the way he acted when he had been drinking it still bothered her.

Similarly, Mike's wife had an affair with her old boyfriend. Then she ended their marriage and took their three kids with her. Mike was stunned. Then he was enraged. He lost his family, his home, his dreams, his life as he knew it. He knew the Bible said he needed to forgive her, but he didn't know if he could do it.

Day after day people like JoAnne and Mike dealing with forgiveness issues talk to me as a Christian Psychologist. And not just from painful childhoods and devastating betrayals. Usually, they're less dramatic, but difficult nonetheless.

  • A friend shuns you in your time of need.
  • A co-worker criticizes you unjustly around the office.
  • A neighbor has loud parties late into the night after you've asked him kindly to be quieter.
  • Your adult child repeatedly is too busy when you call.
  • Your spouse speaks harshly to you in spite of your requests to be respected.

Recently I had an issue like this with a neighbor who was driving recklessly when my kids were playing nearby and kept parking in front of my garbage cans so that the garbage wasn't being hauled away. Maybe you too hve some forgiveness issues. How do we deal with these issues? How do people like JoAnne and Mike forgive those who have wronged them?

What Forgiveness is Not
There are so many misconceptions about forgiveness. I find that many people don't understand what it means to forgive someone.

Forgiveness is not excusing. Abuse, child neglect (physical or emotional), manipulation, betrayal, slander, rage, and the like are sins. When you've been violated like this it isn't excusable. "He did the best he could," "She didn't know any better," "She was just having a bad day," or "He was just reacting to his own hurt" are excuses that don't change the reality of an injustice. The only real solution is forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not forgetting. The old adage, "Forgive and forget" sounds nice, but it's misleading. Forgiveness and forgetfulness are not related. In many cases, forgetting a hurt or injustice is harmful. For instance, if a friend has a habit of gossiping about you then you're best to remember that and be careful what you share. By remembering when you've been violated you can guard against additional injuries or mistakes. "As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly." (Proverbs 26:11) Remembering helps us not to repeat pain.

Forgiveness is not overlooking. There is a time to overlook an offense. If a stranger cuts you off on the freeway or your spouse is having a hard day and is snippy with you then it's best not to worry about it. "A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense." (Proverbs 19:11) On the other hand, it wouldn't be healthy for JoAnne to overlook the years of rage and abuse she experienced from her father. She needs to heal and to protect herself from further abuse. She needs to forgive.

Forgiveness is not easy. Hurts like JoAnne being abused by her alcoholic father and Mike being betrayed by his unfaithful wife take time to forgive. It's just a matter of making a decision and saying a quick prayer. It's a process and it may be a struggle in which you'll need God's help. (Matthew 18:20-22).

Forgiveness may not include reconciliation. Some think that forgiving someone means you must reconcile your relationship with that person. Whenever you've been violated you need to forgive. But you only reconcile if and when it's safe and wise to do so. For a battered wife, reconciling before her husband has gotten help means being abused again. That wouldn't be right. First, she needs to get help for herself to heal and to set some boundaries with him. Then she needs to see that he's changed. Then, and only then is the time for her to reconcile. (Matthew 18:15-17 outlines the reconciliation process.)

Forgiveness is not deserved. No one "deserves" to be forgiven. Forgiveness isn't something that we can earn. An injustice has been done and God and the person wronged can choose to give the gift of forgiveness or not. Of course, God always chooses to give this gift to us because He loves us and because we're valuable! And when we pass on God's gift to others then we're able to appreciate God's forgiveness for our sins. "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." (Matthew 6:14)

Motivation to Forgive
Why forgive? Why let go of your anger and let a perpetrator off the hook? "He doesn't deserve it!" JoAnne said to me. "I don't want to forgive my father for his abusive behavior towards me. He knew he needed to stop drinking and he didn't. His anger crushed me as a girl and it still hurts me! He has to pay a price!"

The cause of victims cries out for justice. Instinctively we want perpetrators of abuse to pay a price. So it is natural to be angry when you've been violated and it is tempting to seek revenge. And yet "with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:38). Refuse to forgive and you will pay a heavy price, perhaps more than the one who violated you.

People like JoAnne have to discover the tragic irony of withholding forgiveness: it was hurting her! Whether in the form of repressed anger or seeking to hurt back, resentment or revenge, the pain is kept alive and worsened by not forgiving. And accompanying the pain are guilt, negativity, anxiety, conflicts in relationships, stress-induced illness, and even disease. Worst of all, if you don't forgive then you block yourself off from appreciating God's forgiveness for yourself! (Matthew 6:15) Is your anger and desire for justice worth that? Is the person who violated you worth that price? Of course not!

So, if nothing else, we want to forgive to experience the peace and healing and freedom that come when we do. Also, we want to forgive to honor God and to bless others. When we forgive we are like God. Jesus taught us: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:44-45)

How to Forgive
Forgiveness is a process. There are feelings to work through. Attitudes to adjust. New, constructive behaviors to develop. And prayers to pray.

I find it helpful to think of forgiveness as including seven essential steps in a healing, character-building journey. It's a process in which you're likely to take two steps forward and one step backward as you proceed toward resolution. Here are the steps that I teach people like JoAnne and Mike.

  1. Look to God. God is the author of forgiveness. It's His mercy and grace and strength that you need. And you can start to participate in his gift when you decide with God's help to "Forgive as the Lord forgave you." (Colossians 3:13)
  2. Go with the process. Forgiveness is a like a merry-go-round. Hop on at any point and the music will play and you'll get a full ride. Being forgiven by God, forgiving others, forgiving yourself, and being forgiven by another person are the four horses on the "forgiveness-go-around." Ride on one and it's easier to ride the others. Receiving God's forgiveness helps you to forgive others and extending forgiveness to others helps you to ask for the forgiveness that you need. So jump in the process and it'll get easier the longer you stay with it.
  3. Deal with your anger. It's natural and appropriate to be angry when someone sins against you. It certainly isn't the hardest thing I've gone through, but I was angry at my neighbor whose driving habits endangered my kids and got me stuck with the week's garbage. But what to do with the anger? Ignore it and I'm not protecting my kids and my garbage is going to pile up. Repress it and I'd get depressed and eventually I could start to become negative, bitter, and isolated. Turn it against myself and I'd feel bad that I was making an issue of it and I'd try to not feel or need anything. React by cussing out my neighbor or parking in front of his garbage cans! and I'd just cause more damage by escalating the conflict. Instead, I let my anger point me to my underlying feelings - fear for my children's safety and the need to have our garbage picked up. And I used the anger - tempered by love - to energize me. I "spoke the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15) to my neighbor by asking him to watch for my children and to please park somewhere else.
  4. Feel your hurt. You can't heal what you don't feel! If you've been violated then you've been hurt. Whether loss, rejection, embarrassment, insecurity, or whatever, find someone safe to verbalize your pain and seek comfort from. This is the heart of the forgiveness process.
  5. Set boundaries. Are you susceptible to be wronged again in a similar way by the same person or someone else? Even as an adult in her 40's JoAnne still felt vulnerable to her father's anger, especially as far as her children were concerned. But she learned from her experience and set appropriate limits with her dad. She adjusted her expectations of him to guard against being too needy of someone who had a history of disappointing and hurting her with his drinking and anger. And she focused on her, living by the wise, old adage, "The best revenge is to live well."
  6. Entrust Justice to God. Ultimately, forgiveness means to let God be God. He alone is the Righteous One with the right to judge and punish sin. The story of the woman caught in adultery recorded in John 8:1-11 is a good example of this. As the Apostle Paul taught us, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: `It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." (Romans 12:19). When Mike was struggling to forgive his wife for having an affair and divorcing him I showed him how to give his anger to God like David did in the "cursing psalms." (See Psalms 10:15, 18:6-15, 31:17, 35:1-28, 54:5, 56:5-7, 58:6-8, 69:19-28, 70:13) Like David Mike told God how angry he was at his ex-wife and he asked God to deal with her. This helped him to let go and move on.
  7. Pray for your enemy. I was so surprised when I discovered the power in this! I knew that the Bible teaches us to bless and pray for our enemies, but I didn't realize how much it helped with forgiving. This was the key that helped me to forgive my rude, reckless neighbor. It's hard to do at first, but it works and it pleases God. (Proverbs 25:21-22, Matthew 5:37-48)

William Gaultiere, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the New Hope Crisis Counseling Center at the Crystal Cathedral and a Clinical Psychologist with a part time private practice in Irvine, California. You can read Dr. Bill's encouraging self-help articles on

2002 Used by permission.