I hold grudges. This tendency is not something of which I am proud, nor is it something that I likely would have acknowledged publicly even a year ago. Yet, in the last couple of months, the Holy Spirit has been faithfully searching my heart to surface the grudges I hold towards others. Some of these grudges I have closely kept and guarded in recent years. Others are rooted in my childhood church or school experiences. Some are the result of sin that was acted out against me. Others are the result of my own sins of jealously, selfishness, and bitterness. Whatever the cause, I am learning the ugly consequences of un-forgiveness in my heart and life.
As a Christian, I know I am supposed to forgive others. Paul clearly commands believers to forgive in Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13. Forgiveness is logical—I have been forgiven of my sins in Christ, why then would I not forgive another person who hurts or harms me? I have experienced the work of God in my heart, in aiding me to forgive people who have committed greater offenses against my family or me than some of the grudges I hold for inter-relational strife. As a wife, I understand the power of and need for forgiveness—without it, my marriage would unravel in distrust and hurt. I have experienced the blessing of being forgiven by my husband and others I have harmed with my words and actions. Yet, why are certain people more difficult for our hearts to forgive?
A few weeks ago, a pastor at our church shared a sermon from Psalm 55. In this psalm, David cries out to God over the oppression he endures from someone he calls his “companion” and “familiar friend” (Psalm 55:13). Despite the hurt and pain David endures at the hand of a friend, he looks to God for vindication and justice. The hearing of this sermon brought to mind a specific interpersonal circumstance in which I had been withholding forgiveness for several years. Was I “casting my burden on the Lord,” (Psalm 55:22) trusting He would sustain me, or was I placing my trust into my own need for justice and “being right?” As I considered the sermon and the state of my heart, I realized that I possessed an inadequate understanding of forgiveness and sought prayer from others.
What is Forgiveness?
In the New Testament, two Greek words are primarily used in what is translated as “forgive” or “forgiveness.” The first is “aphiēmi” which means to send away, to let go, to leave, to give up. This word is used in Matthew 18:21-22, when Peter asks Jesus “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus’s memorable response is that we are to forgive “[not]…seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
The second word is “charizomai,” meaning to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent, to grant forgiveness, to give graciously, give freely or bestow. This word is used, among other places, in Colossians 3:13: “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Forgiveness has two components. The first is that we leave our hurt feelings; we give up our right to feel hurt and betrayed. We decide to leave the hurt at the cross of Christ, which is no easy task. The second is that we extend grace. We give forgiveness freely where it is undeserved. We cover the burdens of others with kindness, humility, meekness and patience.
Why Do We Forgive Others?
Once I felt like I grasped what forgiveness is, I also wanted to understand why we forgive others. Matthew 6:14-15 is clear that un-forgiveness impacts our daily relationship with God: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Biblical scholars interpret this passage to understand that our un-forgiveness, once we have accepted Christ, drives itself as a barrier between us and God. It’s a spirit contradictory to the grace He has extended towards us, and as such, it impedes our ability to relationally approach God on a daily basis.
In another facet, we reflect the image of God’s forgiveness when we forgive others, extending the forgiveness and grace we have received towards the person who has harmed us. As Christians, we believe that God has forgiven us of our sins because of Christ’s death. When we confess our sins, we believe that He forgives us of our sins and promises to cleanse us from unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Our sin is offensive to a holy God, yet because of Christ’s blood, we have been redeemed and brought near to God. As God has forgiven us, pardoned us from sin and laid the penalty on Christ, we reflect the image of God when we forgive others.
Finally, on the final day of judgment, God will justly judge the wrongs committed in this world (Rev. 20:1-15, Acts 17:31). On this day, the wrongs committed against us will have already been washed with the blood of Christ (Rom. 5:9) if the wrongdoer is a Christian or will be rightly judged by a just and perfect God. We can trust that God is just and that He will effect justice for all wrongs committed in this world, leaving situations of hurt and bitterness in His hands.
I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to search your heart and reveal any instances of un-forgiveness or bitterness that are slowly taking root. Take the time to pray for the people who have hurt you, ask others to pray for you as you embark on a path of forgiveness, and leave the bitterness and hurt at the cross of the One who loves you, forgives you, and promises to effectuate justice on your behalf.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An introduction to Biblical doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 1147-1148.