Why We Won’t Forgive #2

A while back I started a blog conversation about forgiveness by telling my personal story. Not only did I share about the incredible freedom I found in forgiveness, but I also described a huge obstacle I faced in that process: forgiveness was nearly impossible for me to give when the offending party didn’t admit he or she was wrong.

But there are a number of other reasons why we won’t forgive.

© Phil Date

I’ll never forget the night I was interrupted at church. It was several years ago and I was wrapping up a talk to a youth group about forgiveness when I was suddenly cut off (haven’t you always wanted to interject your point at church?!). The young man doing the interrupting was in foster care, and while I’d just been learning his story, I knew it was tragic. His dad was so physically abusive that he could no longer live with his family.

I’d been talking about Jesus’ words, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” when he just blurted out from the back of the room, “I won’t do that. I won’t forgive my dad.”

His honesty and raw emotion were gut wrenching. The room fell silent as he conveyed something that’s felt by many who have suffered terrible hurt and abuse: if I forgive, it would be like saying what that person did was OK.

It’s understandable why we feel this way. Our minds want to equate forgiveness with acceptance, so we come up with several arguments about “why we won’t forgive”:

  • It would be the same as saying what they did wasn’t wrong.
  • Others would think we’re being tolerant of their hurtful actions.
  • It would give them permission to keep hurting us or others.
  • They’d never be held accountable for their actions.
  • We’d have to pretend like none of this ever happened.

But those arguments are built on a faulty premise.

As I discussed in my first blog on this topic, forgiveness is never about giving a pass to a wrongdoer. Real forgiveness has to do with letting go of our hatred toward the offending party, and letting go of our right to be that person’s judge, jury and jailer. It has to do with trusting God with the offense and the offender, believing, “I can let go, because I believe God will bring whatever justice is necessary.”

When we discover the true nature of forgiveness, we begin to understand:

  • Forgiveness never erases accountability for actions. Just because I let go of my right to be someone’s judge, it doesn’t mean the offending party shouldn’t face a real judge.
  • Forgiveness and boundaries are not mutually exclusive. When I forgive someone, I may also need to create healthy boundaries (for a season or forever) so that person doesn’t continue to inflict pain.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t minimize the reality of the hurt; it maximizes the reality that God is able to deal with both the hurt and the one who inflicted it.

I wish I’d been more fully aware of the nature of forgiveness the night I was interrupted. My prayer is that someone has come alongside that wounded young man to help him discover: forgiveness doesn’t free others from the responsibility of their actions; it frees us from self-destructive rage and pain.

Unforgiveness is a soul-eating bacteria — but the good news is that the antibiotic is available to all, and is effective no matter how deep the wound.

Questions to ask:

  • Is there anyone I’ve refused to forgive?
  • Why have I chosen to hold on to unforgiveness?
  • Can I trust God to deal with the one who hurt me?
  • What pain do I need to let go of today?
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8 thoughts on “Why We Won’t Forgive #2

  1. fhill says:

    Tim, I’ve recently began to wonder about this culture of forgiveness that seems to be raising up in the church. We hear so much about how we’re to forgive even though the other person hasn’t done anything. You point out all the main reasons why we don’t — and they’re all self-centered. We hear that we are commanded to forgive by Jesus, as in “If you don’t forgive from your heart, neither will your Father in heaven forgive you.” Finally, we hear about all the freedom and other benefits that arise when we forgive. Yet, all my life, I’ve held the belief that God wanted me to be like Him. I was created in His image and sin destroyed that image to the point that I had to be born again in Jesus. If all that’s true, when does God forgive us?

    I’m not being academic, here. I’m actually wondering if, since Jesus died for the sins of the world, all sin is forgiven. At that point, I go back to John 3:16-21, and the condemnation becomes not unforgiven sin but the fact that people will not come to the light because they love darkness and their deeds are evil. The practical side of this is being able to meet someone and never once judge them for their sin, instead relate to them as someone who needs to come to the light, Jesus.

    • Thanks for the interaction! I appreciate you taking the time to process this. I’m not sure I have the answers you’re looking for, but here are a few thoughts.

      1. You write, “We hear so much about how we’re to forgive even though the other person hasn’t done anything.” That’s definitely not what I’m talking about when I address forgiveness. I’m talking about real wounds that have been inflicted by a person or group–not petty disagreements that just need a dose of maturity to get over.

      2. Regarding your observation that the reasons we don’t forgive are all self-centered, I’m not sure I agree. I suppose they are related directly with the inner self (our heart, emotions, memories, relationships, etc.), but that doesn’t make the pain any less real. And people who are wounded tend to go into a self-protection mode…which to me is significantly different than being self-centered (which would be identified by things like greed, lust, pride, etc.).

      3. The questions you raise about God’s forgiveness are good ones, but it seems that they are going in a different direction than the post about forgiving people who have wronged or hurt us. Maybe I’m not getting the connection…so you’ll have to help me. Thanks.

  2. Tim, I often wonder how many individuals I’ve brushed aside over the the years with my broad strokes of Biblical application; it breaks my heart. I’m so grateful that God’s sovereignty reigns above my finite understanding. I am confident that the Holy Spirit is able to redeem and foster all seeds sown, and that He will provide an avenue of hope of healing for those I’ve unintentionally wounded with my trite cliches. Thank you for your transparency, and thank you for reminding me that each face represents a story. (I realize this wasn’t really the point of the post, but I wanted to share with you the switch that was flipped in my heart.)

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