Forgiveness: Feeling or Choice
the horrible trauma of violent action. Our inability or failure in those situations to move toward forgiveness
is often responsible for the development of emotional difficulties, and at times, physical conditions.
Perhaps the most important theme in scripture is God’s provision of forgiveness through the atoning
sacrifice of Christ. We understand through scripture that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory
of God and that the wages of sin is death. For those of us who have truly been convicted of our sin and
through repentance have committed our lives to Christ, we feel a great sense of gratitude and
thankfulness. However, along with that truth in scripture is the equally emphasized truth that we must
forgive others as Christ has forgiven us (Matt. 6:14, 18:21; Eph.4:32; Col.3:13). Christ goes as far as to
state in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:14) that if we do not forgive men their sins, our Father will
not forgive our sins. Ouch! It is much easier for me to accept God’s gift of forgiveness than it is for me to
forgive others. Yet, do I believe this was somehow easy for God? The cruelest and most evil event in the
course of history was the torture and crucifixion of the sinless, innocent Son of God. Christ willingly put
himself in the position of being scorned and crucified for our redemption, but as He was dying, He asked
the Father to forgive those responsible (Luke23:34).
How in the world do we forgive someone who has wronged us, especially since we do not “feel like it”?
We may be struggling with intense feelings of anger and resentment. We live in a society in which so
much value is placed on “feelings.” “If it feels good...do it.” “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right…” are
clichés that we often hear. However, scriptures do not tell us to forgive when we feel like it. We are
commanded to forgive. Forgiveness is not based on emotions or feelings, but is a decision or choice. It
appears from scripture that we must choose to forgive out of obedience to Christ. Humanly speaking,
this seems impossible!
How can we genuinely forgive when we have feelings to the contrary? First, we must recognize that in our
own ability we cannot genuinely forgive those who have wronged us. In John 15, Jesus speaks of
Himself as the “vine” and we as the “branches.” He instructs us to abide in Him and that apart from Him,
we can do nothing (Jn15:5). However, Jesus later in the same passage exhorts us that if we abide in
him, and his words abide in us, ask whatever we wish, and it will be done for us (Jn15:7). The term
“wish” must be understood in terms that if we abide in Him, His desires become ours. Philippians 4:13
also states that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Well known author and Nazi concentration camp survivor Corrie Ten Boom spoke of her own struggle
with forgiveness following the Second World War. After concluding a talk on forgiveness in Germany, she
was approached by a former guard from the camp where she and her sister were imprisoned. The man
thanked Corrie for her talk and then proceeded to inform her that he was now a Christian. Though he did
not recognize her, he asked for her forgiveness. Corrie admitted that this was the most difficult thing that
she ever had to do. She spoke of the conflict within her over the recognition that the Lord had forgiven her
repeatedly and yet she had the memory of her sister’s slow, terrible death in that camp. Corrie wrestled
with the decision in those few seconds that seemed much longer with the man holding out his
outstretched hand. Based on Matthew 6:14, she made a decision and stated, “So woodenly,
mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And I as I did, an incredible thing took
place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands.” She then
proceeded to inform the man that she forgave him with all her heart. Corrie spoke of the experience, “I
had never known God’s love as intensely as I did then.”1
Ken Sande in his book, “Peacemakers for Families,” outlines four promises to be taken in the
forgiveness process. First, we must consciously try to not think or dwell on the incident. Second, we
must not bring up the incident and use it against the other. Third, we must try to not talk to others about
the incident, as in the sense of gossiping. It should be noted that here if a person is genuinely struggling
with how to deal appropriately with the offender, seeking counsel from a trusted individual (i.e. pastor,
counselor) may be necessary. Fourth, we must not allow the incident to come between us or hinder the
relationship. Sande acknowledges that it is not an easy task to keep our minds from thinking about an
incident when the hurt is fresh. He suggests “through God’s help, accompanied by a continual
awareness of His immeasurable forgiveness for us, painful memories of other’s wrongs usually fade
with time.” 2
Thoughts are so difficult to control, especially when we have been deeply hurt. Yet scriptures instruct us
to take every thought captive (2Cor.10:5) and to think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and
admirable (Phil. 4:8). Ken Sande suggests we use what he terms the “replacement method,” by
replacing the negative thought with a positive one. He states, “every time we begin to brood over the
incident, we should ask for God’s help and deliberately pray for that person or think of something positive
about the offender.”3
Christ instructs us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt.5:44). We are also
instructed to praise him, rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances (Ps.146:1, 2; Phil.4:4; 1Thes.5:18).
An amazing thing happens when we switch our mind off of ourselves and our circumstances and focus
on Him. When we choose to act in obedience despite our emotions and think on Him, our feelings
actually begin to change and healing begins.
We often equate forgiveness with trust. Though we are commanded to forgive, it may not be wise to trust
the offender without boundaries in the relationship. This especially would be the case in violent or
harmful actions. Trust is earned and built over time. One of the most frequent exhortations of scripture is
to trust the Lord (Prov.3:5&6), since He is the only one who is completely trustworthy.
There may be times when our unforgiving spirit is built upon a foundation of misunderstanding or
misperception. We all are susceptible to misread incidences or interactions especially when hurt. In
another words, we sometimes “make mountains out of mole hills.” We may take an incident personally
when perhaps we should overlook or dismiss it. Perhaps we are reacting out of a previous hurt either by
the same person or an incident that was very similar. We may keep an account of small offenses to the
extent that they lead to the development of a bitter spirit. Paul addresses this in 1Corinthians 13 by stating
that true love “does not keep account of wrongs.” I have discovered in my own experience that when my
mind has distorted interactions, I need to speak truth to those thoughts or have someone else speak
truth to me. Often these feelings are based on some perceived threat or fear. Ultimately, I need to trust in
Christ and realize that my security is only found in Him.
An unforgiving spirit may not only affect our emotional and physical health, but will impede our
relationships with others and our relationship with the Lord. We are called to love the Lord with all our
heart and our neighbor as ourselves (Mt.22:37-39). However, if there is bitterness and unforgiveness in
our hearts, we are incapable of living up to this command. Forgiveness is a choice or decision, perhaps
the most difficult we will encounter. It may be a daily struggle that causes us to be totally dependent on
the Lord, asking Him to help us with our feelings and to give us strength. When we make the decision to
forgive, we take a significant step toward emotional healing.
1 Corrie Ten Boom, “I’m Still Learning to Forgive”, Guideposts Magazine, 1972.
2 Ken Sande, “Peacemakers for Families, A Biblical Guide to Manage Conflict in Your Home” (Tyndale
House Publishers, 2002), pgs.84, 85.
3 Ken Sande, “Peacemakers for Families, A Biblical Guide to Manage Conflict in Your Home” (Tyndale
House Publishers, 2002), pg.89.
Sande, Ken, “Peacemakers for Families, A Biblical Guide to Manage Conflict in Your Home,” Tyndale
House Publishers, 2002.
Ten Boom, Corrie, “I’m Still Learning to Forgive,” Guideposts Magazine, 1972.
Web address: www.familylifeeducation.org/gilliland/procgroup/CorrieTenBoom.htm.