What is forgiveness? What exactly do we do when we forgive? What are the stages of forgiveness?
Webster defines forgiveness this way: “to give up resentment
of or claim to requital, to grant relief from payment of,
and to cease to feel resentment against (an offender).”
I have defined forgiveness as giving up my right to hurt
you for hurting me. It is impossible to live on this fallen planet
without getting hurt, offended, misunderstood, lied to, and rejected.
However, learning how to respond properly by forgiving,
being healed, and looking at the offender through God’s
eyes and wishing him or her well is one of the basics of the
The apostle Paul defines forgiveness as follows: God was
in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, no longer holding
people’s misdeeds against them (2 Cor. 5:19, REB).1
word “misdeeds” can be translated as offenses or harmful
acts for which the perpetuators are obligated to atone.2
this case, it was God in Christ who atoned for them and reconciled
the world to Himself. Forgiveness was His decision to
relinquish His claim of retribution and judgment on us and to
declare us righteous. That is what we need to do for others.
When we forgive, we are to wipe the slate clean, to pardon,
to cancel a debt. It is important to remember that forgiveness
is not granted because a person deserves to be
forgiven; instead, forgiveness is an act of love, mercy, and
How we act toward the offender may change. It doesn’t
mean we will put ourselves back into a harmful situation or
that we suddenly accept or approve the person’s continued
wrong behavior. It simply means we release this person
from the wrong he or she committed against us. We forgive the offender because God forgave us (Eph. 4:31, 32; Rom.
There are three stages to forgiveness.
1. The first stage of forgiveness is to surrender our right
to get even. It is a decision not to inflict a reciprocal amount
of pain on everyone who has caused hurt. “See that no one
repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one
another and to everyone” (1 Thess. 5:15). When I forgive
you, I give up the right to hurt you back. I set you free from
the prison I have placed you in within my mind. By the same
token, we discover that we are set free from the prison of pain
and grudges we have created for ourselves.3
Joseph was treated very badly by his brothers and sold
into slavery, ending up in jail. Then he became second in
command to the pharaoh in Egypt. He was in a position to
get even with his brothers, but he chose to forgive them (Gen.
50:15-21; see also Gen. 45:1-28).
2. The next stage of forgiveness is accepting the humanity
of the person who has wronged us. This involves a new
way of seeing and feeling. What happens when we are deeply
hurt is that we equate the totality of the person with the wrong
he or she has done. Instead of seeing this person as a human
being, we look at him or her as the scum of the world.4
When we forgive others, we begin to see more clearly.
We do not ignore the hurts, but we see beyond them. We rediscover
the humanity of the one who hurt us. “So from now
on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we
once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer” (2 Cor.
5:16). The one who hurt us is no longer just an uncollected
debt of pain. He or she is lonely or hurting or weak or nearsighted—just
as I am. He or she is also a bearer of the image
of God—just as I am.
In the eyes of the church, Saul was a persecutor to be
feared. After his conversion, God used Ananias to change the
perspective of the church to see Saul/Paul as a chosen vessel
for the Gentiles (Acts 9:10-19).
3. The third stage of forgiving is when we revise our feelings
and start wishing the offender well and to hope good
things for him or her. You can hear someone say a kind word
about this person without inwardly screaming for rebuttal
time. You genuinely hope that things are well between the
offender and God, and that all of his or her relationships are
healthy. Of course, this does not happen all at once. And it
usually doesn’t happen once-and-for-all; you will have some
backsliding, some moments when you would like to hear that
this person has gone through unexpected pain or trouble.
However, the trajectory of your heart is headed in the right direction.
When you start praying for good things for someone
who hurt you badly, you can pretty much know that the Great
Forgiver has been working in your heart.5
Even though Jesus was treated badly and crucified, He
prayed for His enemies (Luke 23:34; see also Matt. 5:43-48).
When we forgive, we walk in step with the forgiving God.
We will forgive to the extent that we appreciate how much
we have been forgiven. The best incentive to forgiveness is
to remember how much God has already forgiven you. Think of how many sins He has covered for you. Think of the punishment
you deserved that did not happen because of God’s
grace. Jesus said, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have
been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever
has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). Your willingness
to forgive is in direct proportion to your remembrance
of how much you have been forgiven.
Mark Twain said it this way: “Forgiveness is the fragrance
the violet gives to the heel that has crushed it.” You are never
more like Jesus than when you forgive. You will never be set
free until you forgive. Go ahead and release the burden of
unforgiven offenses, and you will be set free.
1 This is the Revised English Bible.
2 Leroy T. Howe, Guilt: Helping God’s People Find Healing and Forgiveness, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 99.
3 Lewis B. Smedes, The Art of Forgiving, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 3-12.
R. T. Kendall, Total Forgiveness, (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma
House—A Strang Company, 2002), 174-177.