How can I develop a forgiving spirit?
When you’ve been wronged, becoming bitter toward your offender feels like a way to get revenge. However, this response actually harms you more than it harms your offender, because to be bitter is to be in bondage to hatred and wrath. You will experience the destructive consequences of bitterness until you choose to walk in the freedom of forgiveness.
It is not easy to forgive, but God makes it possible through the gift of His grace. (See Hebrews 12:15.) An understanding of the following foundational truths can help you respond to an offense with a forgiving heart.
Consider how much God has forgiven you.
Jesus spoke of a servant who owed a great deal of money to his master. The servant had no hope of repaying the debt, and his master mercifully released him from it. Later that very servant refused to be merciful to someone who owed him a small amount of money. Because of the servant’s choice to not forgive the one who owed him a small debt, the master reinstated the servant’s original debt and punished him severely. (See Matthew 18:21–35.)
Men and women tend to act like the unforgiving servant. We hold onto grudges against one another and ignore, downplay, or excuse the magnitude of our debt of sin against God.
Receiving God’s mercy should motivate you to forgive others. (See Luke 7:40–50.) Truly, any wrong that is done to you falls short of the punishment you deserve because of how deeply your sin has offended God. Forgiveness extends to others the same mercy that God showed you when He forgave the debt of sin you could not pay.
Realize that God is working through the actions of your offender.
Many individuals in Scripture recognized that their offenders were instruments in God’s hand as God worked to accomplish His purposes in their lives. This understanding helped them forgive their enemies and seek God’s redemption in painful situations. (See Genesis 50:20, Job 1:21, and II Samuel 16:5–13.)
If you focus on your offender and the offense, you will have a hard time avoiding bitterness. However, when you view the offense as something God can use for good in your life (to develop your personal character, to open new opportunities, etc.), the significance of both the offender and the offense is greatly diminished, and your response to the offense becomes the major concern.
Jesus Christ is the greatest example of One Who forgave freely. In the midst of His suffering, He was not bitter toward those who beat Him and nailed Him to the cross. Jesus knew they were carrying out the purpose of God for His life, and He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). He chose to love instead of hate. He chose to trust and obey His Father rather than take vengeance on His enemies.
When we are offended, we should respond in faith, thanking God for the good purposes He will accomplish through the experience. “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:18).
Recognize the difference between forgiveness and pardon.
Forgiveness and pardon are separate issues. Forgiveness is a personal decision to release an offender from your condemnation. Pardon is a release from the legal penalties of an offense. You can forgive an offender and no longer hate him or wish him harm, but you cannot pardon him unless you have the authority to do so.
For example, if a man killed someone in your family, you could forgive him and want to help him come to repentance, but you could not pardon him. He would still be guilty before God and before the law and would be held responsible for his actions.
In a similar fashion, unless you are in a place of authority, it is not your responsibility to dole out consequences for wrong actions. You can trust God to be just in every situation. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . . Do not take revenge . . . for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. ” (Romans 12:17–19). God works through authority structures (family, church, employment, and government), life circumstances, and final judgment at the end of time to bring justice to offenders. (See Matthew 18:6–7.)
Voluntarily invest in the life of your offender.
In appropriate instances, an important aspect of forgiveness can be the ability to invest in the life of your offender. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21). When you willingly give to an offender, God can supernaturally give you sincere love toward him.
Ask God how He wants you to demonstrate His love to your offender. You should be able to invest in his life through prayer, words of affirmation, acts of service, or material gifts. “But if thy enemy be hungry, give him to eat; if he thirst, give him to drink. For, doing this, thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.” (Romans 12:20–21).
Whether the offense was intentional or not, forgiveness enables you to have a greater concern for a person after he offends you than you had before he offended you. It opens your heart to cooperating with God’s work in his life, and your sincere love for him allows you to minister to him and help him mature.
Understand that suffering is part of the Christian life.
Scripture states, “For unto you it is given for Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29). “And all that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution.” (II Timothy 3:12). “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him. If we deny him, he will also deny us.” (II Timothy 2:12).
As a follower of Christ, you can rejoice in suffering because of the good work God intends to accomplish through it. When offenses usher you into the classroom of trials and tribulations, you have an opportunity to grow in maturity and be filled with a greater understanding of God’s love.
"And not only so; but we glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience trial; and trial hope; And hope confoundeth not: because the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us.” (Romans 5:3–5).
“My brethren, count it all joy, when you shall fall into divers temptations; Knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience. And patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing. But if any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men abundantly, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:2–5).