What it means to truly forgive

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive.”

The role of forgiveness

It is well understood that the lack of forgiveness can hinder our relationships with family or friends, as well as with God. Most of us understand at an intellectual level how greatly God has forgiven us, and how important it is that we readily forgive others. In fact, 94 percent of Americans say it is important to forgive, though only 48 percent say they usually tried to forgive others. Why the gap? Perhaps we don’t understand what true forgiveness is, or we associate forgiveness with weakness (e.g., letting them “off the hook”).

Perhaps we mistakenly believe that only the very special or “saintly” can really forgive. Corrie ten Boom writes of not being able to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven the person, but she kept rehashing the incident and couldn’t sleep. A Lutheran pastor told her, “Up in the church tower is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there's a final dong, and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.” Corrie ten Boom continues, “And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force —which was my willingness in the matter—had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether: we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.”

Many couples discover this truism about each
other fairly early in marriage: Our pasts play a role
 in directing and influencing our current emotions, behaviors, attitudes and interactions with each other. Regrets, for example, shape our present and can exert significant influence in our relationships with others.

Dr. Everett Worthington has a very helpful website on forgiveness, with many valuable resources (evworthington-forgiveness.com). He writes that there are two types of forgiveness:

1. Decisional forgiveness—deciding to forgive a personal offense and letting go of angry and resentful thoughts and feelings toward the person who has wronged you.

2. Emotional forgiveness—replacing the negative emotions with positive feelings like compassion, sympathy and empathy (where most health benefits lie).

He developed a five-step process of forgiving others, called “REACH”:

  1. Recall—remembering the hurt that was done to you as objectively as you can.
  2. Empathize—trying to understand the viewpoint of the person who wronged you.
  3. Altruism—thinking about a time you hurt someone and were forgiven, then offering the gift of forgiveness to the person who hurt you.
  4. Committing—publicly forgiving the person who wronged you.

  5. Holding on—not forgetting the hurt, but reminding yourself that you made the choice to forgive.

What forgiveness is and isn’t

Experts who have written and researched in the area of forgiveness define it as a positive, internal change toward a perceived wrongdoer (transgressor). At the most basic level it means to pardon or to take away.

It does not mean:

  • Ignoring an injustice. 

  • Letting someone treat you badly. 

  • Glossing over wrongs. The consequences will
remain, (e.g., Moses was forgiven but still did not enter the Promised Land, David was forgiven, but his family still experienced the consequences). 

  • Pretending that things are ok. 

  • Having amnesia, or simply forgetting. The 
memory of the hurt comes back time to time 
(e.g., the Corrie ten Boom story). 

  • Pardoning, condoning or excusing. 

  • Trusting the other person. Forgiveness can
provide the opportunity to trust and reconcile. 

  • A magic trick to get someone to change, (e.g., 
the other person may actually never change). 


What forgiveness does require is:

  • A courageous effort, a moral muscle, a letting go of grudges. 

  • Giving up the right to get even.
  • A strong connection with repentance.
  • Taking seriously the awfulness of what has 
happened when you are treated unfairly.
  • Healing (not erasing) the memory of the harm. (Memories of hurt linger.)
  • An act of mercy toward the offender, as well as empathy toward them.

  • Giving up control of the angry feelings.
(Acknowledge your emotions to God, but refuse to be controlled by them. If you process your memories and emotions in a positive manner, they will eventually begin to recede.)
  • Refusing to let negative emotions control, and thus starting you on a journey to freedom.
  • Following God’s example.
    • In Ephesians 4:32, Paul writes, “Instead, be 
kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
    • In Luke 23:33-34, we read that “when they 
came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’”
    • Paul wrote in Colossians 3:13, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Forgiveness is a decision, and it requires action. It is hard. Thankfully, we have the ultimate guidebook in the Bible, and the ultimate model in Jesus on how to go about receiving and extending forgiveness.

Steps to Forgiveness

Prepare/Enrich lists steps for seeking and granting forgiveness:

For seeking forgiveness:

  1. Admit what you did was wrong or hurtful.
  2. Try to understand/empathize with the pain you have caused.
  3. Take responsibility for your actions and make restitution if necessary.
  4. Assure your partner you will not do it again.
  5. Apologize and ask for forgiveness. (A sincere apology is a powerful addition to a request for forgiveness. One of the most healing things that can be said between two people is “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me”).
  6. Forgive yourself.

For granting forgiveness:

  1. Acknowledge your pain and anger. Allow yourself to feel disrespected.
  2. Be specific about your future expectations and limits.
  3. Give up your rights to “get even,” but insist on being treated better in the future.
  4. Let go of blame, resentment and negativity toward your partner.
  5. Communicate your act of forgiveness to your partner.
  6. Work toward reconciliation (when safe).
  7. Say it aloud to yourself several times a day, whether you mean it yet or not.

4 signs that you have forgiven

  1. You do not tell anyone what they did to you.
  2. You accept the matter of forgiveness as a life sentence.
  3. You pray they will be blessed.
  4. Do it over and over again each day as many times as is necessary.

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. - Ephesians 4:32


Chris Grace

Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.


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