Jesus threatens some pretty frightening things for those who refuse to forgive and move on. An unforgiving heart means an unmerciful rejection into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 6:15; 18:35). Yep—no forgiveness from us toward others means no forgiveness from God toward us.
Yet, people are harsh. People hurt. Words are said. Actions are demonstrated. Lies are spread. Deceit is revealed. Cheating happens. Circumstances unravel. Time and time again we find ourselves feeling like an innocent victim in a world where everyone—even God—seems to be against us.
So, how can you forgive people (including God) and let go of the past? To be sure, the process isn’t easy and there is more to be said than the space this article allows for. However, let me give you four critical steps to take toward forgiveness.
1. Soak in the gospel.
The reason Jesus threatens such drastic measures with unforgiving hearts is because refusing to forgive demonstrates a misunderstanding of the realities of the gospel. That’s the entire point of the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18. Refusing to forgive someone reveals our own refusal to truly understand what we have been forgiven and given in Jesus.
Never get over the gospel! When was the last time you made a list of the things Jesus has forgiven for you? When was the last time you literally allowed yourself to rejoice and enjoy the reality that He never holds your sins against you? Making it a habit to reflect on what Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection did/does for you will eventually make you more forgiving. Max Lucado puts it this way: “Forgiveness is the act of applying your undeserved mercy to your undeserved hurts. You didn’t deserve to be hurt, but neither did you deserve to be forgiven. Being the recipient that you are of God’s great grace, does it not make sense to give grace to others?”
2. Rely on the Spirit.
In reality this simply cannot be done on our own. Forgiveness from God—and our grasp of it—is a supernatural thing. The same is true of our forgiving another. We need the work of the Spirit in us to do it. So quit trying to force forgiveness. Quit refusing forgiveness (see #1), and quit trying to make yourself do it. You can’t, but the Spirit can.
3. Ask for help.
Jesus promises to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13). If you ask Jesus for His Spirit, and He Himself is the God who has authored and perfected forgiveness, don’t you believe He will help you in it when you ask Him? He certainly will.
4. Perform a burial.
Lay the past to rest. Write down the hurt. Fold it up. Bury it in the backyard. Walk it out to the trash can that is emptied every week by the city. Burn it in the fire place. Be done with it. This isn’t suppressing the hurt. This is telling yourself that it’s over, and it’s not doing anyone any good to keep it “out there” and “alive.”
Forgiveness is hard, but we aren’t left alone to figure it out for ourselves. Jesus not only has provided a way for our forgiveness but is also with us to supernaturally forgive others in and through us. And, let us never forget what He does with things that are dead…He always brings new life.