It’s the hardest thing to give away
And the last thing on your mind today
It always goes to those who don’t deserve.

It’s the opposite of how you feel
When the pain they caused is just too real
It takes everything you have to say the word…


If you listen to contemporary Christian music, you’re probably familiar with the song, “Forgiveness,” by Matthew West.  The lyrics are based on an incredible demonstration of love, grace, and forgiveness – the true story of Renee Napier, a mother who forgave the man who killed her own daughter.

In the early hours of May 11, 2002, utter tragedy and devastation struck the Napier family when a drunk driver took the life of their child. But in a stunning display of strength and courage that could only come from God, Renee let her anger, resentment, and despair give way to a heart of compassion and forgiveness.

While we may never be involved in such a heartbreaking situation, most of us still struggle with true forgiveness at some level.  It may involve a person who has truly devastated us. But most likely it’s much more simple, like friction with a coworker or a nagging disagreement with a friend or spouse. We all know that even simple disputes can quickly be blown out of proportion.  The willingness to forgive becomes increasingly difficult as our hearts harden and bitterness begins to take root.  (See Hebrews 12:14-15.)

As believers, it’s especially important for us to forgive.  After all, it’s the very essence of our faith! Where would any of us be without the Lord’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness? Ephesians 1:7 says, “He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins.”

While we readily acknowledge this important truth, we also admit that sometimes it can be extremely difficult for us to forgive others.  Perhaps it’s fear of further pain (forgiveness is not a guarantee that the other person’s behavior will change).  Or maybe it’s fear of losing power in a relationship (holding out on forgiveness gives us a certain amount of leverage).  Or maybe it’s the desire for sympathy (we receive compassion by maintaining a self-image of one who has been hurt by another.)

No matter what our reasons or justifications may be, the Bible makes one thing clear: it’s the Lord’s job to judge others.  It’s our job to forgive.  Romans 12:18-19 says, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone... never take revenge.”  And Colossians 3:13 says “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” And forgiveness is also an act of obedience, not a method of manipulation. “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another...” (Ephesians 4:32)

So what are some thoughts that might help us release whatever is holding us back from truly forgiving others? Perhaps looking at what forgiveness is not may be a helpful starting point.

1. Forgiveness is not saying, “I excuse your original behavior.”

When you forgive someone, you’re not condoning the original behavior or act. You're not saying the person never did anything wrong.  One look at God’s forgiveness of our own sins teaches us that truth!  Instead, when we forgive, we acknowledge that the result of the situation is now in God’s Hands.  It’s shifting the scenario from our own personal system of justice over to God’s system.

At the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph forgave his brothers for the unspeakable act of selling him into slavery.  He told them, “you intended to harm me but God meant it all for good.” (Genesis 50:20) Forgiveness didn’t excuse the behavior of the brothers.  But forgiving and acknowledging that the situation was in God’s hands prevented their behavior from destroying Joseph’s heart -- and even gave him an opportunity to praise God!

2. Forgiveness is not saying, “I trust you now; let’s be friends.”

Forgiveness is a necessary first step if we seek reconciliation with someone.  However, reconciliation is not necessarily the endpoint of forgiveness.  In fact, it may not even be wise to trust or reconcile with someone if that person is unrepentant and may hurt us again.  But we can still offer forgiveness without establishing a trust-based relationship. (Proverbs 13:20; 14:7)

3. Forgiveness is not saying, “I will forget what happened.”

We may think to ourselves, “I can never forgive that person because I'll never forget what he or she did to me.” True, we may never forget some of the wrongs others have done to us, but by remembering them, we can also learn from those situations.  Forgiveness will never erase bad memories, but the sting of those memories can be soothed if we follow God’s will.

Now that we’ve established what forgiveness is not, let’s take a quick look at what forgiveness is.

1. Forgiveness is acknowledging what God has done for us.

“Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32).

When we truly focus on the Lord’s amazing compassion and forgiveness to us, it hardly makes sense for us to hold a grudge against others.  If we can’t appreciate how much we’ve been forgiven, we’ll never understand what it means to forgive.  The more we contemplate the incredible grace we have received from God, the more grace we should be willing to extend to others.

2. Forgiveness is giving up our desire for revenge.

“Never take revenge.  Leave that to the righteous anger of God.  For the Scriptures say, "I will take revenge; I will pay them back," says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

Sometimes it may look like the person who has offended you is getting away with the wrong they have done.  That’s not fair!  But if we want to forgive as Jesus forgave, then Romans 12:19 should encourage us.  Turn the situation over to God, just as Jesus did. (Luke 23:24)  God promises HE will judge and take care of the situation.  And taking our own revenge may very well backfire and make us feel even worse in the long run, or make others despise us and our vengeful actions.

3. Forgiveness is responding to evil with good.

“Love your enemies!  Do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who hurt you.” (Luke 6:27-28)

It may be one thing to forgive, but do good to that person?!  Pray for that person?!  That may seem like more than we can handle.  The story of Renee Napier is an amazing example for us here. She did far more than just “good” to the man who killed her daughter and shattered her life. She began to pray for him, and then she asked the court to reduce his prison sentence. In time, this man accepted Jesus as his Savior, and through Renee’s request for clemency, he was released from prison after serving only half his original sentence.  Eric Smallridge is a free man today and shares a close bond with Renee and her family.  She even feels like he’s become like a son to her.  What an incredible illustration of the power and beauty of forgiveness.  Just the way God intended!

It’ll clear the bitterness away
It can even set a prisoner free
There is no end to what its power can do
So let it go and be amazed by what you see through eyes of grace
The prisoner that it really frees is you.

- Ron Reid

Click to watch a short video of the story of Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge
Click to listen to the song "Forgiveness"
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