On Forgiving Unforgiveness
by Lonnie Lane
Some of the most asked questions I receive are about forgiveness: How to…when to…if to…why to. The issue of forgiveness is central to everything having to do with the Lord. It’s foundational to all else. Still, a church-attending young woman wrote to me saying she just doesn’t “get it” regarding forgiveness. Here are her words:
“About “getting past your past,” it sounds silly but all these years I never knew Christianity was about forgiveness. I read the Bible and went to church and even though I was pretty close to God I never got forgiveness. [The church] challenged everyone to do a forgiveness prayer…. I heard again that it wasn’t about waiting to feel like forgiving, it was just about doing it by faith, so I did. I’m still trying to “get it” – about God forgiving us so we forgive others. But what do you do when in the back of your mind you feel like you got such raw deal from God and people that everything wrong you did against God and others was justified? If I can answer that then maybe my life can actually begin. That’s what gets me stuck.”
As you see she was raised in church, even though she never “got it” about forgiveness. I know from some back and forth dialog with this young woman that there was a high level of performance expectations in her church upbringing, which will misrepresent God for sure. Some call it legalism, others call it holiness. It amazes me how Yeshua came to take away our guilt but too often the church puts it back on us by imposing “have to’s” and “musts” Yeshua never even thought of. When the emphasis focuses on what you do (lookin’ good; lookin’ holy) more than what God did on our behalf, it distorts our ideas of God, and then of what His requirements are of us.
We can only ‘experience’ God’s forgiveness when we realize we need His forgiveness and are assured that He will extend it to us.
He designed the mechanism of the body for us to be able to come to Him and one another to confess our sins, be embraced, loved and for us to remain free. But when there’s a high standard of performance requirement, you can’t repent because then you’re admitting you’ve failed God and the stigma is unbearable. I know, I’ve been there, done that and totally lost the t-shirt. Take heart, those of you with that kind of confusion. I can write some of what I do and help people precisely because I went through what I did and can now help others. This young woman has a need for understanding forgiveness both coming and going. This may be why she’s feeling like God has done her wrong, because He’s been misrepresented to her. But praise the Lord, she’s asking for help and recognizes that she’s stuck. In order to really “live” she needs to get this issue with God resolved. Hopefully we can get this sorted out even though I’m going to use some strong language here.
Can you see why she’s stuck? She talks about saying a “forgiveness prayer” by faith. Well, faith in what? In whom? It doesn’t sound to me as if she has experienced the forgiveness of God, so how is she going to have faith for forgiving someone else? Unless we have experienced His forgiveness ourselves, I seriously doubt that we can extend full forgiveness to someone else. Not a Jesus-kind of forgiveness anyway. Without forgiveness there’s no release from where we’ve been hurt in our past, so our hurts are still with us and we can’t get past our past.
The essential fact is, without receiving God’s forgiveness ourselves we’re still in our sin. It’s not that He didn’t include us when He died, He did. “He Himself is the propitiation (the atoning sacrifice) for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). It’s that we can only ‘experience’ God’s forgiveness when we realize we need His forgiveness and are assured that He will extend it to us. If we’ve lived with a kind of no-win situation so that unless you were lookin’ good and lookin’ holy, you suffered some kind of rejection, you’re likely to think God will feel the same way about you as the church folks. You’re not going to repent to a God you think will reject you if you think He has the same high standard that you cannot possibly meet as the church appears to, even though you know you’re obligated to keep trying. Unless you give up, that is. But let’s look at forgiveness from a Biblical perspective, not from a social perspective that has created a whole religious culture that exceeds what is written in the word of God. Sometimes we need to get away from the culture and get alone with God, get in His Word and ask Him to show us what He has really said so we can get in touch with Him apart from what others tell us.
Forgiveness for our sins is between God and each of us personally. No one else. Later forgiveness may need to be extended to others, but it begins with you and God. It also begins with knowing that there isn’t anything God wants more than to release you from the weight of guilt you’re carrying from sin and unforgiveness. He longs to comfort you, bathe you in His love, and bring healing and wholeness. He’s not looking to see what you’ve done wrong, or even done correctly. He’s looking to where He can bring His goodness to you by releasing you from your sin. We have to know we can trust Him before we will ask Him for His forgiveness. Our need for God’s forgiveness comes when we realize we have violated His holiness…but He’s not rejecting us. On the contrary. He loves us more than anyone on earth could. Our sin is our enemy, never God. Sin is the enemy that keeps us from His love, and that which will ultimately destroy us.
Until we see our own sin for what it is, we don’t see our need to be truly forgiven. If we don’t see our need for God to forgive us, then we won’t see Yeshua as our Savior, in which case we pretty much miss the whole point of His coming. If that’s the case, then I wonder what it is we think the Lord’s coming was all about? If we think He came so we can be “saved,” I have to ask, saved from what? Most of us would say, from going to hell, though there is so much more to ‘being saved.” But, regarding hell, there is no saving from hell without forgiveness because without God’s forgiveness and, therefore, the removal of our sins being counted against us, then we’re still in our sins. And until we realize that we are sinners, no matter how much church we’ve participated in, we won’t look to God for His mercy toward us. We may take Him for granted; He’s just there. Or we’re trying to walk the line people have defined for us that has little mercy. But when we come to realize we need His mercy, we begin to see what Yeshua did for us. We find ourselves looking to Him in faith that what He did when He died on the cross can now have effect our lives today, to rescue us from the consequences of sin. This then begins to mean something to me personally as I realize I could not save myself. I now see that God has reached out to me to save me. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). He gave me the gift of Himself! A gift has no strings attached. It’s free. So is His gift of forgiveness and salvation, as He’s already paid the full price to be able to give it to us by grace.
Grace is that which God extends to us in order that we can even believe in Him. Grace is not only not receiving what we deserve (hell), but it’s also the ability to live a life that’s pleasing to God. It begins with humbly recognizing that great gift of salvation God offers to us and how our sin is inconsistent with the holiness of God. By repenting we turn away from our sin and come out of agreement with it. It may take us some time till we even begin to have an understanding of His holiness. But God’s not in a hurry. Some times it takes a while for Him to work in our lives till we are free from attitudes, emotional wounds, or even addictions before we are completely free from the desire for them. But know this: Salvation is something that is initiated when you come to the Lord and receive His forgiveness. Repentance is pretty much a daily thing, a way of life, just to stay clean before Him as things come up. But sanctification, the process of making us more and more like Yeshua, is ongoing. We are continually “being saved” as God works in our lives by His power: “to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18). It is indeed a process.
Without forgiveness there’s no release from where we’ve been hurt in our past, so our hurts are still with us and we can’t get past our past.
Warning: Do not forfeit the forgiveness God offers to you because you’re not entirely able today to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10). That is the goal, to keep walking toward. Don’t give up when you miss the mark. God is more concerned with your heart of trust in Him and you wanting to increase in knowing Him more and more than if you walk it out perfectly. How would we even know if we’re arrive at walking it out perfectly anyway? Leave that part to Him.
Now, let’s deal with another part of this young woman’s dilemma. She says she has been “pretty close to God” but she also says she feels she “got such raw deal from God and people that everything (she) did against God and others was justified.” Whoa! You cannot be close to God and accuse Him of wrong doing. To be close to God is to know His goodness. God is good! That’s the beginning and the end of it. God doesn’t give people raw deals. People might but God never does. That is a dangerous attitude and one that I would put in a category of rebellion. She’s accusing God of wrong doing against her. Accusations against God or against God’s people originate from one place, the devil. (See Rev. 12:10). Here’s a peek into the spirit world to reveal the accusing nature of satan: “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. The LORD said to satan, “The LORD rebuke you, satan!” (Zech. 3:1,2). God’s rebuke to satan is in large measure because of his accusations which are entirely and completely opposite of God’s nature. God is the forgiver; satan is the accuser.
I suggest that if she never had a face-to-face encounter with her need for the Lord and has not yet experienced the forgiveness of God, she may not be born again. She is not functioning out of a new heart and the Spirit of God, but out of her own natural understanding. When we’re still in our sins we are not likely to have a right view of God. We will misunderstand Him, and we are less likely to know “the fear of the Lord (which) is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). Consequently, we are likely to have a distorted idea of many things in life, not the least of which is how we see God. We are unlikely to grasp the goodness and extreme mercy of God when we are still under God’s wrath. I know that’s a strong term, but I’m using it because I care about our sister and want her to understand the reality of this situation. She is still under the wrath of God if she is not yet repentant and therefore “saved” from the consequence of her sin.
Psalm 73:1 says, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” How we see God says more about our character than about His. The Word also tells us, “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.” (Titus 1:15). I know those are more strong words, but this is a serious situation. This young lady may be a very nice person outwardly and wants to be right with God or she wouldn’t be writing to me. But so long as she thinks God has done her wrong and she considers that she has a right to her attitude against Him, she is in dangerous territory. No one goes to heaven who is in rebellion against God or holding a grudge against Him. Those who go to heaven are people with deep gratitude for His forgiveness and mercy toward them, those who know their need of Him and have only honor and profound respect for Him. We don’t all start out knowing all this; we grow in our awareness of our need for Him and understanding of His holiness and His grace toward us as we come to know Him more and more over the years. As was said, it’s a process.
If you read my articles regularly, as some folks have told me they do, you know that this is a concern of mine: We live in day, if indeed we are living in the end of days, when, as Yeshua prophesied, “Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). So my concern is, how do we remain the disciples of Yeshua who will be known by our love for Him, for one another and even for our enemies (see Matthew 5:44 & Luke 6: 27, 35) in a day when most people’s love has grown cold? This lawlessness refers to the ‘law’ of God’s word, not secular laws. Yeshua summed up the Word as meaning this: “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF” (Luke 10:27). Neighbors means anyone with whom you come in contact. There’s no justification for wrongdoing or holding unloving thoughts or unforgiveness against God, others, whoever they are, or even yourself in those words.
It’s not that rejecting Yeshua, not receiving His forgiveness, not accepting Him or however you want to say it sends us to hell. No, we’re already under the wrath of God and for that there is no remedy… except to be freed from the penalty of sin. The only way that happens is by faith in Yeshua’s act of atonement, by accepting that He died on the cross for the sins of the world. Whoever accepts that by faith can apply His atonement to their life. Yeshua doesn’t send us to hell. He came to intervene so we wouldn’t have to go to hell.
Forgiveness is the key that will unlock the closet in which all kinds of confusion, anguish, bitterness, rejection and pain are hidden away.
No one who gives up His life for you is likely to strike out to hurt you. He valued you above His own life. He cared more about your well-being than His own. So seeing Him as someone who gave you a raw deal is really not seeing correctly. It may be seeing out of hurt, rejection or abuse, but that doesn’t come from God. To say it again, God doesn’t give raw deals. But people do. You may have heard the phrase, hurting people hurt people. God often gets blamed for things that have nothing to do with God. As for forgiving others, unless we realize that we are just as in need of forgiveness as the one(s) we need to forgive, we are likely to find ourselves powerless to truly forgive, which may include forgiving ourselves as well as forgiving others. So you can see why reciting a forgiveness prayer by faith, as this woman’s pastor urged her to do, won’t work for the unrepentant.
If you don’t ask for forgiveness, you don’t receive it. Because it takes humility to ask for forgiveness, it means facing your own sinfulness and admitting you’re wrong and God is right. Only repentant people then are forgiven people. But unforgiven people are generally also unforgiving people because we can’t give what we don’t have. If we haven’t received forgiveness ourselves, we don’t have an experience with it to know how to forgive others. It’s not part of our practical understanding. The same principle works in the positive for love. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). What we have we can then give. We have love when we receive it from Him, so we can then give it to others.
If we haven’t experienced God’s forgiveness, His love and acceptance of us, and the release from our guilt that He offers to us, then we may be toting around a weight of baggage from our past. Are you stuck in something from your past you can’t get free from? Forgiveness is the key that will unlock the closet in which all kinds of confusion, anguish, bitterness, rejection and pain are hidden away. Hopefully, you can unlock that closet today. If there is an injustice that was done to you that is hanging you up, I understand. So does God, but we can’t bring justice about. Only He can. Give it to Him. Let it go. You do your part by coming to Him in humility and in repentance and let Him take care of those who hurt you. You may need to find a new group of people who know the sweet humility and rest of God that comes from genuine repentance.
Whatever the problem between you and God, whatever the issue, the wisest thing you can do is repent and ask God to show you the issue as He sees it. There will be no condemnation in it. He does not ever give a repentant heart any cause for offense with Him. He is merciful and kind. To know Him that way, empty your heart of resentment against Him and plead for His mercy. God is good all the time. He’s not the one with the problem, we are. We may not understand but He does. Never take a challenging stand with God. You’ll loose sorely. Don’t open the door for satan to come into your life with an attitude against God ever! If you have, repent to God and ask Him for His protection for you. Tell the devil you’re out of agreement with Him and to get out of your life. Ask the Lord to rebuke him for you, or you can do it yourself in Yeshua’s name. The authority is in His name and He allows His people to use it for purposes of bringing about His will. You being free is His will. “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
The best piece of advice I ever received from a Messianic pastor many years ago has stayed with me. He said, “If you ever feel on the outs with God for any reason, God is right and you’re not. Take a dive for His feet.” That has rescued me on numerous occasions. Humble yourself before Him and repent of whatever it is that you’re harboring in your heart. Whether it’s pride, confusion, anger, resentment, haughtiness, disappointment or flat out sin. Whatever it is, take a place of humility before Him. The floor is a good place, on your face before God, humble before Almighty God. He will hear you and see your heart and recognize your desire to be right with Him. You need have no fear of His rejection. Yeshua says, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). May the Lord use this experience to bring those of you to whom this may apply close to Him and give you a heart to share the way to His forgiveness with others. Amen.
Reprint of this article is permitted as long as you use the following; Use by permission by Messianic Vision, www.sidroth.org, 2011.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.