How Do I Know If I Have Truly Forgiven Someone?

by Tom Terry

Have you ever forgiven someone but had bad feelings about them at the same time? Jesus Christ is our model for forgiveness. It’s hard to image Jesus forgiving someone but holding onto bad feelings about that person. Yet, many Christians have the idea that we can forgive someone practically, that is, from the mind, yet still hold bad feelings about that person. We forgive their sin but if something bad happened to them we wouldn’t be crying any tears of sorrow.

I want to suggest that this kind of forgiveness may not be forgiveness at all. It’s the kind of forgiveness that is dressed up in Christianese language but it isn’t a forgiveness that is fully felt in the seat of our emotions. And if we claim to forgive someone, shouldn’t we feel it in the heart? After all, when we sin we are told that we must repent from the heart. “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). “David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people” (II Samuel 24:10). “He has sent me to heal the contrite of heart” (Luke 4:18). Throughout the scripture we are urged to repent of sin, not only intellectually, but from the seat of our emotions; from the heart. If this is the case, then doesn’t forgiveness also require an expression of the heart?

In fact, this is the kind of forgiveness that Jesus talked about. When giving the parable about the  unforgiving servant, Jesus noted that to the one who does not forgive, God will not forgive him. He ended the parable by saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Jesus didn’t just say to forgive as a matter of the will or mind, but to do so from the heart. I have always thought that this means that we must have tender feelings toward the person we must forgive, no matter how much they may have hurt us. This is what it means to forgive from the heart, from the seat of our emotions. However, I must admit, many Christians find this difficult. I’ve found myself in the same predicament. Some have said that forgiveness must begin in the will or as a mental state and that emotions don’t have to be involved. I disagree with this strongly. Yes, forgiveness can begin in the will. But Jesus seemed to make clear that forgiveness must also come from the seat of our emotions. So, at some point, your forgiveness must grow to become an expression of heart-felt mercy and tenderness toward that person—even if it doesn’t start that way. But it must end up there. Why? Because, forgiveness is an expression of love. And love is more than an action. Love is an expression of emotion.

Dr. Bill Bright, in his book, Love By Faith, said, “When individual Christians are vitally yoked to Christ and related to God and are walking in the Spirit, loving Him with all their hearts, souls and minds, they will fulfill God’s command to love others as themselves.” Dr. Bright is very right. If we love the Lord, truly love the Lord, then a heart of forgiveness and compassion should be a normal thing for us. And aren’t compassion and forgiveness expressions of love? Remember the Apostle John’s words in I John 4:20, “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” Doesn’t this truth also apply to forgiveness? I think so.

At one point in my career I was once charged with a crime by a former associate of mine. It was a false charge, but if convicted, I could have faced up to ten years in prison. In the corrupt justice system in the country where I was living, anything could happen. My opponent was regularly pressuring the police and the prosecutor to charge me so that I would be found guilty and sent to prison. Thankfully, both the investigating officer and the prosecutor assigned to the case dropped it, both of them saying the same thing, “It’s obvious you did not do what you are charged with.” Then the prosecutor pulled me aside and said, “You’re opponent is out to destroy you. You have to find a way to make up with this person or things will get worse.”

After the case was dropped, my closest friends where I worked urged me strongly to file criminal charges against my opponent since what she did was illegal (filing false criminal charges against me). One of them noted that she deserved to go to prison for what she did. But, instantly, I knew that this would not be right. I had an opportunity to express forgiveness and work for reconciliation. As a Christian, my testimony would be marred if I pursued revenge.

Like many Christians, I had trouble forgiving from the heart. I decided to forgive from the will, from my mind, but I didn’t address my emotions. So, while I said I forgave her, in my heart, I did not wish her well. It took some time for me to realize that the power of true forgiveness proceeds from the heart. It is now many years later and we have reconciled our differences. My heart is more tender toward my former opponent, and I truly, from the heart, wish her well.

Isn’t this the kind of forgiveness that Jesus was talking about? Consider how Jesus forgave. Did Jesus forgive your sins intellectually only, and not with a heart of tenderness and compassion? Did intellectual forgiveness drive Jesus to the cross or was it something more complete; a forgiveness borne out of love? In fact, this is the kind of forgiveness that the Father has toward his children.

Consider the story of the prodigal son. When the son came to his senses and went home, what did the father do? “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Notice that he felt “compassion” and “embraced him,” and “kissed him.” These are not the acts of a person who only forgives from the will or intellectually. In fact, in Jesus’ story, the father ran and expressed his forgiveness even before his son had fully expressed his repentance. So complete was the father’s forgiveness that he said, “Let us eat and celebrate!” (Luke 15:23). Do you celebrate repentance and forgiveness if you only forgive from the mind and not from the seat of your emotions?

I want to suggest that this is the kind of forgiveness that stupefies the world. Forgiving someone intellectually? No problem. Anyone can do that. But only through the Holy Spirit can we have a heart-felt expression of forgiveness and tenderness for a person who has betrayed us. This is the forgiveness that the world rarely knowns. What kind of testimony we would have as Christians if we forgive from the depth of our emotions even the most vile offense? This is the way Jesus forgives. Should it not also be our way?

No matter what offense someone has made against you, heartfelt forgiveness can set you free. Forgiving from the mind but holding a grudge or not wishing your opponent well, isn’t a forgiveness that has found its truest expression. And when you forgive in this way, you cannot be hurt again. This kind of forgiveness is a shield against future feelings of unforgiveness and revenge. Remember Jesus’ conversation with Peter, “‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:21-22). Now, you may protest and say that such a forgiveness can only be intellectual. Ah, but keep in mind that the very next thing Jesus told Peter was the parable of the unforgiving servant which he ended by saying that he had to forgive from the heart (Matthew 18:35).

Forgiveness is more than an expression of the will or mind. It may start there, and that’s good, but it must not end there. Only a tender heart of love, compassion, and blessing expresses forgiveness the way God had expressed it to us. This is how God wants us to live.

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