What’s Happening When I Won’t Forgive Someone?

What Happens to Me When I Won’t Forgive Someone

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Forgiveness is one of the most challenging concepts for Christians to come to terms with, especially when someone has hurt them. The recipients of unjust and unkind actions experience legitimate disappointment that does not always go away quickly. Fortunately, we do not have to despair: we have a suffering Savior who went through many unjust trials, leaving us a template for thinking about and responding to when someone sins against us. Of course, as you might imagine, the pathway to follow Him through suffering has complexities and challenges, but there is grace for this, as we can read and learn from Peter’s perspective on the Savior’s suffering.

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For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this, you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:19-23).

Peter wants us to learn as we walk in the steps of Jesus. Though your hurt might seem too painful at this moment, you can emulate Christ as a beloved child of the Father (Ephesians 5:1). Because of our great salvation, anyone can be free from the relational problems that entangle them—including unjust suffering. But beware: freedom comes with a price (Galatians 5:1). The smell of death is always in the air when forgiveness is the need of the hour, which is why there is such an active call in God’s Word to die to ourselves. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

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Forgiveness is a complex message, but it is the perfect response for relational reconciliation. It starts with a heart of forgiveness, which is forgiving offenders attitudinally. Of course, the goal is transactional forgiveness if they are willing to cooperate. Our lives and internal soul noise will never be exemplary without learning and applying this attitudinal and transactional forgiveness. Some of the saddest people you will ever meet are those who refuse to forgive those who have sinned against them. I have counseled scores of these hurt people; their stories are heartbreaking. People have profoundly hurt them, and their pain is real and unending. Any discussion about forgiveness with them is nearly always met with deep emotional angst and, sometimes, hostility. Many of these fellow strugglers do not need a rebuke but a gentle, courageous, and biblical caregiver to help restore them (Galatians 6:1).

With as much patience and compassion as you can muster, you want to lead them to the only freedom they can have, which they will find through Christ’s attitude of forgiveness of those who sinned against Him. To care for an offended soul, you must steward their two realities: the hurt they are experiencing and their need to forgive the person who hurt them. Sometimes, uncaring caregivers will press a person to forgive someone when they cannot do it—at that time. They may mouth the words, “I forgive you,” but it won’t be authentic because their hearts did not produce the words (Luke 6:45). Though they must not hold on to unforgiveness forever, it takes time to work through the complexity of the soul to let an offense go, even if they are only releasing the offender from the heart (attitudinally) because the offender has never come forward to transact relational forgiveness (transactional).

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Foolishness of God

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Like nearly everything else in the Christian life, forgiveness is upside down. Paul talked about how God’s ways appear weak or foolish compared to ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). The cross of Christ was amazingly foolish to His disciples. It was so hard for them to comprehend that they ran away when they were supposed to stay put and make a stand for their leader. A dying man on a tree was counter-intuitive to their beliefs and hopes. “Wait! What? He is supposed to rule the world.” In time, the disciples began to see how the gospel was not what they thought it was. After a season of re-envisioning, they reacquainted themselves with the “foolishness and weakness of God.” And when they did, it began to look like real power and true wisdom from another kingdom. Forgiveness is one of those counter-intuitive planks in the gospel’s platform. God calls us to forgive each other attitudinally or transactionally, no matter the pain, regret, or disappointment.

One of the ironies of unforgiveness is how the offended is the one experiencing unending suffering when they don’t forgive. Unwillingness to forgive the perpetrator of the sin will only perpetuate the offended’s suffering. It’s like the incremental sipping of bitter water. Each time the victim thinks about what someone did to them while holding on to an unforgiving attitude, they hurt themselves more. In most situations, the unforgiving person does not fully realize how holding on to unforgiveness makes things worse for them. Unforgiveness never makes things better because God will not bless anyone who persists in holding on to an unforgiving attitude toward anyone (James 4:6; Romans 1:18). Paul teaches us how the Lord’s displeasure rains down from heaven on any person who presses His truth out of their lives. That was the testimony of King David. As long as he kept silent about the sin he carried in his heart, the more he experienced the Lord’s wrathful displeasure.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night, your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (Psalm 32:3-4).

Practical Deterioration

If the unforgiving person continues to hold on to unforgiveness, he will accrue the deterioration of both the body and the soul. Ironically, the perpetrator (the offender) of the suffering is usually unaware of this soul deterioration effect on the one he has hurt. Unforgiveness is just one sin, but it will never hibernate in autonomy. It’s like cancer when left to its own devices. A gathering constellation of sins will emerge with the intent of devouring its prey (1 Peter 5:8). Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the more common problems that unforgiving people experience. You can use this list for self-analysis as you examine yourself to see if you are holding on to unforgiveness toward another person.

  • Gossip: The unforgiving person regularly talks negatively about others, especially those who hurt them.
  • Criticalness: The unforgiving person tends to express more negativity than positivity about life.
  • Joylessness: You would not characterize the unforgiving person as happy, joyful, or hopeful.
  • Self-deceived: The unforgiving person is unwilling to see their situation with biblical clarity.
  • Lying: The unforgiving person tends to spin the truth to put themselves in a better light.
  • Anger: The unforgiving person exhibits various forms of unrighteous anger.
  • Bitterness: The unforgiving person’s ongoing anger eventually turns into sourness. (This is the downward spiral effect of unrepentant sin.)
  • Offended: The unforgiving person is defensive and quick to retaliate because they view life through the lens of their hurt.

Sin will not discriminate. Just because someone is offended does not mean they are impervious to sin’s multi-faceted encroachments. I gave only a few possibilities of what can happen to the recipient of someone else’s offenses. Refusing to forgive a fellow sinner is a posture that perpetuates pain while keeping the offended person in a self-erected prison.

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Choose Freedom

Living with the freedom of a forgiving spirit is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, especially if someone has hurt you. I vividly remember working through the process of forgiving my sister-in-law for murdering my brother. That process did not come easy. I struggled to take my soul to task, especially since she was not asking for forgiveness. Without the opportunity to forgive her transactionally, I had to wrestle with God to free my soul from the hurt I carried in my attitude toward her. In time, I was able to forgive her attitudinally. I do not know if she has asked God to forgive her (1 John 1:9). I hope she has. She has not received mine because she has never asked for it, but her lack of asking did not stop me from being fully released from what she did to our family. God has done miraculous work in my heart, for which I am eternally grateful.

Though I can still cry when I think about my brother, I have been set free from the soul entanglements that easily capture the unforgiving heart. Perhaps you are struggling to forgive someone who has hurt you. It’s a pain I do not need to explain because you are living it each day. The reminders are everywhere, and your mind can be quickly captivated by what that person did to you (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). To walk out of that dark tunnel, you must pray often. And as you pray, you will need to ask yourself a few hard questions, all of which center on why you are unwilling to forgive the person who has hurt you. When I did my self-examination, there were at least seven reasons why I was reluctant to let it go. I will share those reasons with you while asking you about each one. Will you reflect on these questions as you take them to the Lord—especially if you struggle with unforgiveness toward someone?

  • Punishment: Do you have any desire for someone to punish the offender?
  • Fearfulness: Are you afraid that forgiving them will permit them to hurt you again?
  • Unbelief: Do you believe God will fully take care of what happened to you?
  • Control: Does unforgiveness allow you to stay in control of the situation?
  • Righteousness: Do you believe you are better than the offender? (See Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10-12.)
  • Acceptance: Do you manipulate the sympathy others can give you for what happened to you?
  • Identity: Are you finding your identity in your suffering rather than in Christ?

Call to Action

Only the Lord can grant the repentance necessary for you to let go of unforgiveness. He does this by working His good will in you while expecting you to work it out practically (Philippians 2:12-13). The call to repentance is both a passive and active action. (See 2 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22.) God grants forgiveness (2 Timothy 2:24-25), and you are to respond to His good work. We all have hurt others, and others have sinned against us. I trust that you will model your Savior as you appropriate His grace in areas where you need to change. Here are a few questions to consider as you process this information. If you have a friend who can walk with you, please get with that person, and both of you pray through this book’s content, but let’s start with these questions.

  1. Have you been sinned against by someone? Has a person hurt you? Describe what happened.
  2. What do you think about that person? What is your attitude toward them?
  3. Will you forgive them attitudinally, even though they have not come to you seeking your forgiveness for what they did to you? If not, what is keeping you from doing this?
  4. If you cannot at least forgive them from the heart, will you seek the help you need until you can accomplish this? Will you fight for your freedom in Christ?

Take your time. Forgiveness is not something you can accelerate; it will take time, so there is no need to hurry. After you have worked through my questions and discussed them with a friend, please continue through the remainder of this book.

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