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Lesson 4 - Overcoming Obstacles to Forgiveness and Repentance

We remember a time when Dr Charles Kraft was ministering to a man who had been severely abused by his father when he was a boy. It was clear that the man did not think his father deserved to be forgiven. After all, he did cause him great harm, and the man was right to be angry about it when it happened. The problem was compounded by the fact that the father had since died, and so the man could no longer do anything about the anger, such as confront him or seek an apology. So, he did what we too often do; he hung onto the anger and resentment and became bitter. He also sought others to blame, and God was the obvious candidate. After all, God is supposed to be all loving and all powerful. Why then did he let it happen? Doesn't he love the man now? Didn't he care about the boy then?

Chuck explained about God's choice not to violate anyone's free will, and that Jesus was there at the time doing whatever he could do in the situation. The man accepted this and let God off the hook. But he was still angry about his father. Chuck's response was inspired. We don't recall exactly what he said, but it was something like this:

"It seems to me you have a real problem. Something happened to you a long time ago and it is still affecting your life. You aren't happy because you are full of anger at what happened. You want to do something about it. You won't let God take it over because you want to exact your justice. You want revenge."

"But the person who hurt you is no longer available to you because he is dead. You might settle for them saying sorry, but they can't because they are no longer here. You aren't free because someone who hurt you in the past is still doing it from the grave. They can't do anything about it. You can't do anything about it. So what are you going to do? Are you going to continue to let someone who hurt you and is now dead continue to hurt you? Or are you going to get true revenge by not letting them hurt you any more?"

"How do I do that?" the man said.

"By not insisting on doing something that you have no possibility of doing, and handing the problem over to the One who is able to do something about it. He is just. He knows what is best for you and for your father. He will do what is right."

The man began to get the message.

When we are hurt we do have a right to be angry. We can also insist on doing something about it. However, more often than not we don't know what is the right thing to do, and it will only make things worse for ourselves and the other person, not to mention others who have to live around us. Then there are the times, as for the man above, when there is really nothing we can do about it, at least from the perspective of obtaining justice. To continue trying to resolve the situation in our own strength is clearly foolish. It becomes an obstacle to our receiving justice and offering forgiveness, an obstacle to the other person repenting, and an obstacle to us having good relationships with God and others.

Forgiveness is Not

From R. T. Kendall, Total forgiveness, pps. 19-25

  1. Approval of what they did

  2. Excusing what they did

  3. Justifying what they did

  4. Pardoning what they did

  5. Reconciliation

  6. Denying what they did

  7. Blindness to what they did

  8. Forgetting

  9. Refusing to take the wrong seriously

  10. Pretending we are not hurt

Obstacles to Forgiveness

  • Denial

    It is important that we acknowledge how we have been hurt and abused. Healing does not come when our pain is repressed or trivialised. (John 8:32,36)

  • Anger

    "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold." (Ephesians 4:26)

    To experience anger is not sin, it only becomes sin when we allow it to embitter or control us. Righteous anger, that enables us to stand against injustice, is a God-given emotion. In Choosing Forgiveness, Howard Olsen writes of his own journey to forgiveness and healing:

    Our problem is not anger. Our problem is that we don't resolve our anger every day, and therefore end up sinning. Unresolved anger, carried day after day, becomes resentment. Resentments, once ingrained in the heart, become bitterness. Jesus called bitterness a 'hardened heart.' It is the root cause of much trouble (p.43).

    We need to identify and uncover the root of our anger, for we cannot deal with things that remain hidden. Invite the Holy Spirit to shed light on any repressed or denied anger, then write letters (not to be sent!) or speak out (in private) to those who caused the hurt, eg. "Dear X, Dad, Mum, God, me - I am angry with you because ......................" Confess bitterness etc. and forgive. Allow the Lord to take your anger.

  • Blaming

    We search for someone or something to blame. Blaming life is actually blaming God for not intervening or delivering us in our painful situation. (Deuteronomy. 32:4.) Repent of blaming and release them to God. "I choose not to blame ......... or hold his/her actions against them." We often have to include God in this. Not that God has sinned, but we need to stop blaming him for others choices and release him by our forgiveness. (In Resource Sheet 4 - Forgiveness Prayers, the Prayer for releasing resentments towards the Lord may help here.)

  • Vengeance

    Badly traumatised people frequently find forgiveness more difficult because they believe the abuser deserves to suffer or be punished. In the cross we find the place that Jesus has already been punished for our sins, and theirs. We must choose to leave them to our God 'who judges fairly.' (1 Peter 2:23; Leviticus 19:18; Romans 12:19.) "I give up my right to be paid back for my loss by the one who has sinned against me - and in so doing, I declare my trust in You alone as my righteous judge."

  • Bitter Root Judgement

    As a result of early hurts we make judgements about people and life. When we sow a bitter root judgement, we reap the same disposition in our own nature. "Do not judge, or you too will be judged..." (Matthew 7:1,2; Hebrews 12:15.) We need to repent for such judgements and ask the Lord to release us from the consequences of our sowing. This will involve bringing to death on the cross the structural behaviours and thought patterns we have developed.

  • The What Ifs

    Holding to the past, continually wishing it had been different, restricts us from moving on. We do not have to be bound by the past. (John 8:32,36; Galatians 5:1; Philippians 3:12-14.) Underlying such 'whatifs' and 'if onlys' is a distrust of God's ability to work for good in all circumstances on behalf of us (Romans 8:28). When Di's mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer she planned to go home in October to be with her. Unexpectedly she died in September. Di was blaming herself for not going sooner until someone said, "If you were meant to be there God would have seen you were." She was able to let go of the 'if only' and be at peace.

  • If the Person has Died

    It may be too late for reconciliation or to ask forgiveness, but it is never too late to forgive. We cannot speak directly to the dead but we can express our longings through Jesus, who is Lord of both the living and the dead (Matthew 22:32; Romans 14:8,9).

    When you become aware of the effect of the sins of ancestors on the family it is possible to offer forgiveness and cut off the effect of the sin on the generational line. Our seminar on Generational Healing covers this in more detail. (See In Resource Sheet 4 - Forgiveness Prayers for some suggested prayers.)

  • The Guilty Confusing Condemnation with the Conviction of the Holy Spirit

    • Guilt is the state of one who has committed a sin or a crime. Satan reminds us we are guilty to hold us under condemnation. This produces fear of punishment and leads to depression, rebellion and further sin. There is no way out because we have sinned.

    • The Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin. Yes, we are guilty but he reminds us of the cross of Christ where all sin is laid. Conviction focuses on destructive behaviour, it produces a fear of missing all God has for us and leads to repentance and forgiveness (Romans 8:1-2).

  • Forgiving Self

    Sometimes people have said, "I'll never forgive myself for .............." and need to be released from that vow and the bondage it has caused.

    Difficulty in forgiving ourselves usually occurs because we do not truly believe that we are forgiven by God. Somehow our sin is beyond his ability to forgive. How we feel and see ourselves should not take precedence over how God sees us. He has freed us from all condemnation. (Romans 8:1,2; 1 Corinthians 1:30)

    • We may have never truly repented and come to God through Christ.

    • We may be expressing an inability or unwillingness to receive forgiveness.

    • We may be failing to see it as sin, calling it a mistake, or not our fault.

    • We may be regretting our failure to achieve a certain personal standard.

    • We may have declared ourselves to be our own judge and jury.

    • We may not have gripped the scope and depth of God's forgiving grace.

  • Unforgiveness from Childhood

    We may be locked into a place of unforgiveness from some past childhood experience. We used to teach that the child within may have to acknowledge his/her unforgiveness in that situation, before the adult can move into forgiveness in the present. With our understanding of dissociation where there is trauma, the role of part in holding the feelings connected with the event cannot be overlooked. The person is unable to offer forgiveness for things of which they are not fully aware because the dissociative part protected them from the full impact of the event. When the part releases the whole memory the person knows what happened and can make the choice to forgive.

  • Reconciliation and Restitution

    Even if we forgive and make restitution there still may be no reconciliation. Ongoing abusive relationships should be avoided as much as possible. Our part is to love by forgiving them and to pray God's blessings on their lives (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). Heart love may follow only after deep inner healing has taken place. Restitution is a biblical principle often overlooked in this day of grace.

Dr Frederic Luskin makes some helpful points in his 9 steps to forgiveness. Here are just two of them:

Step 4. Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you two minutes - or ten years -ago. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.

Step 6. Give up expecting things from other people, or your life , that they do not choose to give you. Recognize the "unenforceable rules" you have for your health or how you or other people must behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace and prosperity and work hard to get them.

Knowing Forgiveness and Repentance

Knowing the importance of forgiveness and accomplishing it personally is not automatic. Working through forgiveness is an ongoing process and must never be forced. A choice of the will to forgive begins the process. Often feelings take a while to catch up. Usually a great deal of inner healing must take place before a person is ready to forgive. Both in the giving and receiving of forgiveness there can be stages.

Knowing God's Forgiveness

Our inability to receive forgiveness from God is usually related to our distorted image of God. He says, "I forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). "If we confess our sins, he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Who are we going to believe? My thoughts and feelings, Satan's accusations, or God? Burdening ourselves with feelings of remorse and failure, we struggle with the concept of His unconditional love and acceptance, because past experiences of rejection, abuse, shame and fear are so real. Where dissociative parts bring their limited world view of life which excludes any knowledge of the true nature of God, inevitably the person will find it difficult to receive forgiveness. Teaching on the Father heart of God accompanied by the ministry of the Holy Spirit bringing the truth to replace the lies, and the loving patience and acceptance of those ministering can bring a new perspective, enabling forgiveness to be experienced.

It is easy to say to someone that they should not rely on feelings, but simply trust in God's promise of forgiveness. There is truth in this, but too often it is used to cover over the fact that many Christians do not have a vital experience of the presence of God and have developed a hyper-faith approach to Christian living to rationalise this lack of spiritual experience. It is a peculiarly Western phenomenon that is reinforced by our fear of emotion and distrust of anything not easily explained by science or secular humanism.

The truth is that God does expect his people to be aware of him, and we should know that we are forgiven by experiencing a witness in our spirit and an inner peace, not just by hoping that we are forgiven because someone at church told us that the Bible says we are. With this attitude of remoteness towards God is it any wonder we have difficulty feeling that we have truly forgiven someone else, let alone feeling forgiven ourselves? Also, a remote, untouchable and untouching God won't really care that much about our sinful habits and attitudes, so the need for true repentance is not felt with any great urgency.

Knowing Other's Forgiveness

When we have wronged another person we can also find it difficult to believe they have forgiven us. Remorse, regrets and guilt can remain. In part these are the consequence of our sin and as such can be used by God to prevent us from sinning again. Deep repentance and grief for our sin is a powerful deterrent to sinning again! When Zacchaeus knew Jesus accepted him his heart was changed (Luke 19:8-10) His response was to make restitution as a sign of his repentance.

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost."

Knowing We Have Forgiven Another

Then there is the difficulty of knowing whether or not you have truly forgiven another.

When we try to forgive someone, but they do not repent, and might even refuse to acknowledge that they have sinned against us, there is a temptation to withdraw our forgiveness. Then we are sinning against God. Our forgiveness must not depend on the other person's response. In one sense we are not forgiving them for just their sake, although love does include a willingness and desire to forgive. We are also forgiving them so we must no longer hold them accountable. Jesus' death brings healing for our wounds because their sins were laid on him. This lifts a great load off us and enables us to go free, regardless of the effect on the other person. Then God is more free to act in both lives - ours and theirs - than if we are trying to hog all of the power. To try and make someone else sorry is an ultimately futile exercise in self-harm.

For further teaching read Resource Sheet 5 - Forgiveness! Breaking Open the New Day. Three Days at a Time! In Resource Sheet 6 - Forgiveness Is Not - Forgiveness Is and Resource Sheet 7 - Daily Express - Ten Steps to Freedom you will discover that even those with a non-Christian perspective can have a good understanding of forgiveness. The influence of Jesus in our society can never be measured.

Conclusion

In the conclusion to his book Total forgiveness, R.T. Kendall gives two true stories of people who did not experience healing of injuries, despite having forgiven those who hurt them, until they were also willing to bless those people. When they did bless them the healing came quickly. He decides that there is a need to go beyond what is normally called forgiveness to total forgiveness, which includes blessing the perpetrator of the harm. Dr Kendall says:

I can only conclude that forgiveness is not total forgiveness until we bless our enemies - and pray for them to be blessed. Forgiving them is a major step; totally forgiving them has fully set in when we set God free, as it were, to bless them. For when we ask God to forgive them, and mean it, he is going to overlook their wrong as though it never happened - which allows them to be blessed.

Yet we are the first to be blessed, and I suspect also that those who totally forgive are blessed the most. (p.176)

Given that in such a forgiving attitude we come closest to being like Jesus and becoming more in the image of God, we must believe this is true. Go and live a life of quick repentance and complete forgiveness.

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

  • Kendall, R. T., Total forgiveness: achieving God's greatest challenge. Lond: H & S, 2001.
  • Luskin, Frederic, The 9 steps to forgiveness. www.learningtoforgive.com/steps.htm.
  • Sandford, John and Paula, and Bowman, Norm, Choosing forgiveness. Lake Mary, Fla: Charisma, 2007.