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Forgiveness is a Choice, Not an Emotion

What is forgiveness? Discover what the Bible says.

Doug Britton, MFT

Page Summary
Summary: What is forgiveness? The first step in understanding what forgiveness means is realizing that it is a choice, not an emotion or feeling. This study explores what forgiveness means and what steps you can take when you forgive others.

Part 2 of a 4-part series on “Forgiving Others”

Part 1      Part 3      Part 4

Forgiveness is a choice, not an emotion

What is forgiveness? Is it an emotion? Many people think forgiveness is an emotion—something you either feel or you don’t feel. But that’s not what is at the heart of forgiveness. At its heart, forgiveness is an act of the will, a choice.

  • Forgiveness is choosing not to hold an offense against someone.
  • Forgiveness is choosing not to dwell on the offense or continue to rehearse it in your thoughts.
  • Forgiveness is choosing not to keep a record (or keep score).

[Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (1 Corinthians 13:5)

After you forgive someone, you may continue to struggle with bitterness or anger. However, your emotions often change after you decide to forgive. Although you start out choosing to forgive, you often end up feeling forgiving.

Related: Don’t take things personally

Make it personal

1. Have you thought forgiveness was an emotion? Why or why not?

2. What is forgiveness?

3. What is an example of something you choose to do (other than forgiving) because it’s the right thing, whether or not you feel like doing it?

Forgiveness sometimes is a process

In general, it’s best to forgive quickly. However, if someone seriously wounds you—for example, by raping you or physically assaulting you—it may take you a while to make the decision to forgive. If that happens, don’t feel guilty for not forgiving right away. God understands your emotions, and he will help you as you go through the healing process. As time goes by, there will come a time when you are ready to forgive.

Likewise, after you forgive someone, you may find yourself slipping back into unforgiveness. If that happens, don’t condemn yourself or think you didn’t forgive in the first place. Sometimes it takes time for severe emotional wounds to heal. Reaffirm your decision to forgive, and ask God to heal the pain in your heart.

Make it personal

4. Describe a time when you found yourself growing in your ability to forgive someone.

Forgiveness takes you out of a victim’s role

When you forgive someone, you redefine your role with the person who wounded you. Instead of reacting as a weak victim, you are making a godly decision as a follower of Jesus. You see the other person as someone who has a problem—as proven by his or her words and actions—and you are praying for that problem.

What do you think?

5. Do you agree that forgiving can take you out of a victim’s role? Why or why not?

Related: Do you set yourself up to get hurt?

Forgiveness does not mean literally “forgetting”

Some people think you have not forgiven unless you have actually forgotten a transgression, but that isn’t necessarily true. Although God sometimes removes our memory of offenses, in many cases we remember events for a long time—even if we have forgiven.

Suppose, for example, that someone set your house or apartment on fire last month. Although you forgive the perpetrator, it’s unlikely you will forget who set the fire.

On the other hand, if you tell someone, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget,” examine your heart. What you really might be saying is, “I choose not to forgive you.”

What do you think?

6. If we can’t literally forget, does that mean we have not forgiven? Why or why not?

Forgiveness does not mean you should ignore problems

If you are raising a child who misbehaves, although you forgive your child, you might also need to discipline him or her. If you have a spouse who continuously forgets to do something, you may need to talk about the problem even though you forgive him or her. If you have an employee who continuously breaks company policies, you might fire the employee although you also forgive him or her in your heart.

Related: Extending Grace to Your Mate

Gently express your feelings or ask for an apology.

Sometimes it is appropriate to quietly forgive without saying anything. There’s no need to point out everything that bothers you about someone else. Many times the wisest and most loving thing you can do is to silently forgive others’ words or actions. After all, if you constantly complain, you push people away.

A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense. (Proverbs 19:11)

Does this mean you should never talk about problems, make boundaries, or impose consequences? Of course not. You can both forgive and address problems. As the Bible says:

Better is open rebuke than hidden love. (Proverbs 27:5)

It’s usually more effective to speak gently instead of giving an angry lecture. For example, you could quietly say “that hurt me.”

If an offense is serious, consider following the procedure Jesus described in Matthew 18.

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

Protect yourself or take strong actions.

Forgiving others does not necessarily mean passively letting others harm you. There may be times—such as when someone physically assaults you—when it is appropriate to take legal action. This would be for your self-protection, and it would also be for the other person’s good, since it’s not healthy for people to abuse others without consequences.

Although Paul taught us to forgive others (Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13), he didn’t hold back from claiming his rights as a Roman citizen when he was about to be flogged.

As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (Acts 22:25)

However, there are types of circumstances in which the Bible says not to take legal action. For example, Paul told the Corinthians not to file lawsuits against one another.

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? (1 Corinthians 6:7)

Be wise in future interactions.

In general, if people wrong you, forgiving them opens the door to reconciliation. It puts the relationship back on a good path. However, forgiving doesn’t mean being foolish—even if the other person says, “You’re supposed to forgive and forget.”

If you give someone money for food and he or she spends it on gambling, it probably would be foolish to give the same person more money.

If someone mistreats you in a significant way, you might not choose to spend a lot of time with him or her. If someone rapes you, after reporting the crime to law enforcement, you would not try to be friends with him or her.

Forgive, but also be shrewd (or wise).

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)

What do you think?

7. Is it possible to forgive someone, yet still talk or take action? Explain your answer.

Steps that can help you forgive

Forgiving doesn’t come naturally for most of us. The following steps can help you make the sometimes hard choice to forgive.

Although these steps apply to most situations, there are exceptions—especially when someone has injured you in a major way. For example, if someone tried to murder you, step 4 (“Refuse to dwell on what happened to you”) would be unrealistic.

1. Ask God to help you forgive.

Some things are hard to forgive. Ask the Lord to help you. Also ask his forgiveness for not forgiving the other person.

2. Pray for a humble attitude.

If you need to forgive someone else, seek God’s help to maintain the right attitude, watching out for self-righteousness. Remember your own failures. Be careful if you think, “Sure I sin, but I would never do what that person did.” If you think this, you are assuming that God sees your sins as less serious than that person’s. You could be wrong.

3. Ask God to forgive the person who wounded you.

There’s something powerful about praying for people who abused you. A great example of this can be found in the book of Acts. At the end of Chapter 7, Stephen prayed these words as he was being stoned to death:

Lord, do not hold this sin against them. (Acts 7:60)

In other words, Stephen prayed, “Lord, forgive them.”

After praying for someone who mistreated you, don’t think you should make it an ongoing project to pray for him or her. Praying daily for your attackers could keep reawakening the memories in your mind.

4. Refuse to dwell on what happened to you.

You can learn how to control your thoughts. Choose to think about things that are pure and praiseworthy.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

5. Stop talking about your wounds.

In general, once you forgive another person’s behavior, do not throw it in his or her face or gossip about it with others. However, if you have trouble dealing with what happened, or you know you have the wrong attitude, it’s okay to talk with a mature believer who can pray with you and offer godly counsel.

Related: Conquering Depression

6. Don’t “take back” your forgiveness.

It’s easy to forgive and then have second thoughts. Resist thoughts which tempt you to take your forgiveness back. Instead, walk in the freedom that forgiveness can bring.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)

And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:13)

Make it personal

8. Which of these steps will help you forgive? How will they help?

Memory verse

[Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (1 Corinthians 13:5)

Personal application

1. What is forgiveness? Write a definition of forgiveness in your own words.

2. Is it important to feel forgiving before you choose to forgive? Why or why not?

3. This online bible study says, “Forgiveness takes you out of a victim’s role.” What does that mean?

4. People sometimes say you must “forgive and forget.” Does that mean literally forgetting what happened? Explain your answer.

5. Does forgiving mean you can’t talk about problems? Why or why not?

6. Does forgiving mean you can’t take strong actions if you are physically attacked?

7. Which of the “steps that can help you forgive” will help you forgive others?

8. If you forgive someone, then find you have angry, unforgiving thoughts coming into your mind, what should you do?

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About Doug Britton, MFT

Doug Britton, Bible-based Marriage and Family Therapist, has helped hundreds of thousands of people as a therapist, clinical director of a treatment center, seminar speaker, radio cohost, and author of over twenty books that show how to apply God's truths in your daily life. (Visit www.dougbrittonbooks.com.)

Copyright © 2020 Doug Britton. Permission granted to print for personal use. (Scripture verses are from the New International Version, copyright © 1984.) See reprint policy.

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