R. T. Kendall is an amazing pastor and teacher. He also writes prolifically. In my opinion, probably the best book he has written thus far is Total Forgiveness. In this book he answers the question, “What is forgiveness in the Bible?” And, he explains with such thoroughness how to walk in a life style of forgiveness.
The subtitle of the book summarizes the book in a nutshell. It says, “When everything in you wants to hold a grudge, point a finger, and remember the pain, God wants you to lay it all aside.”
“But how?” I know many will ask. “If you only knew what they did to me, you would know I am right in staying angry and unforgiving,” you might add. “I can’t let them get away with it!!”
Jesus said we must forgive
In the introduction to his book, Total Forgiveness, R.T. Kendall tells of the time that he revealed to a friend from Romania, Josif, how badly he had been hurt by someone or by a group of people. He is purposefully vague about who it was.
Josif’s response to R.T. was, “You must totally forgive them. Until you totally forgive them you will be in chains. Release them, and you will be released.”
R.T. says that until his friend responded this way, his “unforgiving spirit had not bothered [him] all that much.” (p. 2) He felt that he had been terribly hurt and that those who had hurt him did not deserve to be “let off the hook.” He wrote that though he was a “mature minister of the gospel of Christ,” he simply felt he had a right to stay angry.
But his friend’s words challenged him and caused him to refocus on the teachings of Christ and on what quenches or grieves the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matthew 6:14)
It is that simple and clear. But behind that command is a wealth of compassion and wisdom. Jesus knows that if we can release people who have done us harm, we will be the strongest and most free among people.
But how can someone forgive the unforgiveable?
I have worked with people in recovery for the past 13 years. They have told me stories of unbearable pain and suffering – of being abused as children, suffering incest from family members, of gang rapes and attempted murders. So many times I have come away from their intimate revelations of being harmed and felt I could barely breathe. Praise God who covers me and works for their healing.
Nevertheless, I tell them they must forgive these perpetrators and let it go. Does that sound crazy or unfair? It may, but it works.
I told this story in another article, but a man who was molested by a male relative once shared with me about his rage and desire to kill that relative. We continued to talk and pray about this together until I asked him, “Can you pray to forgive this family member?” He said, “Yes, I will,” and began to pray as I led him with words he could say. The change in him, the healing in that moment was astounding.
I think one of the classic stories of forgiving the unforgiveable was told by Corrie ten Boom, the wonderful Christian leader who was, with her sister, imprisoned in concentration camps due to hiding and helping Jews in World War II. After the war, following a speaking engagement, a man approached her, asking for her forgiveness.
She recognized him as a former Nazi camp guard. Corrie did not want to shake his hand or speak to him. She trembled at the sight of him in front of her and would have liked to escape. But she called upon the presence of Christ in her, and through that divine help, she raised her hand and shook the man’s hand. The flood of peace and warmth that followed astounded her.
What total forgiveness is not
It may be helpful, at this point, to hear some things about what forgiveness is not. Again, R.T. Kendall has such a thorough and helpful book on total forgiveness. In chapter 1 of his book, he describes what forgiveness is not.
It is not excusing, justifying, approving, or ignoring the wrong things that may have been done to you. Totally forgiving does not mean that you say what was done is ok, or pretend that you were not hurt. None of these things is required in order to forgive.
And you cannot always reconcile with someone who has wronged you. You may have to stay away from them to be safe from further harm.
Rather, forgiveness is you knowing full well and acknowledging in your heart a wrong that was done to you. But then, you make decisions about what to do next in order to stay aligned with Christ in your heart.
What the Bible reveals about forgiveness
True and thorough forgiveness requires Divine aid. We need God’s help to do this as it does not come naturally to human beings. Our natural instinct is to hate, rage, and seek revenge, or at the very least, remain bitter. But these states of mind and actions are so destructive to us.
If you know the Seven Last Words of Christ, one of the last things Jesus said from the cross was, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Imagine Him being able to say, “Forgive them,” when He had been tortured, beaten, and then was being crucified, in addition to the abandonment, mockery, and derision He also suffered.
Christ in us can help us forgive like Him
But, He was God in human flesh. And, we need His help to forgive. Because, what is forgiveness in the Bible? It is several things. Here is the list of biblical ideas about forgiveness that R.T. Kendall shares in his book:
- “Being aware of what someone has done and still forgiving them.” (p. 31)
- “Choosing to keep no record of wrongs.” (p. 32)
- “Refusing to punish.” (p. 33)
- “Not telling what they did.” (p. 34)
- “Being merciful…and gracious.” (p. 36 and 37)
- “It is the absence of bitterness.” (p. 41)
Kendall goes on to say that included in forgiving others is forgiving God and ourselves. Sometimes, when we’ve been hurt and wronged, we feel God did not protect us. We need to release God from our bitterness and blame.
And sometimes, we need to forgive ourselves – not think we were fools to get into the situation of being hurt. Or, see ourselves as weak when we attempt to forgive others.
Ultimately, total forgiveness involves praying for our “enemies.” Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” (Matthew 5:43-44)
It’s the hardest thing we’ll ever do – to forgive like Christ – and it is one of the most searched topics about faith.
The power of forgiveness in the Bible
One of the most moving scenes in the Bible for me is when Jacob returned home after years of hiding out with his relative Laban.
He was frightened about returning. His brother, Esau, had been furious when he left, even threatening to kill him for things he had done. So Jacob came back armed with gifts and sent them, with many of his people going before him to appease his brother.
However, when he encountered Esau, Esau showed no anger. Perhaps the years had softened him. He even asked Jacob, “Why all the gifts? I have plenty. Keep them for yourself.”
But what Jacob said to him moves my heart so. He said, “I have brought the gifts to find favor with you. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.” (Genesis 33:10) (You can read the story of their reunion in Genesis 32-33. The birth of Jacob and Esau and the story of their conflict begins in Genesis 25.)
Being forgiven is the same as seeing the face of God.
And the one who forgives is the most blessed of all.
Understanding the Healing of Soul Wounds
How and Why Should I Read the Bible?
God Can Heal Us After Betrayal
How Can I Resolve Conflict in a Relationship?
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Thanks, I have benefited from Fredrick Luskin – Forgive for Good.
I continue to struggle and continue to need God-reminders from time to time to counteract physiological triggers.
This will be a new resource for me.
Thanks for sharing your resource. I am glad to know about “Forgive for Good.” This is such a challenging area of our lives as believers. God bless you ( and all of us) as you continue to grow towards total freedom.
“Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” – I read this differently. Jesus was modeling what we should in the presence of the unrepentant. Jesus did not say “Your sins are forgiven.” He let it go and passed it to the Father. He did not forgive them.
The unrepentant are not due our forgiveness. I’m sure some will respond that I need the Holy Spirit to grant me peace and that forgiveness is a gift for myself, but that is not biblical.
To forgive like Christ… Jesus forgave to redeem and restore a relationship with Himself and the Father. He did not forgive to make Himself feel better, and He did not forgive the unrepentant. In addition to letting to, forgiving like Jesus includes a willingness to restore the relationship, at least somewhat.
So if we don’t forgive, then what? Should we wallow in bitterness? Of course not! We should pray for our enemies, make peace with them, let it go, move on, we should do all those things. However we are not called to forgive the unrepentant.
If your offender is repentant, you are commanded to forgive as completely as you can. If your offender is not repentant, it seems to me a very biblical action is “Father forgive them for their actions, deal with them in your way, and release me from the situation so it occupies my thoughts no longer.”
I have not read R.T. Kendell so maybe he addresses this and your article is well written, I just wish we had a different word than “forgive.”
Matt, I understand your concerns about getting language and concepts exact. However, I still hear this encouragement from Jesus in my heart, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matthew 6:14) He does not say “Forgive when other people sin against you and are repentant.” He simply says, “Forgive them when they sin against you and as you do that your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
I think it is a challenge for us to decipher who is fully repentant and who is unrepentant. We have to leave that in the hands of the Father. However I understand that you are pushing towards using the language “release them” into the Father’s hand but not forgive.
Thanks so much for reading and leaving such a thoughtful comment! Blessings!
You quote R.T. Kendall: ‘Josif’s response to R.T. was, “You must totally forgive them. Until you totally forgive them you will be in chains. Release them, and you will be released.”’
Kendall seems to conflate forgiveness with release here, and I think you do, too. But they are not synonymous. I would, of course, expect release if one forgives, but I believe one can release without forgiving.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,….” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (full quote at https://caffeinatedthoughts.com/2010/06/dietrich-bonhoeffer-cheap-grace-vs-costly-grace/)
I wonder if far more Christians would be spiritually healthier if forgiveness of others without their repentance was not taught as Christian doctrine, especially considering that God’s practice is to require us to repent before He forgives us.
Consider what you wrote: ‘He does not say “Forgive when other people sin against you and are repentant.”’
Actually, I think that’s exactly what Jesus says in Luke 17:3,4:
‘Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.
“And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”’
In both verses, Jesus specifically invokes repentance as preceding forgiveness. If repentance is unnecessary, why did Jesus even mention it? (Note: The idea of rebuking the sinner is another related concept that is also avoided in teaching on forgiving others’ sins against us.)
These verses seem to be ignored in most Christian teaching on forgiveness. Let’s hear all of the Bible instead of cherry-picking.
For further reading, I recommend the book “Unpacking Forgiveness” by Chris Brauns. There is a plethora of related links at his website https://chrisbrauns.com/forgiveness-links-on-a-brick-in-the-valley/
Rick, You can see my response to Matt, another reader concerned with repentance preceding our forgiveness of others. But let me address your words a bit. How does one measure repentance in others? Do we have a repentance meter? Do they bring a certificate of authenticity to you and then you let them off the hook having assessed their spiritual state as being legitimate? Yes, of course, the Spirit gives us wisdom and discernment, but we cannot know the human heart as God does.
And people do remain tormented and bitter through carrying unforgiveness. I recognize this is a matter of semantics. It may make you and others more comfortable to hear the language, “release others” letting go of negative emotions, leaving them in the hands of God, rather than see the word forgiveness. But understand, it is not the words that are so much the issue but it is the recognition that bitterness or some level of bitter feeling will block your ability to love and serve God and to love and serve your neighbor.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of cheap grace, i.e. forgiveness without repentance, but he was primarily speaking of how we envision what happens through the cross for us. If we profess belief in Christ and yet continue on in our sin, we dishonor the holiness of God. Christ died that we might be that “new creation” with the old gone.
But, the call to us is still, as much as it depends on us, to live in peace with others. As I state in this article, to forgive others is not to excuse what they’ve done, particularly if they are unrepentant, but it is to, with Christ’s strength, refuse to hate, be offended, etc. etc. That’s not some cheap “feeling warm fuzzies,” it is being humble and Christlike.