The bondage of unforgiveness in the Christian life

I remember when I was a younger believer in the Lord. Having just experienced the forgiveness and life offered in Jesus Christ and spending many hours in prayer in relationship with the Lord, everything seemed so well. I spent months in my room reading the Word of God and simply enjoying the Lord. When I ran across a passage on forgiveness I really thought hard within myself if I had any unforgiveness towards anyone, and I did not. Then I thought to myself: “How could anyone hold hurts in their hearts towards them as Jesus has forgiven us all our hurts towards him and nothing would compare to that!”

Since then I have struggled a few times to forgive but always came to realize that I have no reason to hold anything against anyone because God forgives me. Man sinning against man is forgivable but man sinning against the holy Creator of the universe, that is a travesty and unforgivable. But God in his mercy has forgiven us freely in His Son Jesus. Praise God.

The Lord’s teaching

Our Lord's teaching on this subject is plentiful in the Word of God. He shared many times with his disciples about forgiveness. He tells us clearly, if someone hurts us and comes back with repentance, we are to fully forgive them.

The act of forgiving will never make a wrong right but we are never to hold sins against others. The hurt, pain, and memory may still be there, but even if someone does not apologize, we must release them so we ourselves are not in bondage. Prison is a very sad place to live. Many believers live in a prison of unforgiveness. Even when the abuser repents, the abused still hold onto the hurt. Only Jesus can take away our pain and give us the grace to truly forgive. We have all offended at some point and, in the end, we have all pierced and hurt the Son of God himself.

Jesus’ sufferings

The greatest hurts one can have are from those who are closest to them. One brother who was a co-leader for a Church movement said to me of the main leader, “He has loved me the most of anyone but also hurt me the most.” When we open ourselves up to deep relationship and respect, we also open ourselves up for the greatest disappointments and hurts.

We cannot escape from such things in this life. The humanness of men will fail and offend even the most anointed and wonderful Christian leader will fail at points. In marriages, friendships, work situations, we have suffered great hurts and disappointments. Such things done against us are not only hard to be forgiven but at times we feel to forgive would be wrong and we find reasons to seek some sort of retribution towards the individual.

The definition for unforgiving is "unwilling or unable to forgive." If we are honest with ourselves our unwillingness to fully forgive is rooted in our lack of looking to the Cross of Christ and seeing our own sins as evil.

Unforgiveness hinders God to hear our own prayers (Mark 11:25) and to forgive our sins, keeping us in fellowship with Him (Matthew 6:15). Unforgiveness grieves God. Unforgiveness means forgetting the sins and not counting them against the other.

John R. Rice says, “By God’s grace, a Christian can so forgive that every memory brings not bitterness but a sweet sense of peace without any rancor or bitterness whatever.” If we want to be like Jesus (1 John 2:6), we must forgive others from our hearts, forgetting their transgressions against us. St. John Climacus, a desert father (A.D. 570), said: “The remembrance of Jesus’ sufferings cures the remembrance of wrongs, which is mightily shamed by His forbearance.”

Our Lord was crucified with wicked criminals who heaped and hurled hurtful words towards the author of life himself. Oh, what pain our Lord endured in shaming himself by all the evil words men said. They desired our Lord to be judged, brought to justice, and pay for his supposed crimes.

Yet our Lord was silent, lovingly bearing it all, gracefully praying to the Heavenly Father for each one's good. How can we contemplate and consider Jesus, the Christ's, suffering and then look at our brother or sister in the Lord and judge them, holding their sins against them. Our Lord forgave; we hold them to strict account. Our Lord suffered for them; we desire them to suffer retribution. Our Lord wept for them as though it were himself; we laugh and seek the demise of the one that hurt us.

It is only by looking to the cross, to the nails in our Saviour’s hands, that we can be released from the deep bondage of unforgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer should be a daily prayer we pray and consider, to forgive those that trespass against us. We are to forgive the worst of sins, for the Lord has forgiven us the worst of sins.

The greatest example

Sometimes the lesson of forgiveness can only be obtained through being the recipient of someone not being willing to forgive you. If we have been hurt in our past by someone, we can be those who will not forgive others. When we do not release others, we end up not releasing ourselves.

Even physical ailments can be a result of this pent up hurt and unforgiveness that manifests itself in bitterness, envy, resentment, and even anger. For a Christian to hold onto any grudge or anger towards someone in the body of Christ affects not just themselves, but others are also defiled by their sin. It is not only a sin to not forgive but as we do this we enter into the strategy of satan because the demonic world is a world of unforgiveness. Not offering forgiveness is to not offer the love of Christ to another believer. We have received unmerited grace and forgiveness but when we tell someone, “I will not forgive you,” we are doing the opposite of Christ. When we do not forgive, we show that we do not love Jesus because, if we love him, we will obey his commands. And his command is to forgive all.

Jesus on the cross suffered for your sins. He forgave you and when we accept his forgiveness, we become Christians. Jesus the Son of God on the cross was mocked, ridiculed, and given a sponge with vinegar that some argue was used for cleaning in the washroom of the Romans.

If anyone had the right to be unforgiving, vengeful, angry, and seek justice it would have been Jesus. But what is the reaction? He says, “Forgive them.” He says to God the Father, Please do not hold these things against those who have hurt me so much. Not only that, but please put their punishment on me so that they can be set free.”

We can share in the heart of Jesus that, through our pains and hurts, we can help to set others free through bearing the hurt with the love of Jesus Christ. Does this excuse sin? No, but it does allow healing and help for those who sin, and we become more like the character of God towards others. In the light of sins against Jesus Christ, the sins others do to us are very little.

The teaching of Jesus goes on to say that if we do not release and forgive others, God will not forgive our sins and will hold some of them against us.

Harbouring unforgiveness

You will never have to forgive anyone more than you yourself have been forgiven by God. Unforgiveness will leave you miserable. We forgive for our own happiness and benefit. When we do not forgive, resentment and bitterness can defile all aspects of one’s life. Forgiving means to give up all resentment and the ability to exact revenge to get even. As we are called to be more like the Son of God, we can know how much we are in his likeness by our love and forgiveness of others.

No one will ever deserve to be forgiven. We must forgive because God forgives us. We judge and condemn others because we have not forgiven them and have not sought to bless them and see them bettered. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) we say to the Lord: “Come, O Lord, and forgive me and my sins even as I forgive those who sin against me.”

On speaking of those who would come to partake of communion with unforgiveness John Chrysostom says, “As it is not to be imagined that the fornicator and the blasphemer can partake of the sacred Table, so it is impossible that he who has an enemy, and bears malice, can enjoy Holy Communion.” Our Lord teaches us to seek forgiveness first before worshipping God, for we ourselves need forgiveness in order to enter into his holy presence (Matthew 5:24).

Of the many sins we can commit, unforgiveness is a terrible sin. It is refusing to do what God himself did in offering his Son to forgive our sins. When we harbour unforgiveness we are helping the devil to expand his kingdom as it is a kingdom of accusation, unforgiveness, slander, lies and evil. John of Kronstadt says, “Forgive them that trespass against you with joy, as a good son rejoices when he has a chance of fulfilling the will of his beloved father.”

Father in heaven, give me a new realization of the great forgiveness you offer me daily so that I may be able to have more grace and forgiveness to all men. And allow me to release and forgive anyone who has hurt me and caused me pain. Amen.

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About the author

Greg Gordon is the founder of SermonIndex.net, which was established in 2002. Millions of audio sermons have been distributed through this world-wide ministry. He is also the author of "The Following of Christ" and other books. Greg has traveled to many countries and across North America to thousands of churches and ministries bringing a message of radical Christian discipleship.