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Missing Forgiveness

The gap between what preachers say and what congregations hear

Matt Woodley August 20, 2018

As Tom sat across from me eating a McDonald’s fish sandwich and fries, he coolly described how he was going to kill Dave. “That (expletive) stole my wife and then laughed in my face. I’ve hated his guts for 19 years. I have a loaded pistol strapped around my left calf. When I see Dave in a few weeks, I will pull out my gun and shoot him in the heart.”

Trying to act calm, I dipped a few of my fries in ketchup and explained the consequences of first-degree murder—like life imprisonment. He said it would be worth it. Tom had just become a Christian, so I appealed to the Bible and Jesus’ example. He softened a bit. I read Matthew 18:21-35—the parable of the unforgiving servant—and we discussed how Jesus had forgiven Tom’s numerous past sins. A deep sadness came over his face, he heaved a sigh and blurted out, “Okay, but how? How do you forgive someone who has ruined your life?”

“How do you forgive someone who has ruined your life?”

During my 27 years in pastoral/preaching ministry, I’ve heard and given many sermons on forgiving others, most of which hit the following points:

  1. Sinners often sin against each other.

  2. Based on the Bible and Jesus’ example, we should forgive others.

  3. Forgiving others will benefit you; not forgiving will harm you.

  4. Occasionally, preachers will list a few misconceptions about forgiveness—that it doesn’t mean condoning sin, for instance.

  5. Therefore, forgive others.

While I passionately endorse this list, I think Tom highlighted a missing piece—the how of forgiveness. How do you get from point one (deeply hurt by someone) to point five (true forgiveness)? Of course, it’s essential to learn or relearn points two through four, but that doesn’t always guide people like Tom (or me) through the raw process of forgiveness for real people with deep hurts.

What Preachers Say

I had a suspicion about this missing piece, so I conducted a little experiment. It certainly wasn’t a statistically rigorous analysis. I just started talking to three groups of people: pastors who preach on forgiveness, Christians who listen to sermons on the subject, and Christian counselors who talk to clients about their struggle to forgive. Here’s what I found: There is a gulf between what preachers say and what many people need to hear about forgiveness.

There is a gulf between what preachers say and what many people need to hear about forgiveness.

I gathered the most data on my fellow preachers. I sent a survey to pastors across the country, asking them to rank 10 facets of forgiveness on a scale of 1 (“not important”) to 5 (“very important”). The 154 responses were revealing. These three statements dominated what preachers really want to say on the topic:

  • We forgive because God has forgiven us (90 percent said it was “very important”).

  • Jesus gave a clear command to forgive others (85 percent said it was “very important”).

  • Forgiveness is a choice (61 percent said it was “very important”).

The other seven items, including “Teaching on the how of forgiveness,” “Explaining the difficulty of forgiveness,” and “Using real stories about the struggle of forgiveness,” all plummeted to the 30 percent “very important” range.

It’s no wonder, then, that one of the best sermons on (where I work) doesn’t really address Tom’s question. It has the following solid introduction: “According to the Bible’s presentation of life, we can’t get away from the need for forgiveness in a fallen world ... and [for growth] in our ability to forgive others. But how?” Yet the preacher barely touches on that question. Instead, after faithfully walking through a long biblical text, he concludes with a harrowing true illustration in which a woman forgave some thug who’d tortured and then tried to kill her. When asked why she forgave him, she replied, “Well, I forgave him because my God forgave me. It’s as simple as that.”

What People Need to Hear

But for many of us, unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The writer Elizabeth O’Connor has captured this gulf between preachers and their congregations: “Despite hundreds of sermons on forgiveness, we do not forgive easily, nor find ourselves easily forgiven. Forgiveness, we discover, is always harder than the sermons make it out to be.” As Philip Yancey painfully observed, “Forgiveness is achingly difficult … Forgiveness is an unnatural act.”

“Forgiveness, we discover, is always harder than the sermons make it out to be.”

I’ve had my own struggles along the way, but I also have a host of friends who are still on the “achingly difficult” road: Susan, the victim of a Christian “ministry” that stole $25,000 in donated seed money for a God-honoring film project; John, a Nigerian friend who has seen Muslim extremists blow up innocent civilians and put a bounty on his head; Robert, a pastor whose son was murdered; Aimee, a teacher laid off from her private school although she was the most qualified person in her department; or William, a young man whose biological father abandoned him and his mother. How do these people complete the “unnatural act” of forgiveness?

My friend Sheli has a large, lively, and diverse social media following, so I asked her to help me jump-start some dialogue. When she posted simple questions—such as “What’s the hardest thing about forgiveness?”—people seldom criticized the Bible’s clear teaching on the subject; they get Jesus’ point in passages like the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:12). Instead, they stressed that the journey to full forgiveness is often fraught with setbacks, pain, and gut-wrenching lament.

Consider the following comments we got about the hardest part of forgiveness:

  • “Sometimes it takes a long, long time to let go—even when you really want to forgive.”

  • “It’s harder than I expected to forgive someone.”

  • “It is a continual process. It comes in waves and layers and may take years.”

  • “You need to feel the difficult feelings, so that you have something to let go of when you forgive.”

  • “Forgiveness is a continuous process. Daily I come to the foot of the cross and lay my burdens down.”

  • “Forgiveness doesn’t mean we won’t have dark moments … or days … or thoughts that we will have to overcome more than once.”

It’s fair to say most preachers focus on the command and the decision to forgive—both of which are crucial. After all, the Bible is clear: “Bearing with one another, and forgiving ... just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (Col. 3:13). But most Christians need help with the long, difficult, and seemingly unattainable process of forgiveness.

Finding the Missing Piece

So back to Tom’s question: How do I forgive? As a pastor, I’ve found that my Christian counselor friends serve as helpful allies. They sometimes see what we preachers may not—the way people struggle to apply our earnest and biblical sermons on the topic. This shouldn’t be surprising, since based on my survey of preachers, we admittedly place a lower priority on application in our sermons on this subject.


When I asked my psychologist friend, Dr. Sandy K., about what she has seen in her practice, she told me, “Often people rush into forgiveness. They want to ‘just do it’ to soothe the situation. But true forgiveness involves acknowledging and feeling the sting of what was lost. Hurt people, pastors, and good church folks often unintentionally collude to sidestep that process because it’s too painful.”

Dr. Jeff M., another Christian counselor I respect, concurred with this statement. Jeff said, “Forgiveness involves grieving well, and sometimes that means facing hard emotions like anger. Christians are often afraid to feel anger, so they jump to the fake piety of a quick but shallow forgiveness without addressing the grief and anger.” (However, Jeff also warned that our pride and self-righteousness could keep us entrenched in this grieving process.)

I think both Jeff and Sandy would agree with Dr. Robert Karen, a secular clinical psychologist who claims Christians sometimes “tarnish” forgiveness with an approach “that ignores ordinary human feeling.” But the Bible does not ignore ordinary feelings—just read a few psalms of lament (like Psalm 13 or 55) or even an imprecatory psalm (such as Psalm 137). And rather than ignore ordinary feelings, the writer of Hebrews says of Jesus, “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears” (Heb. 5:7). Grief, anger, betrayal, abandonment, and sorrow—our Lord is acquainted with all of these “ordinary feelings.”

Putting the Truths Together

So two biblical truths stand side by side: God commands us (it’s not a suggestion) to forgive others as we have been forgiven in Christ, and God understands the messy process of moving towards sanctification in Christ. How do those two truths work together?

True forgiveness involves acknowledging and feeling the sting of what was lost.

Here’s a story that may help. You may not recognize the name Phan Thi Kim Phuc, but you’ve probably seen her. On June 8, 1972, Nick Ut, a 21-year-old American photographer, snapped a black-and-white photo of Kim running naked and terrified on a dirt road in Vietnam, her village and body scorched by a napalm bomb. Ut then set his camera aside and rushed the 9-year-old to a hospital, where doctors saved her life. But the journey toward physical and spiritual healing would take decades.

Later in life, Kim came to know Jesus, but she still struggled to forgive those who had hurt her so deeply. In her moving memoir, Fire Road, she likened the bitterness in her heart to an overflowing cup of black sludge. One day she heard the Lord say, “Kim, you simply must pour the black sludge out. Day by day, a bit at a time, until there is no more darkness there.” Whenever that command seemed impossible, she remembered God’s instructions: “Day by day, a bit at a time.”

But it wasn’t easy. “Sometimes, in a moment of weakness, I would befriend my bitterness again … I would sense that level of blackest sludge rising in my soul and think, Why did I do that again?” Eventually, she noticed that the muck was receding. “I was being filled up with something good,” she said. “And all of it was from the Lord; he was refilling me with clear, perfectly pure water … I was not merely saying I wanted to become more like Jesus; by his power, this transition was actually becoming so.”

Christians sometimes “tarnish” forgiveness with an approach “that ignores ordinary human feeling.”

Like Kim, in my experience as both a forgiveness-struggler and a pastor to fellow strugglers, we seldom forgive once and for all on our first attempt. As my friend Robert (the pastor whose son was murdered) recounted his journey towards forgiveness, I noticed he kept using phrases like “the Lord was working on my heart … the Lord kept moving in my heart.” Then he said, “Because forgiveness is not just difficult; it is impossible without the Lord.”

That might be the key. Some people get hurt and close their heart to the Lord. For them, the black sludge of bitterness never goes away. Other people get hurt, but they open their heart to the Lord. For as long as it takes, they keep bringing the pain, anger, and grief to Jesus. They keep bringing it to His church as well, asking for prayer, talking about it, bringing the sludge into the light. Day by day, bit by bit, it recedes and gets replaced with a spring of forgiveness.

Shortly before he died in 1963, C. S. Lewis recounted his personal story of forgiving a cruel schoolmaster who had darkened his childhood. “I’d been trying to do it for years,” he confessed, “[but] each time I had thought I’d done it, I found, after a week or so it all had to be attempted over again.” And then, suddenly, the forgiveness stuck for good. Lewis said it felt like learning to ride a bike—“the moment it does happen it seems so easy and you wonder why on earth you didn’t do it years ago.”

I’ve lost touch with Tom, but Jesus helped drain the hate from his heart. A week after our conversation at McDonald’s, Tom told me, “I put the gun away, and I started asking Jesus to help me release the bitterness. I guess I got your point.”

I was happy to hear it, but of course it wasn’t my point. It was always Jesus’ point. He’s the real answer to the how question. Yes, the road to total and lasting forgiveness often feels long and lonely. But the One who gave the command always walks besides us. Achingly difficult? Yes. Unnatural? Yes. Impossible? Not with Him beside us.



The road to forgiveness may be a long one, but there are specific steps or stages along the way. Based on Scripture and the wise counsel of pastors and Christian therapists, here are some of the most commonly mentioned steps on that journey:

  1. Tell the truth about the hurt. Don’t minimize or excuse it. If something hurtful happened, name it.

  2. Feel the grief. Dr. David Stoop writes, “An essential step in the forgiveness process is that we grieve what has been lost.” Anger often accompanies the grief process. Take time to share your grief and anger (in verbal or written form) with someone you trust.

  3. Empathize with your abuser. Dr. Everett Worthington, a leading Christian researcher on forgiveness, suggests that you pretend the person who hurt you is sitting in an empty chair across from you. Pour out your heart to him. Then sit in his chair. Try to see the world from his perspective and talk back to yourself. It may slowly help you see why the other person wronged you.

  4. Bless the offender. Find even a small way to genuinely wish the offender well. If possible, find a small way to do or give something to bless your offender.

  5. Give the gift of forgiveness. Dr. Worthington calls this the “altruistic gift” of forgiveness. We can all remember when someone forgave us. We felt light and free. When we forgive, we give that same gift to someone else.

  6. Commit to forgiveness. Once you have forgiven, write a note to yourself—something as simple as, “Today, I forgave [name] for hurting me.” When you’re tempted to slip back into resentment, reread the note.

  7. Regularly ask for prayer. Forgiveness requires divine power. We need both the presence of Jesus and the support of Christian community. There is no better way to bring those two things together than admitting our need and asking others for prayer.


Photograph by The Voorhes

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