Angela knew she needed to forgive Leslie, but she didn't know how. After all, Leslie had betrayed their friendship by sharing conversations that were meant to stay private. But Angela knew that if she didn’t get rid of her anger and forgive, the bitterness might consume her.

During more than 20 years as a speaker and teacher, I’ve encountered a vast number of people who are struggling to forgive someone. They understand the importance of forgiveness. But few have been taught how to do it. The cycle of bitterness and revenge continues, often due to an inaccurate view of forgiveness. A number of resources explain what forgiveness is, but there is little that helps a person understand what it is not. And that is often the key.

1. Forgiveness is not a feeling

If you are waiting until the feeling to forgive comes upon you, it’s unlikely to occur. Forgiveness is an act of obedience to God, stemming from gratitude for His grace. And God knows that revenge, anger and rage can destroy us spiritually, emotionally and physically. Christ paid too much for His beloved ones to have them be slaves to anything, particularly hatred. He wants His children free. And a person is never free when weighed down with bitterness. When the cold shackles of revenge are tightly clasped around our wrists, it’s impossible to lift our hands in praise to Him.

2. Forgiveness is not pretending you were not hurt

Walking around with a painted-on smile when you are seething inside is not forgiveness. In Scripture, we never see Jesus pretend. When He was sad, He cried (John 11:35). When He was angry, He turned over the tables in the temple (John 2:15-16). Someone has betrayed your trust, damaged your soul or caused a loss. It is OK to recognize and feel the hurt instigated by another’s behaviour.

3. Forgiveness is not condoning what the person did to you

Many people hesitate to forgive because they feel as though the wrongdoer is getting away with the offense or that forgiveness will somehow condone the offender’s choices. It doesn’t. Instead, forgiving releases the wrongdoer from the debt she owes you and releases you from the bitterness.

4. Forgiveness is not trusting the offender

After a betrayal, trust is not an automatic right of the offender. Forgiveness does not mean you immediately allow the person back into your life or heart. If someone is repentant and willing to work on restoring the relationship, you might be able to trust him again eventually. However, sometimes those who wound us shouldn’t be trusted again. Though forgiveness should not be contingent on the perpetrator’s repentance, a truly repentant person doesn’t demand forgiveness or misuse Bible verses in an attempt to make you feel guilty. He humbly accepts complete responsibility for the sin and the consequences for his actions (Psalm 51), which may include giving you time to see evidence of his trustworthiness.

I have people in my life whom I have forgiven but I no longer trust because they have chosen to continue the same negative patterns that caused the offense or hurt in the first place.

5. Forgiveness is not relieving the person of responsibility

A person shouldn’t be "off the hook" from his or her responsibilities just because you choose to forgive. For example, a wife may be forgiven for placing the family in financial ruin with debt, but she should still be responsible for paying off the debt. A former husband may be forgiven for destroying his marriage with an affair, but he should still pay child support to his former wife.

Forgiveness doesn’t eradicate responsibility. It’s not unloving to hold someone accountable. Often, accountability is the most loving thing you can do because it could lead to repentance.

Forgiveness – releasing resentment and pardoning one who has offended or hurt you – is rarely a one-time event. The pain doesn’t necessarily disappear once you forgive someone. And those closest to us may hurt us repeatedly, requiring us to forgive multiple times.

The best way to step toward forgiveness is to admit that you need to forgive. Be honest with the Lord and ask Him to reveal any distorted thinking you may have about forgiveness. That often begins with discovering the difference between what forgiveness is – and what it is not.

Laura Petherbridge speaks and writes on relationships, spiritual growth and divorce care around the world. She and her husband, Steve, resided in Lady Lake, Florida, at the time of publication.

© 2008 Laura Petherbridge. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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