How to Know If You've Really Forgiven

How To Know If You've Really Forgiven

Because we often think that we have forgiven someone that has maybe hurt us, but our feelings don't consistently reflect what we were expecting to stop feeling angry or hurt after we forgave. We're expecting some peace and relief, but sometimes the pain just keeps on going. So, does this mean that we really didn't forgive them? How do we know if we've really forgiven?

We want to determine if we've truly forgiven someone. We've prayed about it, and we thought we had forgiven, but sometimes we still feel pain and anger. Does this mean we haven't forgiven? Well, today we're going to cover this in three main points. Number one, we're going to talk about the biggest reason you don't feel like you are truly forgiven. Number two, we're going to talk about dealing with your feelings in forgiveness. And third, how do we move towards feeling like we've been forgiven from time to time?

Why do we continue to feel anger and hurt? Does this mean that we actually haven't forgiven someone? What's the biggest reason that we don't feel like we've forgiven someone?

The biggest reason is that it's not as much about how you feel as it is a process and a practice. I don't come to you and extend you forgiveness and then feel amazing and walk away. I come to you and realize that you have harmed me. And then I have to exhibit a whole lot of self-control. And that self-control is choosing to forgive rather than exact revenge. I will tell you that learning more about this has been so convicting.

I have a challenging co-worker. As I was reading Tim Keller’s book, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I?, to prepare for this episode, I realized I’m sitting in a lot of unforgiveness. Didn't even recognize that I felt like I had something I needed to forgive. But Keller makes some great points that forgiveness is granted as an event before it's felt. So, it's the action and it's making a promise before God not to take revenge on a wrongdoer for his or her sin against you.

It’s a promise, one, not to constantly bring up the sin to the wrongdoer in order to browbeat and punish them. It's two, to not constantly bring the sin up to other people in order to hurt the wrongdoer's reputation and relationship with others. And three, it's not to constantly bring the sin up to yourself to keep that anger hot.

I face this a lot of times. When the workday has come to an end I may be trying to unwind at night. And what are those thoughts that come to mind? Oh, this person wronged me. Then you start to dwell on it, and you dwell on it a little more. And before you know it, you're so angry you can't fall asleep. That's a point where I have to actively say to myself, “No, I'm going to choose to forgive this person. Just like God has forgiven me on the cross.” That means I'm not holding this against them. I'm not going to continue to hurt them.

I have had breakthrough moments of feeling forgiveness with my ex, almost a mountaintop. I can't believe this is behind me. And then something will happen. I feel like a conversion point, or a tipping point happens, but then there's something else that happens. Or something happens with my kids, and I feel all this resentment and anger pop back up. Am I broken? Is that unusual for me to continue to feel these things after I've had such a grandiose feeling of forgiveness?

You're not broken at all. There was betrayal in my marriage. A few months after that my husband passed away and seven years after that, I still sometimes will wake up angry with him because I've had a dream where my brain is still processing something that he did. And yet I feel like I have forgiven him. How do I know I forgave him? Well, when I talk to my kids, about their dad, I don't say, “Well, remember all the terrible times that your dad betrayed me or remember all of these things?” I say things like, “Your dad would've been so proud of you and remember the good things about your dad.” I speak out of love. I intentionally take the action and the step to override the feelings of anger and choose to be loving and kind in those moments.

So, it's not unusual. It's natural to feel angry when you're in the phase of granting forgiveness. It's not like an instant feeling of peace and healing. It's a slow process.

Our feelings are not an accurate gauge of forgiveness. We can't rely on the way we feel if we're trying to figure out if we’ve really forgiven. We need to look at our actions, meaning surrender or moving towards making a promise to God. Our feelings are not an accurate gauge.

If you're completely withdrawing from a person and you haven't addressed it, that's actually a passive-aggressive move. If you're seeking vengeance, which is all about you, that's not forgiveness. If you're excusing the behavior, denying the behavior, or passively seeking revenge that’s not forgiveness. An example of passively seeking revenge is thinking, “Well, I just hope they fail. Maybe I'll let other people know that this is going on so they can go watch the failure.” It's also not suspending judgment, weaponizing mercy, or abandoning justice.

It's also not giving immediate trust either, though. There are boundaries and balance in forgiveness. It's not just, “Well, I'm going to forgive you and now I'm going to trust you to take care of my child alone. I've forgiven you, so you've changed.” It’s also not payback or revenge. It's not seeking payback, which we can. So those are all action items that it is not.

We've unpacked our feelings and realized we can't accurately measure whether we have forgiven by how we feel.

What are some actual steps that we can take to move toward forgiveness?

The first is that forgiveness takes humility. One of the Bible verses that popped up as the verse of the day on my phone was Philippians 2:3-4, which says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” When you’re struggling through forgiveness you first approach God with realizing that you’re a sinner. The same as the wrongdoer against me. There's no difference between the way that we are coming to the table. We are both coming as sinners, and God forgave me. Remember that you have very little to forgive this individual for in terms of how much God has forgiven you.

It also takes joy. In Keller’s book, he uses the story of Joseph and when the father has died and the brothers are saying, “Let's go and grovel to our brother so he doesn't come out. Maybe he was just withholding his anger from us because our father was alive, and now he's going to come and hurt us. So, let's go grovel before him.” Keller says Joseph doesn't forgive by glossing over things. He says, what you did was evil. His brother sold him into slavery. He speaks truth, he says, in spite of your evil deeds, I have a God who loves me, who has lifted me up, who has worked all things out for my good.

The concept of joy is stepping out of our own story where it's one-on-one with this person who has hurt me. And seeing what God has done for us, looking at the perpetrator and saying to quote Keller again, “You cannot ultimately harm me. You can't take me out from under God's care and love, because God is where the joy is.” As I'm trying to seek joy, where do I find it? Have you hurt my reputation? You haven't hurt my reputation with God. God already knew Jesus when He took my sin on the cross. He knew what my sin was, and He still chose to stay there. That should be cause for great joy in us, as we realize this isn't something we have to do on our own. We don't have to be perfect. We have been forgiven much, and we can be rejoicing over the joy of being forgiven and having a reconciled relationship with our savior.

There's a big difference between joy and happiness. Going back to our first point, why don't we feel that our feelings are not an accurate indication of forgiveness, but joy supersedes happiness? It doesn't mean you're happy about what's happened. It means that you can have joy in the sense of you're not going to take me out. God is ultimately going to turn this into my good. And there's great joy to put my belief in that.  

We know what Jesus did for us on the cross, and that's such a grand gesture that it's something we can never do. There's great joy in what He's done as a result. But if you apply this idea of joy to day-to-day life, as a result of this relationship with this person who's doing me harm day in and day out, I'm actually growing in my forgiveness. My heart is softening. God is doing all of these things as a result of this relationship. And so seeing it from this perspective, it's reframing it.  Reframing it as God is working things out for my good. And so there is great joy in that.

The third piece is that forgiveness takes us repaying evil with good. And again, you see that in the Joseph model where he says, “No, I'm, I'm not repaying this.” And the quote from the Keller book is, “When you forgive someone, you're not saying, all my anger is gone.” What you're saying is, “I'm now going to treat you the way God treated me. I remember your sins no more.” It doesn't mean I can't actually recall them. It means I'm not going to act on the basis of them. I'm moving forward as if I am not counting you guilty for that. It doesn't mean not seeking justice like we talked about before. Keller does provide a few ways that he says evil wins. For example, evil wins when it distorts your relationship with others.

Earlier when I said it's not passively writing that person off, my sister and I a while ago had a falling out and she stopped talking to me for a while. Our relationship exists on minimal texts. I was really convicted to say my relationship with my sister has been distorted. I know it's a relationship that's worth rebuilding. How, how can I replace that? Because otherwise, I'm letting evil win. Evil wins when it distorts your view of yourself too. This is when self-pity can lead to feeling justified and cruel towards others. When you say to yourself, “Well, I've had so much hardship in my life, therefore I don't have to be kind to those people.” If you let yourself play the victim card as the excuse and then victimize others, that's letting evil win.

Then third, evil wins when it helps the perpetrator self-justify. If you maintain anger, coldness and ill will toward the perpetrator, this can actually help the perpetrator justify their actions towards you. If you badmouth this person and try to make his life difficult, then he's going to feel justified and say, “Of course, I'm treating her poorly. Look at how she behaves and look at how she treats me.” So even if my action was a result of his action, he's going to see that as permission and continue his behavior.

You see this a lot in abuse cycles. If he can make me yell, then I yell. Now I'm the bad guy. I can do the same thing. If I can just get him upset, now I can say, oh, well it's your fault. That cycle has to be stopped because forgiveness breaks that cycle.

How do we correct our perspective and feel like we've really forgiven?

I know with this individual that I am moving in that direction. I woke up this morning thinking, “God, I don't want to forgive.” There is a natural bristling to forgiveness. But then I was on a call earlier and he was there, and I was watching the other people, and none of them were smiling. So, my response was, I'm going to offer a smile here. I'm going to let him know that he's accepted because it can be hard to pitch to clients. One of them actually fell asleep during that conversation. I decided that I was going to be the love in the room. And I took that action step, and I feel much less grumpy than the way I woke up this morning.

Feeling like you’ve forgiven requires constant baby steps. Do you see yourself taking those tiny steps, even if you don't quote-unquote feel like it? Eventually, it becomes more natural. We rewire our brain and this is how I'm going to work towards this. Some of it too is a self-awareness of holding onto the offense. Ask yourself, “Do I need to be offended here?” There are some things that happen. The Bible also says love covers a multitude of sins. It doesn't say everything. You need to go to the offender and say, now I'm forgiving you. If you are able to forgive the big things, I think you might also start seeing this heart that lets some of those little things go a little bit more quickly.

We need to have self-awareness point. There are always going to be residual feelings toward the person that we need to forgive. Back to the first point that forgiveness is not a feeling, but in order to move forward or have an awareness that we are moving towards forgiveness, it's important to acknowledge that it's an ongoing grieving process. It's an ongoing residual hurt and anger process. It's not a one size fits all. I think I have forgiven a majority of the big things that have happened, but there are still these residual things that I'm in the process of forgiving.

People show themselves what you can come to expect if you're paying attention to behavior, you can come to expect what you're going to get, especially with someone who's hurt you over and over, like an ex.  It’s a little different when you're building new relationships or with this co-worker, you’ve described, he's showing you as he goes. And that's really hard because you expect to be treated one way at work and then you get something different. You’ve got to grieve the expectation that you had for how you thought work was going to be. How you thought day-to-day life was going to be, how it should be.

But then you've got someone like your ex who's done the same things over and over. And I know for me, my heart is that my ex's heart will change. I want him to be the best dad he can be. I want him to be a better human. That's me grieving the expectation that he's going to be better. I have to deal with that.

But then also, when the hurt is happening over and over. Allowing that to fuel my wisdom, asking God for wisdom to show me the things that I need to be wise in protecting my child. How can I do that in a way that's out of love not revenge-seeking? How can I move forward in a way that's going to be honoring this person and not repay evil with evil, but also protection ultimately has to happen? The self-awareness piece means that you have to be able to measure where you are, measure where the other person is, take it to God, and use it for moving forward in a wise and loving way. It does take a lot of self-awareness to say to yourself, “Okay, am I seeking revenge now? Where is my heart? Is my heart going toward evil? It's constantly examining evil.

One of the things that I have noticed about myself that helps me have some reassurance that I am forgiving or I have forgiven my ex is an understanding of their story as well as mine. There's a lot going on behind the scenes in my ex's life regarding the way she was raised. And when I develop compassion or empathy, I sense that I'm moving in the direction of forgiveness. The compassion and empathy may not last long. We're about how we have the assurance or the feeling that we've really forgiven someone. And this is a key component, at least for my own life. It's been many years since I've been divorced from her and I can honestly say that I do recognize that my ex's story significantly impacts the way she's behaving. I don't like it.  But there's a bigger picture.

It’s really hard to continue to have empathy for someone who lives in their own pity and in their own victimhood. But I also recognize the freedom that I've gained by doing my own work. And I feel bad that they don't have access to that belief in themselves or the love that they have for themselves. It's getting easier for me to go to the place of empathy and compassion and wanting the best for her. I want her to be a great person. I want her to have a good life. I want her to be married again. That tells me that I've moved toward forgiveness.


Feelings are not an accurate gauge of forgiveness so don't rely on them to be an indicator if you've forgiven or not.

Forgiveness takes humility and joy. Humility means lowering yourself to realize you've been forgiven much. And joy in the sense that God is using this for the greater good of all.

We need to be more spiritually and self-aware, which will help us move toward ultimate forgiveness.

Prayer is a key component of forgiveness. As Luke 6:27-28 says, “‘But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.’”

Listener Question

Hi, I’m Timothy, a single dad. What’s one single parent or parent gender stigma you blew out of the water?

As a single dad, I did my girls' hair including highlights.

As a single mom, when covid hit and all the kids were bored, I ended up leading a woodshop in my garage. We built a quarter pipe, which is why everybody was there. I had kids from dawn till desk trying to figure out how to use drills and saws. All the other dads sent their kids down to my house to learn how to build something to jump off. It's still standing in my garage.


Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? By Timothy Keller

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