What the Bible Says About Forgiveness

The idea of forgiveness is in many ways the heart of Christianity. Our entire path to a relationship with the One True God and eternal life hinges on the forgiveness God extends toward us through the blood of His son, Jesus. 

If anyone deserves to hold a grudge, it’s God; but instead, He chooses to forgive. Since that day in the Garden of Eden, we have continually disobeyed, rejected and ignored Him, and he continually forgives us. In fact, He forgave us before we even asked for forgiveness (Rom. 5:8). While God is certainly just and holy, He is overwhelmingly merciful toward us because of his unfathomable love for us.

Forgiving Like Jesus

As Christians, we are called to emulate Christ. We can look at Scripture and see how Jesus forgave sins over and over again. He forgave individual people for their sins multiple times, particularly when performing miracles. In fact, he proclaimed forgiveness of sins so often and so publicly that the religious leaders at the time found it to be one of the most offensive things he claimed to have the authority to do. He showed forgiveness even to his closest friends for betraying Him, like Peter, who denied knowing Jesus when Jesus was arrested. Peter went on to be the “rock” of the early church. Jesus even asked God to forgive the very people who crucified Him (Luke 23:34). 

While we certainly can’t reconcile someone to God by forgiving sins, we can extend a small fraction of the grace we received from Him to others by forgiving others when they wrong us — even when we feel they don’t deserve it.

We’re not designed to harbor resentment, however righteous we may consider our anger. Cultivating the ability to forgive and let go of that hostility toward one another actually gives us the freedom to enjoy the life God has given us more fully. 

The Science of Forgiveness

As it often does, scientific research of the human experience backs up what the Bible says about forgiveness. When we hold on to grudges, we actually damage our physical health. It raises our stress levels and keeps us in “fight-or-flight” mode, which can lead to interrupted sleep, higher blood pressure and mental health issues.

“Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress,” writes a contributor for Johns Hopkins Medicine.

To lower that risk, we have to actually forgive people — not just say the words, Karen Swartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, explains.

“It is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not,” she says.

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Counter-Cultural Forgiveness

The Bible speaks about forgiveness throughout the Old and New Testament, and it was even more counter-cultural in the ancient world than it is today. Proverbs speaks to how dwelling on a fault between friends causes division (Prov. 17:9), but Jesus’ ministry took that idea to a new level.

Even Peter was caught off guard by Jesus’ commandment to forgive.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matt. 18:21-22)

His disbelief is clear in the question he asks: surely we aren’t expected to forgive someone over and over again. If someone continues to wrong you, at some point, we’re justified in our grudge, right? But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus commands us to forgive 77 times — a metaphor for an indefinite amount of times. We are called to forgive always.

While that doesn’t mean we have to let people take advantage of our kindness or put trust in someone who has continually violated it, we can let go of the anger and move forward. 

In 1 Peter 3:9, Peter actually encourages us to go a step further and not just forgive, but bless those who wrong us.

This is a particularly practical and beneficial verse in the context of marriage as we seek to connect and encourage one another. It can be easy to harbor resentment for small things and let them build up, cultivating a spirit of ill will toward our spouse. Sometimes, though, responding to an insult with a blessing can change the whole conversation. It can be an act of grace that disarms the tension and brings you closer together. Of course, if your spouse wrongs you, it is beneficial to talk to them about it. But taking a moment to respond in humility and grace can be a game-changer for your relationship. If it’s a small slight, you can even try responding by doing something kind for the other person and see how they react. Sometimes the smallest act of kindness, especially in response to unkindness, can break down walls and foster connection.

Forgiveness Brings Freedom

If you’re struggling to forgive someone in your life, try spending some time talking to God about it. Pray, read the Bible, spend time writing down how you feel and why. Ask the Holy Spirit to move in your heart and break down those walls of hostility. You may need to talk to the person who wronged you, particularly if they are unaware they have hurt you. If it’s a deep wound, you may consider reaching out to a therapist or counselor to process the pain you’ve endured.

Forgiveness is not easy, but it’s powerful. Anger and resentment can weigh heavily on your soul, but forgiveness brings freedom.