A little girl was attempting to pray a portion of the model prayer. She said, “And forgive us of our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.” She got a bit mixed up over the word trespasses but her version has some validity. When people put “trash in our baskets,” we have to deal with it. This is the heart of forgiveness: dealing with the trash that comes our way.

Misconceptions about forgiveness abound. Someone described it this way: “Forgiveness is healing others by using their offenses as the means to express Christ’s love.” The nature of forgiveness is so radical that forgiveness is an abstract ideal in the minds of many. Often, we can come closer to understanding what something is by defining what it is not. The following truths address misunderstandings about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not an emotion. Some believe that forgiveness is primarily an emotion. But our feelings, in fact, are irrelevant. While suspended on Calvary’s cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34). Physically tortured, spiritually tormented, and mentally tried, the Lord Jesus chose to forgive. His request was obviously an act of His will, not just an emotional outburst. Stephen, while being stoned to death, prayed and asked God to forgive his bloodthirsty accusers, to “lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). In its initial stage, forgiveness is definitely not an emotion; we can grant it despite our feelings. So don’t wait for a warm fuzzy to overwhelm you before you forgive. If you wait for some emotion, you may wait forever!

Forgiveness is not forgetting. How often have we heard, “If you didn’t forget it, you really didn’t forgive it”? That’s the most absurd counsel anyone can give. Forgiveness is not erasing unpleasant and painful memories. It is humanly impossible to blot out unwanted memories at will. Almighty God is the only One who has the ability to willingly forget. Only He could say, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34).

On a human level, forgetting has nothing to do with forgiving. We’ve all had things happen to us that we will never forget while we live on this planet. Thankfully, that fact has nothing to do with forgiveness. Time does not heal all hurts. But forgiveness is the doorway that puts us well on our way to the healing process. Once forgiveness is granted, recurring thoughts about the episode may, and probably will, return. This does not mean that we were insincere. Although we may not be able to forget completely, the frequency with which those thoughts come to mind will decrease once we decide to forgive. As we practice the freedom of forgiveness, the intervals between remembrances will lengthen. And when an incident does come to mind, we will know how to handle it.

Forgiveness is not pretending that nothing happened or attempting to bury the pain. It is not just letting the offense slide or taking a neutral position. Being neutral is not a possibility. God expects us to respond properly. As we shall see, forgiveness is far more than doing nothing. It also doesn’t mean that we passively tolerate future abuse or dismiss the offender’s moral responsibility. Forgiveness is not an agreement to trust an untrustworthy person.

Forgiveness is not asking God to forgive the person who hurt you. That idea, though commendable, is not forgiveness. In fact, you can only pray, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do…” (Luke 23:34) with meaning after you have forgiven the offender yourself. When Jesus prayed, He had no malice in His heart. The crucifixion was the “cup” (Matt. 26:39) He had to drink. When He prayed on the cross, He was not trying to empty His soul of anger; His was an honest prayer of concern for the salvation of His abusers.

Forgiveness is not asking God to forgive you for being hurt, angry, and upset. While we need to take responsibility for our attitudes and actions, this step is secondary. If someone offended you, forgiving that particular person is a must. You must deal with God about your resentment. But you must also deal with the offense and the person who hurt you.

Forgiveness is not rationalizing or understanding why the person acted toward you as he did. What he did and why he did it are irrelevant. Understanding the reasons why your offender did what he did is unnecessary and isn’t forgiveness.

So, What Is Forgiveness?

First, forgiveness is a choice. It is nothing less than a decisive act of the will. In Matthew 18, Jesus spoke of a certain king who took account of his servants and found one who owed him a mountain of money. Apparently, he had squandered his master’s investments. The king commanded that the slave, his family, and his belongings be sold to pay the debt. The servant pleaded for more time and told the king he would pay him back, but he could never have paid it all back. He was so far in debt that repayment was out of the question. Nevertheless, his pleading paid off. The king forgave the debt and set him free.

This forgiven, liberated servant promptly went out and arrested a fellow slave. He took this fellow slave by the throat and demanded payment of the few dollars owed to him. The indebted servant fell on his knees and begged for time to pay the debt. This plea was within the realm of possibility; in time, he could have paid what he owed. But the first servant wouldn’t listen, and he had the second man thrown into the debtors’ prison. Here is a man who, released from a staggering debt, refused to forgive his fellow slave for an insignificant sum.

The king called in the first servant. After telling him that he was a wicked servant, the king harshly rebuked him and delivered him to the tormentors until such time as he had paid all that was due. Jesus concluded by warning that our Heavenly Father will do the same to us if we refuse to forgive those who wrong us.

This story teaches us that forgiveness is a decision to release others from the debts they owe us. When we refuse to forgive, we put the unforgiven party in debtors’ prison. Let me illustrate. Suppose I was your pastor, and somehow I offended you. Perhaps I made a decision you didn’t agree with, or I didn’t recognize some sacrifice you had made for the church. Perhaps I failed to visit you when you were sick. When you see me, that offense is all you think about. You have bound me and put me in debtors’ prison. I may even ask for forgiveness, but unless you release me from that debt, I can bless and help others, but I cannot help you. In your eyes, everything I do is tainted by that one act of injury. By refusing to forgive me, you bind me from being what God wants me to be in your life. When you fail to forgive and refuse to release a debt, you put others into debtors’ prison. Though not a physical prison, it is real nonetheless. Holding those offenses against me lands me in the position of a debtor, and one from which I cannot escape without your consent. You have bound me in debtors’ prison.

When I started to consider the subject of forgiveness seriously, I made a shocking discovery. What came to my attention was that most of us have an accounts-receivable book. I am not referring to a balance sheet on a businessman’s computer. This accounts-receivable sheet is filed away in the human heart. Every time others offend us, down the offense goes. It is recorded. They owe us. We are holding a debt against them. I’m not talking about an I-owe-you. It’s a You-owe-me list. When your mate crosses you, down it goes: “I’ll remember that,” you say to yourself. If the pastor offends us, we promptly enter his offense on the balance sheet. When our children embarrass us, down it goes. “I’ll remember that next time they want to go out for ice cream.” When people wrong us, we place them on the accounts-receivable list. They are in debt to us; they owe us.

Many would be willing to forgive, if their transgressors would apologize. But I have good news! You do not need to wait for an apology to forgive someone. Wicked scoffers mocked Jesus when He hung on the cross. None of them offered an apology. Yet Jesus ask the Father to forgive them (Luke 23:34). How others respond or fail to respond makes no difference; you can release others from their debts whenever you choose. You need not wait for an apology.

Forgiveness is a decision to shred the You-owe-me list. It is a deliberate choice to release people from the debt they owe you. Bitterness will dry up the river of blessing and zap your joy. Norman Cousins commented, “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.” Shredding that list turns a miserable journey into a joy ride.

Do you have a you-owe-me list? Here’s how to shred it. Go to the Lord in prayer and tell Him you are making choices to forgive. Here’s an example:

Lord, I am making a decision to forgive my friend for breaking a confidence. Lord, the offense hurt me but I will never hold it against him again. I release him from that debt. I forgive him.

Continue to pray and don’t stop until you have shredded your entire list. You should confess and forsake every resentment against your parents, children, family members, friends, neighbors, church members, employers, employees, and enemies.

In his book, Mistreated, Ron Lee Davis wrote the following:

Some years ago, a millionaire—let’s call him Mr. Yale—owned a lot in an exclusive residential area of a large city. This lot presented an unusual problem because it was only a couple yards wide by nearly a hundred feet long. Clearly, there was nothing he could do with such an oddly proportioned piece of real estate but sell it to one of the neighbors on either side. So Mr. Yale went first to Mr. Smith, the neighbor on the east side of the lot, and asked if he would be interested in buying it.

“Well,” said Mr. Smith, “I really wouldn’t have much use for it. But I’ll tell you what, since you’re in something of a bind, I’d be willing to take it off your hands—purely as a favor, of course.” Then he named a ridiculously low price.

“A favor, you say!” Yale exploded. “Why, that’s not even one-tenth what the lot is worth!”

“That’s all it’s worth to me, and that’s my offer.”

Yale stormed out and went to see the neighbor on the west side, Mr. Jones. To Yale’s dismay, Jones bettered the previous offer by only a few dollars. “Look, Yale,” Jones said smugly, “I’ve got you over a barrel and you know it. You can’t sell that lot to anyone else and you can’t build on it. So there’s my offer. Take it or leave it.”

“So you think I’m over a barrel?” Yale retorted. “I’ll show you no one can cheat me!”

“What are you going to do?”

Yale grinned maliciously. “You just wait!”

Within a few days, the embittered millionaire hired an architect and a contractor to build one of the strangest houses ever conceived. Only five feet wide and running the full length of his property, Yale’s house was little more than a row of claustrophobic rooms, each barely able to accommodate a stick of furniture. As the house went up, the neighbors complained that the bizarre structure would blight the neighborhood, but city officials could find no code or regulation to disallow it.

When it was finished, Yale moved into his uncomfortable and impractical house, a self-condemned man in a prison of revenge. There he stayed for many years. Finally, he died there. The house, which became known in the neighborhood as “Spite House,” still stands as a monument to one man’s hate.

Unforgiveness is a two-way street. If you decide to put someone in debtors’ prison, God will do the same to you. Jesus said His Heavenly Father will bind and deliver you to the tormentors. (See Matthew 18:34.) When unforgiveness occurs, the Lord places you in debtors’ prison: in a spiritual vacuum. He will not release you until you choose to forgive others. Unconfessed animosity shuts down your spiritual life. You cannot pray, witness, or worship. Your spiritual life will shrivel and die. This condition demonstrates the reap-what-you-sow principle. God responds to you in the same way you respond to others. Unforgiveness not only imprisons those indebted to us but also sentences us to the same place where we have placed others. Forgiveness is the obligation of the forgiven. When we forgive, we set a prisoner free. Then we discover we were that prisoner.

Reconciliation must be initiated by the person to whom God speaks. It is not a matter of meeting someone halfway or waiting for him to approach you. Once God calls a conflict to your attention, leave your gift, go your way, and seek reconciliation. Two ladies in a church were at odds and everyone knew it. The Lord spoke to one of them. She went to the other lady and, by humbling herself, was able to resolve the conflict. When God speaks, you must respond. You don’t need to search for these incidents; God will point them out. Then, after God speaks, you must be the one who initiates reconciliation.

Years ago, I took some clothes to a local dry cleaner. Not only did I take clothes to the cleaners, but I was also taken to the cleaners on the same trip. After returning home with the clothes, I discovered that the pants were torn and a necktie was shredded. No problem, I thought. I’ll just take them back and get reimbursed. So I gathered my damaged clothes and went back to the dry cleaner. I showed the clerk my ruined garments and expected repayment. The clerk, however, informed me that the manager who took care of those incidents was unavailable. “No problem,” I said. “When will he be in?” She gave me a time. I went back but he still wasn’t in. I am a little slow in catching on. After five return visits, I began to see an emerging pattern. That local business intended to beat me out of any reimbursement. I was furious! My first thought was to take out a newspaper advertisement and warn the public about the business establishment. Then I discovered that the advertisement would have been illegal. Next, I thought about printing a handbill and warning all potential customers by stationing myself on the sidewalk immediately outside the dry cleaner. But I didn’t have time for that.

By now, you can see that I was angry, very angry. I had been cheated. I was getting nowhere on a human level, so I decided to utilize a spiritual approach. This verse came to mind, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).

I prayed, “Lord, let them have it! Strike them down!” Every time I drove by, I glanced over to see whether the place had been struck by lightning the night before! I was really mad. I had sought justice, but I did not find it.

That is often the case in this fallen world. There is nothing wrong with seeking justice, but often it is elusive. I was left with two choices: get bitter or forgive. Being bitter is a sin, so I chose (though I didn’t feel like it) to forgive. I released the debt and turned the offending party over to God. I was never reimbursed and I never received an apology. That doesn’t matter now. The decision to forgive released me from my prison of bitterness. As someone once said, “The biblical attitude for forgiveness: grant it when it is requested; give it when it is not.”


  1. Forgiveness is not an emotion. Neither is it forgetting, pretending that nothing happened, asking God to forgive you for being hurt, or understanding your offender’s motives.
  2. Forgiveness is a choice to release a debt. Failure to forgive puts your offender in debtors’ prison.
  3. God treats us the way we treat others. When we place others in debtors’ prison, the Lord places us in debtors’ prison. We are bound up until we release others.
  4. “The biblical attitude for forgiveness: grant it when it is requested; give it when it is not.”


  1. When our minds accept wrong concepts, to that degree we are deceived. From the list of misconceptions about forgiveness, which ones have been part of your thinking?
  2. Purpose to reject wrong thinking about forgiveness and ask God to give you discernment. Take time to relate these faulty views to specific people and events in your life.
  3. Wrong thinking, when believed and acted upon, brings destructive consequences. What harsh chastening does God bring when we fail to forgive others?
  4. Compile your You-owe-me list and shred it!


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Harold Vaughan

View posts by Harold Vaughan
Evangelist Harold Vaughan is the founder of Christ Life Ministries, Inc. To date, his ministry has led him to preach in forty-eight states and many foreign countries. Click on "ABOUT" in the menu bar to learn more about Harold.
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