An Important Survey on Forgiveness

This report contains the findings from a nationwide study on the topic of forgiveness commissioned by Propeller and conducted by Barna Research (a division of the Barna Group). The online study, conducted in May, 2011, includes a representative sample of 1,013 U.S. adults, ages 18 and older.

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  • The United States is a predominantly Christian nation. Our historical and ongoing research on this topic indicates that 4 out of every 5 adults in this country consider themselves to be Christians – whether or not their beliefs and behaviors demonstrate a level of understanding or commitment to that faith.
  • While some of the beliefs about forgiveness revealed in this study confirm the country’s Christian orientation, others might justify some level of skepticism. Overall, the findings further support the diversity of “Christian” beliefs.
  • The most well-understood teaching about forgiveness is that Jesus Christ died on the cross so that all of our sins would be forgiven; 94% of Christian adults in the U.S. believe this to be a true biblical teaching.
  • Fewer than half of all Christian adults think that unforgiveness is a sin (46%) [54% believe it is NOT a sin] or that God will deal strictly with those who do not forgive and show mercy to others (45%) [55% do NOT believe there are consequences for not forgiving and showing mercy].
  • The data suggest that more committed and churchgoing Christians believe forgiveness is always required, while less committed Christians and non-Christians are less likely to think that forgiveness must always be granted.
  • Compared to those of other religious faith segments, evangelical Christians are far more likely to believe that all offenses can be forgiven.
  • There does not appear to be a depth of understanding of what the Bible says about forgiveness. Most especially, U.S. Christians do not seem to either believe or understand that there are consequences for not forgiving others.

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U.S. adults are split on their beliefs regarding whether or not they must always forgive others who have hurt them or caused them harm; nearly identical proportions believe (43%) and do not believe (42%) that they must always forgive.

The single most difficult offense for which Americans have had to forgive someone is lying, cheating, or general dishonesty, named by 18%. One in seven (14%) say they had to forgive some type of hurtful, hateful or damaging behavior, while 10% forgave someone for adultery, an affair, or someone cheating on them. Only 4% of adults say there is no significant offense they ever had to forgive.

More than half of the adults in this country (54%) say they would need to stop feeling angry in order to forgive someone who committed an offense, while 44% feel it would be necessary to give up thoughts about retaliation, and 43% would have to ask God to forgive that person.

There is virtually a 3-way tie for the offenses considered most difficult to forgive, among those assessed; they include: kidnapping a child (91% "extremely difficult" to forgive), rape (91%), and murder (90%).

. . ., The Survey,

These are very significant statistics: Close to half of all people who profess to be Christians DO NOT believe that holding on to bitterness and not forgiving is a sin with major consequences.

These Christians do not understand that they will remain in bondage to the jailers who will continue to torment those of us who fail to show mercy, fail to forgive and fail to give up our bitterness and anger and thoughts of revenge - the opposite of love. (Matthew 18:33-35 see video below) As long as we fail to forgive from our hearts, as God forgave us, we will not be fruitful in God's Kingdom. Why? Because God, even though He loves us unconditionally in Christ, is a holy God and ongoing sin in our lives requires God's righteous judgement and judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17 also see 1 Tim 1:19-20, 1 Cor 5:4-5). God the Father, who sent His only Son Jesus to the cross to in order that we may be forgiven and have our sins taken away will also bring judgement upon us in order to turn us away from the sin of not forgiving in order to get us to turn back to truth and life (see Judges). Unforgiveness is possibly the most effective tool in the Devil's arsenal of lies and deceptions which we are way too often trapped into believing.

What Forgiveness Is and What it Is Not

  • Forgiveness is NOT forgetting

  • Forgiveness is a CHOICE, a DECISION of the will.

    • Since God requires us to forgive, it is something we can do

    • By forgiving, you let them off your hook, but they are not off God's hook

    • You forgive for your sake, so that you can be free

    • Forgiveness is mainly an issue of obedience between you and God

    • God wants you to be free - this is the only way

  • Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person's sin

    • But you will live with the consequences whether you want to or not

    • Your only choice is whether you will do so in the bondage of bitterness or in the freedom of forgiveness

  • How do you forgive from the heart?

    • You allow God to bring to the surface the mental agony, emotional pain and feelings of hurt towards those who have hurt you

    • If your forgiveness does not reach down to the emotional core of your life it will be incomplete

    • Let God bring the pain to the surface so that He can deal with it - this is where God's gentle healing process begins

  • Forgiveness is a decision not to use their offense against them

  • Don't wait to forgive until you feel like forgiving

    • For now, it is freedom that will be gained, not necessarily a feeling

Neil T. Anderson. The Steps to Freedom in Christ for Young Adults. (Knoxville, TN: Freedom in Christ Ministries, 2009), 17-18.

Matthew 18:33-35 (NET)
33 Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ 34 And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed. 35 So also my heavenly Father [Jesus is speaking here] will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The being tortured, in Matthew 18:34, is the ability of demonic tormentors to keep an unforgiving person totally focused on the offending person - the anger, the hurt, the pain, the desire for retribution, the unrelenting bitterness they hold in their hearts.  God the Father is the one who actually turns us over to the demons (prison guards).  Why?  Because God forgave us through Christ and we are to love even our enemies - which includes forgiving them.  We were once enemies of God ourselves.  Going before our heavenly Father and repenting of the sin of unforgiveness and choosing to forgive from our heart is the way to freedom from this type of torment.

Forgiving from the heart is the key.  The heart is made up of the mind, emotions, and will of our soul and the conscience of our spirit.  All four of these parts of our heart have to be engaged for the forgiveness to be real.  Especially the emotions.  God wants us to be real about the hurt and pain and bitterness - we need to relive the event that caused the bitterness in the first place -  we need to pour out our hearts to God concerning the whole event.  It won't be forgiveness from our heart if we only say with our mind that we forgive. 

An indication that we have forgiven from our heart is when we can choose to consistently pray for the person or persons that caused the bitterness in the first place.  Jesus instructs us to pray for our enemies.

Freedom is what God desires for us all.  We obtain a significant measure of freedom when we forgive from our heart.