The following is an excerpt from Neil Anderson’s excellent work, The Bondage Breaker. While I differ with him in a few respects, particularly his recommended response to personified evil (Satan and demons), his explanation of forgiveness is superb. I only wish I could have written it as well. Because he has explained forgiveness so well and described the practical steps with such clarity, and because this section of his book has been so instrumental in my own healing and growth, I have excerpted it below.
Forgiveness is a Condition for Our Own Freedom
by Neil T. Anderson
from The Bondage Breaker: Overcoming Negative Thoughts, Irrational Feelings, Habitual Sins
Most of the ground that Satan gains in the lives of Christians is due to unforgiveness. We are warned to forgive others so that Satan cannot take advantage of us (2 Corinthians 2,. 10, 11). God requires us to forgive others from our hearts or He will turn us over to the tormentors (Matthew 18:34,35). Why is forgiveness so critical to our freedom? Because of the cross. God didn’t give us what we deserve; He gave us what we needed according to His mercy. We are to be merciful just as our heavenly Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). We are to forgive as we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:31,32).
Forgiveness is not forgetting. People who try to forget find that they cannot. God says He will “remember no more” our sins (Hebrews 10: 17), but God, being omniscient, cannot forget. “Remember no more” means that God will never use the past against us (Psalm 103:12). Forgetting may be a result of forgiveness, but it is never the means of forgiveness. When we bring up the past against others, we haven’t forgiven them.
Forgiveness is a choice, a crisis of the will. Since God requires us to forgive, it is something we can do. (He would never require us to do something we cannot do.) But forgiveness is difficult for us because it pulls against our concept of justice. We want revenge for offenses suffered. But we are told never to take our own revenge (Romans 12:19). “Why should I let them off the hook?” we protest. You let them off your hook, but they are never off God’s hook. He will deal with them fairly-something we cannot do.
If you don’t let offenders off your hook, you are hooked to them and the past, and that just means continued pain for you. Stop the pain; let it go. You don’t forgive someone merely for their sake; you do it for your sake so you can be free. Your need to forgive isn’t an issue between you and the offender; it’s between you and God.
Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person’s sin. Forgiveness is costly; we pay the price of the evil we forgive. Yet you’re going to live with those consequences whether you want to or not; your only choice is whether you will do so in the bitterness of unforgiveness or the freedom of forgiveness. That’s how Jesus forgave you-He took the consequences of your sin upon Himself. All true forgiveness is substitutional, because no one really forgives without bearing the penalty of the other person’s sin.
Why then do we forgive? Because Christ forgave us. God the Father “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Where is the justice? The cross makes forgiveness legally and morally right: “For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all” (Romans 6: 10).
How do you forgive from the heart? First you acknowledge the hurt and the hate. If your forgiveness doesn’t visit the emotional core of your past, it will be incomplete. This is the great evangelical cover-up. Christians feel the pain of interpersonal offenses, but we won’t acknowledge it. Let God bring the pain to the surface so He can deal with it. This is where the healing takes place. Ask God to bring to your mind those you need to forgive as you read the following prayer aloud:
Dear heavenly Father, I thank You for the riches of Your kindness, forbearance, and patience, knowing that Your kindness has led me to repentance (Romans 2:4). I confess that I have not extended that same patience and kindness toward others who have offended me, but instead I have harbored bitterness and resentment. I pray that during this time of self-examination You would bring to mind only those people that I have not forgiven in order that I may do so (Matthew 18:35). I also pray that if I have offended others You would bring to mind only those people from whom I need to seek forgiveness and the extent to which I need to seek it (Matthew 5:23,24). I ask this in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.
As you pray, be prepared to have names come to your mind that have been blocked from your memory. In 95 percent of the people I work with in this process, the first two names which come to mind are their parents. The other often overlooked name on the list is self. Why might you need to forgive yourself? Because when you discovered that you can’t blame God for your problems, you blamed yourself.
Make a list of all those who have offended you. Face the cross; it makes forgiveness legally and morally right. Since God has forgiven them, you can too. Decide that you will bear the burden of their offenses by not using the information about their offenses against them in the future. This doesn’t mean that you tolerate their sin. Tolerating sin makes a mockery of forgiveness. You must always take a stand against sin.
Don’t wait to forgive until you feel like forgiving; you will never get there. Feelings take time to heal after the choice to forgive is made and Satan has lost his place (Ephesians 4:26,27).
For each person on your list, say: “Lord, I forgive (name) for (offenses).” Don’t say, “Lord, please help me to forgive,” because He is already helping you. Don’t say, “Lord, I want to forgive,” because you are bypassing the hard-core choice to forgive, which is your own personal responsibility. Keep praying about each individual until you are sure that all the remembered pain has been dealt with. As you pray, God may bring to mind offending people and experiences you have totally forgotten. Let Him do it even if it is painful for you. He wants you to be free. I have seen many people forgive unspeakable atrocities with a great deal of emotion, but the freedom which resulted was tremendous. Don’t try to rationalize or explain the offender’s behavior. Forgiveness deals with your pain, not another’s behavior. Remember: Positive feelings will follow in time; freeing yourself from the past is the critical issue.
Neil T. Anderson, The Bondage Breaker
(Eugene, Oreg.: Harvest House Publishers, 1990), 194–196.