How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone?

I warn you now–I’m gonna lay it out there–exposed my sinful heart for the world to see. But maybe by doing that, I’ll find what I’m looking for.

How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone?

This question seems to pop on quite a bit in Sunday school. How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone?

Well. I don’t know if I have the answer. But I do have an answer that made a difference in my life. And, it changed my perspective too.

A story of forgiveness

I was once a poor graduate student, juggling a couple of kids, graduate studies, and a fledgling photography business. Occasionally, I’d supplement my income by doing statistical consulting.

I was once contacted by a graduate student from a different department named Lisa. But this gal wasn’t your average grad student. Lisa was the CEO of a successful company and a motivational speaker “on the side.”

This gal was different indeed.

She decided late in life to get her PhD. Good for her! Problem was, as she would say, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. This was particularly the case when it came to statistics (which was my forte). And the data analysis was the final barrier to completing her dissertation.

Hence the need for soon-to-be-Dr-D. (Me).

Long story short, I did some work for her and never got paid. I won’t go into the details about why she thought she didn’t need to pay me and why I felt I needed my mula. Let’s just say I wasn’t happy. The amount in question was not trivial (at least to a struggling graduate student), and I’d earned that money, dernit!

(Or so I thought at the time).

After months of emails back and forth, some heated, some scorching, I decided the only action I could take was legal action.

And, to be honest, it wasn’t about the money anymore. It was about being right.

I filed a lawsuit and spent several hours preparing my case. I watched JAG, Perry Mason, and a healthy dose of Judge Judy (okay, so that’s an exaggeration). Come trial day, I was ready.

Except I wasn’t. I forgot the cardinal rule of Junior High mathematics–I forgot to show my work. Or, I forgot to show the judge evidence that I’d actually done the work.


The judge lifted the walnut gavel and with a stone-faced expression, she said, “I’m denying your claim.”

The sound of the gavel was like a baseball bat to the sternum. I stood there for several seconds, jaw gaping.

No. It wasn’t supposed to go like that. I was supposed to win! Whatever happened to the judges standing up for the little guy, the starving graduate student who got robbed by a hotshot CEO that took advantage of my time and expertise?

I felt as if I’d sink into the courtroom floor. My pride was broken–shattered! And with it came a consuming wave of depression. My faith in justice was destroyed. How could someone get away with doing this?

In retrospect, I really don’t understand why I was so devastated. It was only a few hundred dollars. Oh, and my useless pride. And my faith in humanity. Oh. Okay. I get it now.

But it hurt, I tell you. It hurt bad.

I walked back to my car with a vacant expression. I sat in the drivers seat, staring at the dashboard. I knew I should call my wife–let her know what had happened. Wasn’t a husband supposed to seek comfort from his wife? But, to be honest, I didn’t feel like it. I worried that I’d start sobbing uncontrollably. And I was embarrassed that I’d lost. That judge’s decision damaged my pride in so many ways.

For days I thought of little else. I tried to occupy my mind with other things, but that pit would remain in my stomach. And inevitably, I’d wonder why that pit was there only to have the emotions resurface and the anger boil like a kettle set to explode.

I knew I needed to forgive her. But how do you forgive when all you feel is hate? How do you forget when the core of your beliefs have been shattered?

What could I do? I decided to fake it ’til I could make it. I sent the CEO-gone-thief an email:

…I really hope that we can put this all behind us. This has been an unpleasant mess that I wish to never repeat again. But more important, I hope that we can remove any animosity between us. I don’t want to have to avoid you if I see you at the grocery store because  there’s still feelings of bitterness between us. I pray that you will accept my email as it is intended, as a humble appeal for reconciliation, and respond likewise. Thank you and best of luck.

Sounds conciliatory, right? Sounds like I’ve forgiven, right?

No. For some reason, that huge step of humility (and I tell you, it was soooooo hard to take that step) didn’t fix anything. The bitterness remained.

So what is forgiveness?

Months passed and the sting of the event faded.

One day, I sat in Sunday school and the teacher asked the question–“How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone?”

I immediately thought of Lisa. Had I forgiven her? I did send that reconciliation email, right? But no, that bitterness remained.

So how do you know?

As soon as I asked the question, the answer came with clarity into my mind. And with that thought, I knew I had my answer.

Forgiveness means you genuinely wish that person the best.

Did I wish Lisa the best?

No. I didn’t. Every time I drove by the building of her company, I (metaphorically or otherwise) shook my fist and shouted, “I hope you burn to the ground!” (The building, that is. I wasn’t that bitter :)).

One day when I passed that same building, I saw that it had a different sign. I thought, “Good, I hope you went under, you spineless crook!”

Is that forgiveness?

No. Because I wasn’t wishing her the best.

If she came groveling back to apologize to me would I forgive her? Absolutely. But she hasn’t. I’m sure, in her mind, she still thinks she’s right. And I suppose that’s why I haven’t fully let go.

How can I possibly find the strength to forgive when she refuses to feel sorry?

Well, God does it, doesn’t He? And he died so we can do it too.

Where are we now?

I wish this story had a happy ending. And maybe it will. Maybe I’m almost there. Can I genuinely say that I wish her the best? I don’t know. I want to. Or I want to want to. I suppose, for a time, I implicitly prayed that I’d find her at a grocery store and she’d say, “Jeez, Fife. I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I’m really sorry about what I did to you.”

Yeah. That’d be nice. But God doesn’t intend for things to be easy, does He?

Nope. And so I struggle. Knowing that I’m not there yet. Knowing that, every night when I ask for forgiveness, I’m still holding a grudge.

But I’m trying. And maybe that’s enough.


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17 thoughts on “How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone?

  1. I agree with your definition of how to know when you’ve forgiven someone.

    In my case it was a very dear friend that I haven’t spoken to in over five years. I did exactly what you did with the letter, except in person. I told her we both had reasons to feel hostility toward each other but that I wished we could set those feelings aside. I said it because a mutual friend was in town and I did not like putting him in the middle of our feud. She told me, “No.” to my face, which was very hard to hear. I’d extended the olive branch and she’d slapped it away.

    I struggled for a long time after that with the question of whether I’d forgiven her. A friendship wasn’t possible anymore, but I hated that memories of her caused me pain.

    Eventually those memories stopped causing me pain. And I still think of her from time to time. But I don’t wish her any ill will. And I think that is me truly forgiving her.

    I also want to say I think it’s commendable that you kept your faith after seeing another Christian behave that way. I used to be a Christian but haven’t considered myself one in over a decade, specifically because of negativity I and my friends have experienced at the hand of Christians.

    I think it’s important regardless of religion to conquer questions of morality such as forgiveness, and I appreciate your personal approach to the topic.

    • Ouch. No fun. At least she agreed to put the hard feelings aside when I emailed her. I can’t imagine what I would have done had she “snapped” my olive branch. (excellent metaphor by the way :))

      Re: maintaining Christianity. I would hope my faith makes me more inclined to be Christian in the face of others’ flaws. True, faith and doctrines should make us better people, but we’re also taught to be patient with the weaknesses of others (even, or especially fellow Christians).

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. I have wondered the exact same question myself…your definition was right on, yes God forgives us and loves us unconditionally even when we aren’t sorry, it is so very difficult to do the same. In trying to forgive the man that murdered my 15 month old daughter and 167 others bombing the Murrah Building in 1995, I let go of my anger so that I could heal but I cannot say that I ever wished him well; although I never wished him to die.

    • Sorry for the late reply! (I actually replied a few days ago but it wasn’t recorded for some reason).

      My goodness–I can’t even imagine. But the fact that you’re *trying* to forgive is heroically inspiring. Most people would feel justified in holding on to hate. But you don’t. That’s wonderful.

      It may be a long struggle for all of us to forgive, but it will be worth it.


  3. It’s very hard to forgive.
    In my case, it’s my parents, but I won’t talk about that because once I do, I might feel anger again towards them. It hurts whenever I remember, but I know that it’s a long way to.

    They are not perfect and people make mistakes. I’m not perfect and I make mistakes too.

    I forgave them after having a confession. I told the priest two things, how can I forgive them because whenever I remember what they did, it makes me so angry and confessed to him my mistake to my parents.

    I want to forgive them because if I don’t, I won’t be happy and I will my life with anger and grudges in my heart.

    The priest told me that I should learn how to be humble, to not focus so much on the wrong things that was done to me, to focus on the good things in my life, and not the hurt and anger.

    I tried to forgive them, but it was hard.

    I’ve only learned to forgive them when they forgave me automatically because of the gravely wrong thing I’ve done to them. It surprised me. That they could forgive me so easily, just like that. What I did is very wrong, if you were my parent, maybe you wouldn’t forgive me so easily, but they did.

    Being a person, I realized that I shouldn’t have a too high expectations with the people around me, because the only person who should meet my expectations is myself.

    I have to tame my self-righteousness and the need to be right, because as a person, I know I don’t really know everything about life, and I still make mistakes, no matter how self-righteous I can be.

    Now, I rather be wrong, because that would mean, I can learn from my mistake and it always makes me more mature and better than the person I was before.

    What’s really important is your honest and you’re trying.
    Good luck! You’ll get there eventually. 🙂

    • That makes it extra hard when it’s somebody close to you. I love what that priest said, “focus on the good things.” It’s funny how sometimes one bad thing negates all the good things a person has done. And I think you have the right attitude–we all mess up a lot and people forgive us all the time. So we should do likewise.

      I appreciate the well-wishes. I do think I’m there. Blogging is therapeutic, it seems. I think in the process of writing this blog that it’s happened. When I think of Lisa, I don’t think I sense any bitterness.


      • Exactly, now that’s progress.

        I’m not perfect, I might have forgave them, but when I remember it, I’m back to being angry at them.

        I may be writing about feelings and relationships a lot, but there are things that I haven’t figured out. Maybe there’s a part of me that hasn’t forgave them because they didn’t apologize because as my parents they believe they did the right thing and what’s best for me.

        For the sake of living happy and having a peace of mind, I have to forgive, so I do it.
        It could get really emotionally exhausting to be angry all the time and I especially hate the part standing still in a situation and not moving forward.

        I always want to try to become a better person than I was before and to improve the quality of my life.

        I’d say writing is very therapeutic and blogging is very self-fulfilling for me.

  4. A core theme of my novel is forgiveness, but my character is forgiving a mother who was an addict. Even though my MC was hurt a thousand times over, she knows her mother never intentionally meant to hurt her. How do you forgive someone who hurt you on purpose and isn’t sorry??? That’s a hard one…

  5. “Forgiveness means you genuinely wish that person the best.” This is such a great definition of forgiveness. I’m going to remember this one! I love this post, and your honesty too.

    I’m right there with you. I’m still in the process of learning to forgive some people and to let things go, in some areas. In my case, it’s a relationship where offences keep coming. Thus, there is the constant need for good boundaries. Your post is an excellent reminder that forgiving, and wishing this person the best, in spite of ongoing offenses, is much needed as well.

    • That makes it tough when the offenses are ongoing. I try to get rid of those sorts of people, but sometimes you don’t have a choice! I admire your desire to maintain the friendship while also forgiving. Prayers your way!

  6. When someone hurts or takes advantage of us, our first human reaction is to get even. Even though you haven’t completely forgiven this person, you took the high road and reached out to her, trying for reconciliation. I think that counts for a lot.

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