When you are offended, the Bible guides you to forgive the person who offended you in two ways: in your heart before God, and to the offender personally.
I heard once that you could describe the act of forgiving the person in your heart before God as vertical forgiveness.
Horizontal forgiveness is when you personally grant your forgiveness to the person.
The order of these two types of forgiveness is important. You forgive the person who offended you in your heart as you meet with God in Peace Pursuit Stage 1 (see the QUICK START GUIDE). Another way to say this is that you declare to God your forgiveness of the offender. That’s why you can call this forgiveness on the vertical dimension. Your eyes, heart, and hands look upward to God. This is a clear biblical concept (Mark 11:25, Matthew 18:35).
It’s also practical. It can be really hard to grant forgiveness to someone in person if you haven’t already forgiven them in your heart before God.
Even before the person apologizes to you, prepare your heart so you can say this to God: “Lord, I forgive the offender for what they did to me.” Be as specific as you can. When you do this, your heart will be more ready and free to grant them forgiveness if they confess to you.
When you forgive someone in your heart when you meet with God before that person apologizes, you are obeying Ephesians 4:32 – “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” When did God in Christ forgive you? Jesus suffered, died, and paid the penalty in your place for your sin long before you were born. He was already prepared to grant you forgiveness before you finally humbled yourself to repent and receive it. That’s why you can, and should, do the same for the person who offended you.
Q: How do I know when I have forgiven a person in my heart?
Forgiveness is a process that can take a short or long time. To start the process, you can pray prayers to God like the ones below.
“Lord, I want to forgive this person as you in Christ forgave me.”
God in Christ forgave you long before you ever repented to him. He did it with grace, with mercy, and completely (Colossians 3:13). This prayer declares to God your good intention to forgive the person in your heart in the same way before they repent to you, and even if they never repent to you.
“Lord, I want to see the offender through your eyes of grace and mercy.”
The person who offended you is another of God’s children. Your Heavenly Father loves that person as much as he loves you. They are valuable enough in God’s eyes for Jesus to die for them. Ask God to give you his eyes and heart for them.
As you forgive, you choose not to focus on the hurt they caused you. You choose not to look for other faults of theirs. You will see and appreciate whatever positive traits they may have.
“Lord, please help me renew my mind. I do not want to keep reliving the offense.”
Repeating the offense over and over in your mind is of no profit to you or anyone else. In fact, it’s harmful to your mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It’s also the opposite of the Bible command to let your mind dwell on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). With this prayer you declare your intention to God and you ask for his help. Sometimes people need prayers from others to help heal memories of deep offenses.
“Lord, I do not want to remind the offender of the offense inappropriately.”
Let’s say you have forgiven someone in your heart before God at Peace Pursuit Stage 1, you have chosen to overlook the offense this time, and you have decided not to have a Stage 2 conversation with them. Certainly, you would not bring up this same offense to them later. You overlooked it.
Now let’s say that in another situation you decided to have a Peace Pursuit Stage 2 conversation with the offender, they repented, and you granted them forgiveness on the horizontal level. In this case, you would also normally not bring up this offense to them again.
However, perhaps as part of their own mentoring or discipleship the offender may need to be reminded of this offense in the future. This should only be at the appropriate time and place, such as when you sense or observe that they are struggling with a similar temptation.
If you sense you should mention their offense again, first check your motive. Then, make sure you do it gently, out of love, and after reviewing the other points of Stage 1. It’s possible that you might not be the appropriate person to bring it up. It can be a sign that you probably have not completed the process of forgiveness if with an angry voice you say to the offender something like, “There you go again! You are acting just like you did last month [or five years ago]!”
“Lord, I do not want to tell others about the offense inappropriately.”
Of course, you never want to gossip about or slander the offender. However, there may be a time in the future when you should tell an appropriate person about the offense. Who might be appropriate to tell? It depends on the nature and severity of the offense.
Here’s a question to ask if you feel you need to tell someone else about the offense: Is the person you are considering to tell about the offense someone who, because of their role, would need to know about the offender’s fault in order to fulfill their legal, or organizational, or leadership responsibility? An example could be a spiritual leader or future employer. Of course, for serious offenses, you may need to inform police or other government agencies.
This also depends on your motive. Ask yourself questions like these:
- Why am I considering telling a third person about the offense?
- Who am I honoring, protecting, or blessing by telling another person?
- In my pain or anger am I committing gossip or slander?
A Peace Pursuit coach, as I describe in The Peace Pursuit Handbook, may be an appropriate person to tell about the offense as you go through Stage 1. The Peace Pursuit coach could witness the prayers of forgiveness you make before God. Later, if doubts come from your conscience or accusations come from Satan about whether you forgave the offender in your heart before God, the coach can remind you that you did forgive the offender in prayer.
“Lord, I pray for your blessing of grace and mercy on the offender.”
Praying for blessing on the offender is not the same thing as praying that they will recognize how much they hurt you, that they will receive conviction from the Holy Spirit about their sin, or that they will see the light and repent to you. To pray for blessing on them means praying for God’s grace and mercy on them. When you can do this spontaneously and with sincerity, you will know your heart is growing in its understanding of the depth of forgiveness.
Let me repeat that forgiving can be a brief or prolonged process. In any case, you can begin by saying these prayers to God, even if you don’t totally feel like they are true in your heart yet. If some time later you wonder if you have truly forgiven the offender, just ask yourself: Have all these prayers been answered in my life? If they have become true for you, or they are well on their way to becoming true, then that is proof you have forgiven the offender. You can then walk in the freedom and comfort of a clear conscience that you have indeed forgiven them.
Q: What does it look like to grant forgiveness?
After you have forgiven the person in your heart in Peace Pursuit Stage 1, the second way you forgive them is to grant them forgiveness personally at Stage 2 if they repent (Luke 17:3-4).
When a person confesses to you, simply say something like, “I forgive you for [the offense they have confessed].” It’s important to be specific and honest about what you are forgiving them for. That way you both know that you have reached peace about that particular topic.
When someone confesses to you, be careful not to say, “No worries,” “That’s OK,” or any other phrase that minimizes the offense, especially if the Bible calls it sin. Sin is not OK. Jesus died for that sin. If the person has taken the time and care to pray and prepare a biblical confession, it honors them when you accept their apology as seriously as they present it. It will also reinforce the conviction the Holy Spirit has made in their heart, which will encourage them to listen to the Holy Spirit again.
Q: What am I not doing when I forgive?
It’s just as important to know what forgiveness is not, as it is to know what forgiveness is.
When you forgive, you are not:
- denying that the offender committed the offense.
- minimizing the hurt or cost the offender caused you.
- communicating that the offense was acceptable.
- proclaiming that the offender is free to repeat the offense.
- excusing the offender from their responsibility.
- blaming others for the offense instead of the offender.
- promising that you will completely trust the offender in a similar situation in the future.
- negating the relational, legal, or organizational consequences of the offender’s actions.
Remember, we are to forgive each other in both dimensions: vertical and horizontal.