Fear is a crippling form of unbelief that usually leads to many other sins, one of which is the unforgiving spirit that leads to resentment and deep-seated bitterness. How does sinful fear hinder the experience of true forgiveness? Answering this question, and coming to our aid in the struggle to truly forgive others, is my friend and fellow biblical counselor Jim Newcomer. In his mini-book, HELP! I Can’t Forgive, he helps us see how four common fears lobby against our forgiving someone when he or she asks us to do so.
- The Fear of Insincerity - This fear cries out, “How can I know this person is sincere?” Perhaps the offender in your life has a long pattern of wronging you in a particular manner. Perhaps you have been hurt by others too deeply too often, even after they had asked your forgiveness multiple times. Perhaps the offender is faking a remorseful spirit. How do you know that the offender is sincere? The fact is, you don’t know. Proverbs is painfully honest: A plan in the heart of a man is like deep water. (20:5; see also Psalm 64:6) The good news, though, is that you don’t have to answer for the offender’s sincerity; you only have to answer for your obedience.
- The Fear of Vulnerability - This fear reasons, “If I get soft, I’ll get hurt.” Is this a possibility? Yes. Is this a bad thing? No, because it will place you in good company with others whose obedience left them vulnerable to further hurts. Jesus had already taught this to Peter earlier: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy … Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:7, 11–12) Being a merciful person does make you an easy target who stands out from the rest, but you will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Jeremiah, David, Jesus, and Paul!
- The Fear of Change - The fact is, you may have gotten comfortable not liking the offender. You have figured out a way to “do life” without intersecting with this person, looking him or her in the eye, or being concerned for his or her well-being. In your comfort, you have resisted the idea of forgiveness because it will require that something comfortable become uncomfortable. But you must remember that Christ has Christlikeness as his agenda for your life (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18). The change he requires of you is freeing you to live out love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control toward the very person who has wounded you (Galatians 5:22–23). Wow! That’s grace.
- The Fear of Exposure - It is possible that you either participated in the sin with the offender or reacted in sin to the offender. Beginning the transaction of forgiveness would bring to light the repentance that is required on your part for your words, actions, and attitudes. Up to this point, most people in your life who know of the wrong deed believe it was totally the offender’s fault. Proverbs 18:17 is brutally honest: The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him. The fact also remains that you could be wrong in your understanding of the offense as well. Do not go out hastily to argue your case; otherwise, what will you do in the end, when your neighbor humiliates you? (Proverbs 25:8) Matthew Henry wrote long ago, “There is a proneness in our corrupt nature to stint ourselves in that which is good, and to be afraid of doing too much in religion, particularly of forgiving too much, though we have so much forgiven us.”
Newcomer concludes with this penetrating assessment: “These four fears paralyze countless believers to hold back in forgiving. Yet I suggest that all these fears have one common denominator: pride. Somehow, somewhere, we find a way to make an offense all about us.”
The Need for Twin Virtues: Love and Humility – What then is the answer? If pride is the problem, what is the remedy? What must we put on in place of putting off the pride we as believers are commanded to put aside? We need both humility and others-focused love. We need to humble ourselves before those whom we have wronged as well as those who have wronged us. We must clothe ourselves “with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE” (1 Peter 5:5). We also need to lay aside ourselves and love the other person(s). By loving God enough to obey His command to forgive others as we have been forgiven (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13), and loving others enough to release them from their sin debt, this love dissolves our pride. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).