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Forgive – But How?


Few Jesus-followers would dispute the fact that we need to forgive those who offend or wrong us. However, just how and when to do this can be very problematic.

I am  writing this article, not just as a pastoral teaching, but as a means of working through a practical issue that has affected me and many others. Unforgiveness destroys relationships and can cause mental and even physical health problems in the offended party, so it is something we cannot ignore or postpone for too long.

Jesus’ Teaching

The Lord Jesus taught that we should forgive. He included it in the prayer format that he gave his disciples (Matthew 6:12-15) and ended with, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” This sentiment is repeated in Mark 11:26 and Luke 6:37.

Oh, OK, so I just need to pray, “Lord, I forgive so-and-so for this-and-that” and everything will be fine? No, that won’t do because Matthew 18 records a story Jesus told to illustrate the concept of forgiveness, which he concluded with: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”  (18:35). The key phrase here is ‘from your heart’, and that is where the rubber hits the road (or as we say in South Africa ‘the tackie hits the tar’). It is easy to forgive in the mind, but the ‘heart’? … not so much.

There is no doubt that Jesus instructs us to forgive in a real and heartfelt way.

The Problem

The problem is not in knowing that we need to forgive, but in knowing how and when to do this.  Matthew 18:15-19 sets out the Lord’s instructions regarding sin that affect the church community or its Christian reputation. It starts with ‘If your brother sins against you…’, but the better translations all add the footnote that the words ‘against you’ are omitted from some manuscripts. This omission makes more sense of the passage because the process that Jesus sets out lands up under the purview of the local church and has a form of ex-communication as the ultimate negative outcome. It does not make a lot of sense to omit the words ‘against you’ if the ‘sin’ in question is a purely interpersonal matter. So, this passage does not give us much help when it comes to personal offence and forgiveness.

Another problematic aspect is when the persons who have ‘sinned’ against you might not be aware of the hurt they have caused.

Jesus’ instruction on this is in Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him“. So, if you have reason to think that the offender does not realise that they have offended you, then bring it to their attention and perhaps they will ask for forgiveness. However, I have found from painful personal experiences that it is often very hard to accept that the person in question could be unaware of the impact of his/her words. It is seems so obvious to you that anybody could be unaware of the damage done to your self-worth or sense of identity. This then raises another obstacle to approaching the offender … rejection and counterattack from them. Sometimes you even have the evidence of experiences to lead you to conclude that your challenge, no matter how gently made, will be aggressively rejected. Of course, the only way to find out is to approach the person anyway … and this risks further pain and humiliation.

Of course, if you are the offender, and know it, then the Lord’s clear instruction is that you immediately go and ask for forgiveness: “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

So, you see, forgiveness is not always as simple as it may seem.

A Solution to the Problem

Full forgiveness in any relational sense is impossible to grant if the one causing the offence does not ask for it. However, Mark records something Jesus said that is helpful here. He said: ”When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in Heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:35)  It is hard to imagine, in this example that the man was supposed to stop praying, dash off to find the person he held a grudge against, forgive him although he may not have asked for forgiveness, and then resume praying. A more likely explanation is that Jesus requires an offended person to adopt an attitude of heart that is willing to forgive if so asked. In other words, prayerfully commit to forgiving if asked to do so.

This conforms to the pattern we have in God’s attitude towards us; we ask him to forgive us and he does so because his heart is disposed towards this. ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). Luke 17:4 confirms this approach: “Even if he wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, forgive him.” NLT

Kevin Carson, department chair of biblical counselling at the Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, writes:

The process is a little more complex though. Although we try forgiving in our hearts before God, often the subconscious mind interferes with the integrity of this ‘attitudinal forgiveness’. We catch ourselves in moments of reflection remembering the pain and we even create an imaginary dialogue where we tell the offenders just how we feel and how they have wronged us. Sometimes, this can only be resolved when transactional forgiveness has taken place. Until then all we can do is pray for God to bless (not correct) them and, continue to restate our willingness to forgive whenever these thoughts intrude, and ensure that we are sufficiently in contact and available to receive a request for forgiveness if and when the person is convicted of the need to do so .

There are some obvious exceptions to this principle of ‘transactional forgiveness’. For instance, the person may be dead or otherwise uncontactable, or mentally unable to process and respond. In these cases, ‘attitudinal forgiveness’ must simply have to suffice and the Holy Spirit will over time deal with any residual negative emotions.

Another aspect I have not dealt with is the idea of ‘self forgiveness’ epitomised by the phrase “I just can’t forgive myself for….”. As I see it, the simple truth is that we cannot forgive ourselves for anything, but we can confess and ask forgiveness for everything. The biblical assurance is clear that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) To continue to live in a state of self-condemnation is surely an affront to God and a lack of faith is the scriptures?

Process and Assumptions

Let me share with you two insights that I recently acquired.

The first is that forgiveness is a process. The sort of events or incidents that create serious mental anguish cause relationship failure. If we lose relationships that we have cherished then we mourn in some way. Mourning is a process that has no fixed expiry date. Often the process involves stages of denial, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. So, although we, and others, know that we need to confront the problem and approach the offender, it takes time to do. Our hearts need to be prepared, as does the heart of the offender. If we are open to the possibility of reconciliation then the Holy Spirit will work in all the lives concerned until the time comes when things can be positively resolved.

The second insight is that we often make assumptions about the state of the other person, which turn out to be untrue or one-sided. For instance, he/she may view the break in the relationship as our fault: we walked away, we didn’t care enough to try, and so on. This coupled with a lack of awareness of the damage they have done to you can result in them taking offence and feeling that you need to ask their forgiveness.


Forgiveness is required of us by God. It starts with an attitude of preparedness and commitment to forgive the person who has caused the offence.

However, it can only be effective in its fullness when forgiveness is sought and granted. When we release the offenders and give up the right to exact a penalty, then our conscience is clear before God and our relationship with him unsullied. When forgiveness is asked for and granted, the heart is then healed and a way open to restore the relationship.

Unforgiveness is a serious threat to our mental and spiritual health and negatively affects our relationship with Jesus and his people. Unforgiveness is a double-whammy problem because it impoverishes both the offended and the offender in some way irrespective of the merits of the case. Sometimes it even affects family and friends who grieve or take offence on behalf of one party or both. It is something we just cannot ignore.

‘Our Father in heaven:

May your holy name be honoured;

may your Kingdom come;

may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today the food we need.

Forgive us the wrongs we have done,

as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.

Do not bring us to hard testing,

but keep us safe from the Evil One.’


Forgive – But How? Read More »

Christians and depression


Depression top image


Globally, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression and it is the leading cause of disability and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease (World Health Organisation Feb 2018).
How many of those 300 million people are committed Christians? I don’t know, but from experience, I would say that depression is almost as much a problem for the church as it is for the world. And it is a problem because it robs believers of their joy, diminishes their quality of life, negatively effects their Christian witness, and if left unchecked can debilitate.

Sadly, many Christians deny that a Christian can be depressed, so the best place to start a discussion of this condition is (as always) the Bible. I will focus on two Psalms and one particular phrase that links Psalm 42 and 43 together as it appears twice in Psalm 42 and once in Psalm 43:

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God.
King David certainly suffered from depression as attested to in several of the psalms he penned. Moreover, he wasn’t alone among biblical characters. Consider Elijah’s cry, “I have had enough Lord, he said. Take my life, I am not better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4); and Jonah’s, “Now O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:3). Then there was Job, Moses, Jeremiah, and… Jesus. I am a little reluctant to say that the Lord Jesus experienced depression, but Isaiah prophesied of Him as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3), and He did utter the words; “my soul is deeply grieved to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).

So, if you are suffering from depression then take heart for you are in good company.

However, good company or not, depression still needs to be addressed, and this phrase from the two Psalms (42 & 43) gives us some guidance on how to do this.

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” The words that identify the condition are ‘downcast’ and ‘disturbed’, but the key word to note is ‘why’.

The first thing we need to do is to attempt to answer the question ‘Why am I feeling so down?’

Of course, anyone who has experienced depression more than a few times will know that answering such a question is hard because it requires the emotional energy and will that seems to have leaked out of our toes.

Most Christian medical doctors, such as Meier and Minirth cite repressed anger and guilt as the primary causes of depression, and they are most probably correct, in most cases. We need to confess guilt or it will soon drag us down into despondency. Sometimes feelings of guilt are false in that we are not guilty of any wrongdoing yet we feel culpable. To resolve this we will probably need to go to the person we think we have offended, and talk it through. Jesus pointed to this when He said; “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). If you have simply imagined the offence then the chances are that you and he or she will have a lovely chat and you will feel all the better for it.

Repressed anger is the second major cause of depression yet it is not enough simply to say that we should purposefully express our anger in a reasonable way to the object of our anger. It is, of course, true that if we bottle up our feelings of anger then they either cause us to become downhearted or they erupt at inopportune moments. We explode over something inconsequential and then wonder why we overreacted so. However, to get to the root cause of anger we need to dig deeper because my understanding is that hurt lies behind much anger. Somewhere, at some time, we were deeply hurt and we have never dealt with this by forgiving the offender. Then something happens that subconsciously evokes that hurtful experience and we react defensively with an inappropriate outburst of anger, and that in turn often triggers depression. So we need to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the pain that lies deep in our past and then forgive and ask God to forgive us our previous failure to forgive those who have offended us (Luke 11:4).

Having identified why we are downcast and made the appropriate responses as much as we are able to do, we need to turn to God and express our hope in Him for our mental wellbeing. David wrote, ‘Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.’ The best way to express this is to praise God for who He is, for His forgiveness, and for His ability to lift up our heads from the gloom of depression to the sunshine of His countenance. When I was a newly reborn Christian, the church my wife and I attended used to love to sing a song that started, ‘my glory and the lifter of my head’. It was based on Psalm 3 verse 3 and 4, which read, ‘But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head. To the LORD I cry aloud, and he answers me from his holy hill’ (NIV).

Depression is as real for Christians as for anyone else, but our first response should be to put our hope in the Lord our God. To take counsel from His written Word, to ask why we are feeling downcast and then to respond accordingly. I am aware that some people can have an inherited predisposition towards melancholy and that sometimes circumstances beyond our control can drag us down. However, if depression is allowed to take hold for too long it can leech vital chemicals needed for mental equilibrium from the brain, and then we might well need a prescription from a medical practitioner. I remember the shock many expressed when we asked a well-respected minister to preach on the subject of depression and he introduced his address with the words, “I have just one word for you… Prozac”. Perhaps this is a valid ‘word’ for those who have a physiological condition or long-term problem, but the first word should usually be ‘trust’; trust in God, the prescription He has given in His Word, the Bible, and our relationship with the Lord Jesus.

Depression Read More »

About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.