Reformed theologian John Piper offered four suggestions for those struggling to forgive others, warning that the physical and emotional pain stemming from hurt can easily morph into "selfishness, bitterness and resentment."
Piper addressed the issue of forgiveness on his desiringGod.org podcast when a listener, identified Emily, said she was unsure of whether she'd truly forgiven her husband for a distasteful comment due to "lingering pain from the offense."
The Bethlehem College & Seminary Chancellor began by explaining that the battle for holiness both in marriage and other relationships centers on the struggle to avoid sinning in response to being sinned against.
"What makes this battle so peculiar is that in the very moment when we may be sinning against someone, we have strong feelings of self-justification because of how we've been sinned against," he said. "Some of the feelings that we have may be warranted, even justified; some of the hurt or the indignation may be justified."
Christians, however, must "navigate the complexities of both being genuinely wronged and yet dealing with our sinful responses to being wronged," Piper said.
"[My] responsibility before God is not the behaviors of my wife but my responses to those behaviors," he said. "It seems to me that the overwhelming challenge of the New Testament to all of us is to not return evil for evil."
We all hurt, disappoint, and frustrate each other every day in some degree, the pastor contended. Thus, the "great challenge" in the Christian life is to be so deeply and joyfully content in our fellowship with Jesus that we are not "drained by the disappointments of our relationships."
Still, there can be both physical and emotional pain that lingers after the act of forgiveness, the pastor said — and this is not necessarily sinful or a sign of unforgiveness.
"However, we all know that both physical pain and especially emotional pain can morph in an instant into resentment and anger and bitterness," he said. " That morphing can be so subtle that it's hard to know when it's happened."
To combat this, Piper offered four brief suggestions for keeping pain and sorrow from turning into sinful, unforgiving resentment.
First, Piper encouraged believers to "consciously take any sins of being wronged" and hand them over to God, who is "able to settle accounts more justly and wisely than we can."
Second, the pastor urged those struggling with hurt to direct their minds away from the pain and focus instead on what is "true and beautiful and pure and lovely and praiseworthy."
Third, Piper encouraged readers to "renounce all tendencies to punish or wound your spouse with acts or words or looks or silence."
Finally, he advised earnestly working "for the good of the one you have forgiven."
"The real sign of forgiveness is that you don't seek to punish the other — you seek the good of the other," he concluded.
Previously, Piper explained that in order to truly forgive, God must be "more real to me than other people are."
"When God sees us returning good for evil, he knows everything," he said. "He knows we have been insulted or treated unjustly or cheated or whatever. He knows it. And he is sympathetic and he is attentive and he sees that we are returning good for evil when harm has been done to us. He sees that we are obeying him. He sees that we are loving our adversary."
He continued: "Is it enough for God to know our sorrow, for God to know our pain, for God to know our disappointment, our frustration? Can we hand our cause entirely over to God? Can we move forward treating others better than they treat us, even if it means only God knows and nobody else? That is how real God has to become to us."