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Why forgiveness is not a formula

I’ve never been good with equations or formulas – and I’m not just talking about the mathematical variety.

I’m thinking more about those formulas you find in some Christian books whereby, if you read out a series of steps towards ‘freedom in Christ’ or ‘freedom from addiction’ and so on, you will have a good chance of experiencing lasting change.

Don’t get me wrong – some of the formulaic prayers I’ve prayed have been powerful, and the Holy Spirit has ministered to me as I’ve read through prayers by Neil Anderson and John Eldredge and other Christian writers who believe in the power of words.

After all, most of the time they’re simply borrowing from Scripture, and we know that the words of the Bible – God’s holy, inspired word – are the most powerful and peace-giving and life-changing of all.

So really, my issue isn’t with ‘the formula guys’.

My issue is with one ‘formula prayer’ in particular.

I’ve read it in a thousand different contexts, versions, and varieties.

Can you guess what it is?

Yes, I’m talking about ‘the forgiveness prayer’.

The prayer of forgiveness.

That’s right – the one where you pray through a series of steps which lead you to – voila! – a breakthrough whereby you suddenly forgive the person who harmed you, and you stop feeling like a victim, and you stop giving them power over you, and you walk free unchained, and you end up sharing your testimony on YouTube… or something…

It might go something like this:

Dear Heavenly Father, I thank you for your great kindness, and patience, which has led me to repent and turn from my sins (Rom. 2:4). I confess that I have not always been completely kind, patient, and loving toward (insert name) who’s hurt me. I have rehearsed (insert name)’s offenses and entertained bad thoughts in my mind. I have nurtured angry feelings and fed bitterness in my heart towards (insert name). Holy Spirit, I ask that you to bring to the surface all my painful memories so that I can choose to forgive (insert name) for each of them. I ask that you would heal my emotional wounds and painful memories –in the precious name of Jesus. Amen. [Taken from Neil Anderson’s]

It’s a beautiful, practical, and hopeful prayer, isn’t it?

When I first prayed it I rallied up all the hope in the world.

All the courage I could find.

All the faith I could dredge up.

Faith that Jesus could do the impossible – that he could, in his power, free me from my anger and bitterness.

And I honestly believed I’d wake up the next morning free, and healthy, and whole.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t wake up feeling any different…

But at the same time, I didn’t give up.

I continued to read book after book on forgiveness and freedom in Christ, and prayed and prayed, and prayed some more.

I asked my friends for advice; I sought counseling; I wrestled over the idea of forgiveness again and again, pulling it apart from every angle.

I mulled over verses like “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col 3:13), and Jesus’ instructions to Peter in Matthew 18 to forgive seventy-seven times if necessary. But nothing seemed to take away the pain in my heart.

Sure, I had experienced ‘deliverance’ before, whereby massive weights of struggle like depression and anxiety had lifted off me, rarely to be seen again.

But I just couldn’t get my head around forgiveness – or rather, I couldn’t get my heart around it.

I had the theory down-pat, but I wasn’t feeling it.

And the person in question was not able to reconcile – which made it that much more complicated.

But you know what changed for me?

It was the simplest, most basic thing.

One day, I was sitting in the therapist’s chair, bemoaning the pain, the heartbreak, the bitterness I carried.

And she said something that just seemed to snap me out of it – at least for a while.

She said…

“Stuff happens.”

That was it.

Hardly worth framing or turning into a Facebook post.

But my head shot up, and in a moment of clarity, I realised that stuff does happen – and I could choose to continue to dwell on it, or I could choose to accept that it just happens.

All sorts of dark, crazy, twisted stuff happens in this messed-up, broken world we live in.

And it’s bloody painful.

But at some point, we need to stop playing the victim role and start owning our life again rather than continuing to place power in the hands of the person that hurt us.

So, that ‘stuff happens’ line… Was it the answer for me, long-term?

Nah, but I definitely turned a corner.

A corner which led to acceptance of what happened to me.

And two years later, I turned another corner, and then another… until I found that forgiveness didn’t come by reading a Hallmark card or praying someone else’s prayer.

It’s still coming – it’s still happening. The forgiveness I’m choosing is vital and alive and dynamic.

For me, it’s a work-in-progress.

So no, God didn’t wave a magic wand and make all the hurt go away – not in my case.

But he did show me that forgiveness is a daily choice.

A choice of love.

An empowered choice that acknowledges – with the head, if not with the heart – that I am forgiven so much for my messes – so I can choose to forgive my enemy too.

Do I choose to allow that person back in?


But I choose to set myself free from bitterness by saying the words – out loud if I need to – “I forgive you, (insert name)”.

And one day, maybe in another two or four or six years from now… I just might feel the words I speak, and find freedom forever.


Alison lives in Thornleigh, Sydney with her husband and two sons. She’s a part-time journalist who loves to take acting classes in her spare time, and is half-way through her Bachelor of Ministry at Morling College. She blogs about her faith here.

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