How to Totally Forgive


How can we be sure we have truly forgiven?

I retired from the pastorate of Westminster Chapel in London, England on February 1, 2002; twenty five years to the day my wife and I began our ministry there on February 1, 1977.

If I could narrow those twenty-five years down to fifteen minutes in order to describe the most important thing that happened to me during that time, it would be the moment my Romanian friend, Dr. Josif Tson, looked at me during my greatest trial and said, “R. T., you must totally forgive them. Until you totally forgive them, you will be in chains. Release them and you will be released.” Nobody had ever talked to me like that in my life; but as the word of God says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend...” (Proverbs 27:6 NKJV); and although it was painful to hear, it was the greatest thing anybody had ever said to me.

"It is, by far, the greatest challenge that we will face in our lifetimes."

“But Josif, I can't,” I protested.

“You can. And you must,” he said lovingly and firmly.

It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.

I do not say to you that it will be easy. I will go further. It is like climbing Mount Everest; few people do it. And it is, by far, the greatest challenge that we will face in our lifetimes. However, when you realize you have actually forgiven, it brings with it the greatest feeling of relief.

Most of us have a story to tell that has to do with a deep, deep hurt. You may have been abused as a child or by a friend since you have been an adult. Perhaps you have been lied about, and people believe the lie. You may have been betrayed or even hurt by an authority figure. Perhaps your spouse was unfaithful to you. I don't mean to be unfair, but whatever it is, you will have no real peace in your heart until you set them free and totally forgive.


Total forgiveness means utterly setting them free letting them “off the hook,” no longer praying for them to get what they deserve but to receive the mercy they don't deserve. When you can do that and mean it, you're there.

Total forgiveness also includes “forgiving” God for letting something happen. God hasn’t done anything wrong, but if you feel any bitterness toward him regarding what has happened to you, you really need to forgive God. And while you are at it, forgive yourself, too. Most of us don't realize that God wants us to forgive ourselves as well as accept his forgiveness.

I'm sorry to have to say that self-pity and self-righteousness are the real reasons we won’t forgive ourselves. So please forgive now, and enjoy the peace from doing what God wants you to do. I know what it is to feel like I have forgiven people, but when I read about the way Joseph forgave his brothers (Genesis 45:1-15) I had to rethink the issue. As you forgive, you can give yourself objective tests by which you can be sure you have totally forgiven. What then are those objective tests?

1. You do not tell anybody what they did to you.

Why do we tell what they did? Isn’t it to hurt them, punish them, or destroy their credibility and reputation, to lower their esteem in someone’s eyes? So we find someone to relate what they have done to us so those who hurt us will look shameful.

We are afraid they are not going to get what is coming to them so we help God out and punish the people who have hurt us by telling others what they did. Joseph, on the other hand, ensured that nobody would know, neither in Egypt nor in Canaan, what his brothers had done to him twenty-two years before.

We must stop talking, and tell no one else. God says that vengeance belongs to Him. (Romans12:19). However, there are two exceptions. For therapeutic reasons you should tell your pastor or one other person who will never tell, especially when you find it difficult to let the matter go. Another occurs when a crime has been committed against you and you must testify to the authorities. One lady in my former church was raped, and the rapist was subsequently captured. I recommended that she testify against him because he was a danger to society. She was able to testify to the facts without bitterness in her own heart because she had totally forgiven.

2. You don’t want them to be afraid of you.

Joseph, knowing his brothers were terrified of him said, “Come close to me.” He wanted to 'love on them,’ as we say. He did not want them scared in his presence. When we want to intimidate our offenders, it is usually a sign that we have not totally forgiven them. God does not want us to be afraid of Him. He sent the Holy Spirit in our hearts to cry out, 'Abba Father' (Romans 8:15). 

"Don't wait for the one who offended you to repent first, or you will have an excuse forever not to forgive."

3. You do not even want them to feel guilty.

Joseph told his brothers not to be angry with themselves. How amazing, since the natural impulse is to want to put the offender on a guilt trip. Fortunately, God does not do that with us, and we must not do that with others.

“But we are not required to forgive them unless they are sorry,” you might want to say. Really? How much repentance and sorrow for wrongdoing do you think there was at the cross? But Jesus prayed that those who killed Him would be forgiven. He knew that they did not know what they had done. Jesus is our model. Don't wait for the one who offended you to repent first, or you will have an excuse forever not to forgive, because unforgiveness will keep you in that same old awful bondage.

If you are convicted as you read these lines, please don’t run to the phone and say to that person, “I forgive you.”

They will only say, “For what?” You will say, “But you know.” “But I don't,” they will reply. “But you should,” you will say back.

And now you have a real fight on your hands.

If you could put 90% of the people I have ever had to forgive under a lie detector test and ask them if they had offended R.T. Kendall in any way, they would say, “No” and pass the test. We all offend people without realizing it and need them to forgive us. Let us forgive others who unknowingly offend us in the way we want to be forgiven.

4. You let them save face.

Joseph could say to his brothers that it was not they who sent him to Egypt, but God. He was not even bitter toward God for the suffering he had faced in fulfilling God’s plan for his life. Wow! That is forgiveness. He allowed his brothers to save face. They knew by this that Joseph really had forgiven them. It must have seemed too good to be true. You and I must do that toward the person who has hurt us. Let them save face by deepening their self-esteem, not even letting them know how deeply they’ve hurt us. When you totally forgive the other person, they will not even know the extent of the problem they created for you.

5. You will protect their darkest secret.

Never tell. Let them know that their secret is absolutely and eternally safe with you. Joseph would not even let them tell their father Jacob what they had done! He wrote the script for them, telling them exactly what to say to him, and he kept them from letting Jacob know. That is total forgiveness.

"Total forgiveness is a life sentence."

6. Forgiving them is a life sentence.

You keep on doing it for the rest of your life. In Genesis 50 we read that when father Jacob dies seventeen years later, Joseph’s brothers panic. They make up a story to force Joseph to live up to his old commitment to forgive. 'Dad told us to tell you to forgive us for what we did.' Joseph reassured them that he had forgiven them.

This is very important. Some feel emancipated when they forgive once, but later they realize the impact of the injustice, and it hits them like a hurricane. They struggle all over again. Total forgiveness is a life sentence. You have to do it today. Tomorrow. Next week. Next year. Ten years from now. Joseph's forgiveness was absolutely real, the proof ultimately being that it still held seventeen years later.

7. You pray for them.

I don’t believe it is good enough to merely say, 'Lord, I commit them to you.’ Instead pray,” Forgive them just like you have forgiven me. You let me off the hook. Now I let them off the hook.” When you do that, you're there!

Why is forgiveness necessary?

Forgiving is the heart of Jesus' message; and it will bring you the health and peace that the Gospel promises, the freedom which you will never truly experience until you do it.