07 How to Forgive

Understanding how your mind works reveals why we need to change our approach to forgiving others


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Being double minded
If the only thing preventing us from forgiving is the lies we believe, then all we need to do is learn the truth, and we’ll be able to forgive easily, right?

No. It doesn’t quite work like that. Here’s why. The way the human mind operates prevents this from happening. Each of us actually has two different and often opposing belief systems in our minds. Learning the truth in our heads is not the same as learning the truth in our hearts. And our hearts need to be convinced of the truth before we can forgive from the heart as Jesus commands us to. (Matthew 18:35)

Because of the two belief systems, there is often a difference between what we “know” to be true and what “feels” true.

James, the New Testament writer, understood this problem. He writes, “The double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:8 JUB)

Let me explain further.


The wall in your mind
You have a wall in your mind. This is not an imaginary wall. This is a very real wall, and it isn’t a wall you can wish away or think away or pray away. It’s here to stay—at least for the rest of this life.

On one side of the wall are the things you believe intellectually. Two plus two equals four. The capital of Wisconsin is Madison. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the story of Jesus. Some people call this head knowledge.

On the other side of the wall are the things you believe emotionally, or the things you believe as a result of your experiences. I’m ugly. Or, I’m beautiful. I’m good at what I do. Or, I can never seem to get it right. I’m not worth protecting. And so on. Some people call this heart knowledge. I call it gut-level belief. We might not think about these beliefs, but they are locked in the basement of our souls, and they exert incredible influence over how we experience life.

The wall in our minds creates inside each of us two belief systems: intellectual beliefs and gut-level beliefs. As a result, we can hold two opposite beliefs at the same time. Something may feel true even though you know it isn’t true. For example, someone may be afraid of the dark even though intellectually that person knows there’s nothing to fear.

While our intellectual beliefs shape our theology, our more primal or “gut-level” beliefs exert tremendous control over our lives. They color our perspectives, dominate our decisions, determine our level of peace and joy. The way we experience life is determined primarily by our gut-level beliefs.


Our two belief systems compared

Name Intellectual beliefs Gut-level beliefs
Also known as Head knowledge, cerebral beliefs Heart knowledge, emotional beliefs, experiential beliefs, genuine beliefs
Shaped by Education Experience
Essence Information Interpreting events
Shapes Worldview, theology How we experience life
Indicated by Opinion Emotion
Modified by Sermons, books, Bible verses, conversations Truth experience with Jesus
Goal Wisdom Transformation

Adapted from the Spiritual Self Defense textbook


Example: Elevator claustrophobia
Someone is standing in front of an elevator. The door opens. He starts to step on, but then backs away and decides to use the stairs instead. Why? Because something inside him says, This is too scary. I’ll be trapped in there. All the while he’s feeling that fear, his conscious mind is saying, This is ridiculous. It’s only an elevator. People ride in elevators all the time. I won’t be trapped. But a stronger voice inside him overrules the conscious mind and says, You will be trapped.

That stronger voice is his gut-level belief system.

Where did that belief come from? It came from an experience, most likely a childhood experience. Perhaps he was held down by a playground bully or by an adult during some act of abuse. That message, I’m trapped; I can’t get away, and this is terrifying, was imprinted on his mind. As he grew up, the original incident may have faded, but the message did not. His mind is always on the lookout for circumstances that seem to match that terrible feeling of being trapped. When the elevator door opened, those original emotions of panic surface, and he won’t step onto the elevator.

All of us carry around with us thousands and thousands of imprinted messages based on our experiences. Some of those messages are true. Some of them are false.


Biblical example: Calming the storm
Read the story of Jesus and His disciples in the boat during the storm in Mark 4:35-41. Consider this: Out on the lake in the middle of the storm, the intellectual beliefs of the disciples evaporated, and their gut-level beliefs took over. We are going to die. Jesus, on the other hand, had the same beliefs both on an intellectual and a gut level. He knew He was perfectly safe. That’s why He slept through the storm. It simply didn’t bother Him at all.

But notice what Jesus did. He gave His disciples a truth experience. Instead of giving His disciples a seminar on the shore, He took them out into the storm where they came face to face with what they believed on a gut-level. Then He allowed them to experience the truth: Our circumstances are no match for Jesus.


Your emotions are talking to you. Are you listening?
You feel what you believe. Apart from some hormonal, chemical, or neurological dysfunction, your emotions reflect your gut-level beliefs. If you believe you are in danger, you will feel fear—regardless of whether any danger is actually present. If you believe on a gut level that you have no hope, you will feel hopeless. If you believe you are all alone, you will feel abandoned. And so on.

If our feelings about something change, that means our gut-level beliefs have changed. If our gut-level beliefs change, then our emotions will change.

Emotions indicate belief; gut-level belief determines emotion Your emotions tell you what you really believe. Just because you know something, or you’ve agreed to it on an intellectual level doesn’t mean you really believe it on an experiential level. Emotions are a thermometer that shows you what your gut-level beliefs are. Barring some brain chemistry issues, what you feel represents what you believe on an experiential or gut level.

On the other hand, your gut-level beliefs control your emotions. If you feel panicky or shameful or abandoned or peace or joy, you feel these things because you hold gut-level beliefs that drive those emotions. Beliefs, in that sense are like a thermostat. Just as a thermostat controls the temperature in a room, so also your gut-level beliefs control the emotions you will feel.

This is actually very good news. Since our emotions reveal our beliefs, it’s very easy to identify false gut-level beliefs that are blocking our efforts to forgive.

It’s really pretty easy to get at this. Imagine yourself forgiving the offense you are struggling to forgive. What do you feel? What emotions come up? If those feelings could talk, what would they say? If you take your time with this, you will probably identify the gut-level beliefs that are preventing you from forgiving.

By the way, it’s really not the magnitude of the injustice done to us that prevents us from forgiving. Instead, it’s our takeaway. It’s what we believe about what happened. It’s our interpretation. It’s the lies we believe. This is why some who have been the victims of horrific acts of abuse find the grace to forgive these crimes, while others hold onto grudges for years over petty offenses.


To forgive, we need a truth experience with Jesus
The implications of this are staggering. Millions of Christians are locked into a cycle of frustration because they’re working on the wrong side of the wall. They’re trying to bring about transformation from the intellectual side of the wall using sermons, Bible verses and positive self talk. But transformation takes place on the gut-level belief side of the wall.

This is why we need a “truth experience” with Jesus. A truth experience is an encounter with Jesus that corrects one or more false gut-level beliefs.

In order to forgive, we need to address the beliefs that feel true (even if we know they are not true)—the beliefs that prevent us from moving forward to forgive. In order to remove those faulty beliefs, we need a truth experience with Jesus. That way, our gut-level beliefs are corrected, we believe the truth with our hearts, and the obstacles to forgiving are removed.

In short, we need God’s perspective at a heart level. When we see the one who hurt us through God’s eyes, we will feel (believe) His compassion, and forgiving from the heart becomes automatic. But, until we are given this grace, we will struggle. Many people try to do before they believe. They try to obey before their heart has been changed. That doesn’t work. We need God’s grace first. Then we do. Then it’s easy to do.



  1. What does it mean to be double minded?
  2. Explain the two belief systems.
  3. What do our emotions tell us?
  4. How is it possible to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time?
  5. How are heart beliefs or gut-level beliefs changed?


NEXT: The key to moving forward is resolving the past (Lesson #8)
You can try to forget the past, but the past doesn’t forget you—until you deal with it.

Explore these related resources…

Spiritual Self Defense
My Spiritual Self Defense course will show you how to use the Christian faith to defend yourself from anxiety, anger, addiction, and all kinds of bullies.
I owe most of my understanding of forgiveness to the writings of Ed Smith. This is his latest book on the subject.
Understanding Your Christian Faith
New to Christianity? Rethinking your faith? Understanding Your Christian Faith will show you how to experience God in a deep and meaningful way.


Questions? Want to talk? Connect at our Facebook group…


Scriptures for further study

Forgiving others commanded or referenced
(From the Lord’s prayer) And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:12, 14-15 NIV)


Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.[a] [a] Greek everyone who is indebted to us (Luke 11:4a NIV)


Jesus said, “Contain quarrels. If a Christian does something to harm you, go to him privately and resolve the problem. He may listen, apologize and make it right. If that happens, you have a friend. But if he won’t listen, take along one or two others because these witnesses can bring clarity to the situation. If he still refuses to listen, then bring it up to the church. If he won’t listen to the church, then he’s made himself like an outsider, and you’ll need to treat him as such.

“Understand the truth: Your connection with Me gives you incredible power. When your purposes are aligned with Mine, you can open and close doors in the unseen spiritual world just as you do in your every day life. When two or three of you pray, desiring My name to be advanced, I’m standing right beside you.”

Peter then asked, “Master, how many times should I forgive a brother who hurts me? Seven times?”

Jesus answered, “No, instead seventy times seven.

“It’s like this: A king wanted to settle debts with people who owed him money. One of his subjects owed him well over $400 million (375 tons of silver or even gold). He couldn’t pay; so the king proposed liquidating the man’s estate and then selling him, his wife and his children as slaves. The debtor fell to the ground pleading, ‘Give me time. Give me time. I’ll find a way to pay it all back.’ The king had compassion on this man and decided to cancel the debt. Then the man who had his debt canceled found someone who owed him money, about four months wages. He grabbed him by the throat and said, ‘Where’s my money?’ The man fell to the ground and begged him, ‘Give me time. Please give me time and I’ll pay it all.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him thrown into debtors’ prison to be kept until the debt was paid. When the other subjects witnessed this, they went and told the king everything. The king had the man summoned. He said, ‘You evil man! I canceled your debt when you pleaded with me. Why didn’t you have compassion on the man who owed you money?’ Then the king handed the man over to be tortured in prison until every bit of his debt was paid. This is how My Father in heaven will treat you if you don’t forgive your fellow Christian from your heart.” Matthew 18:15-35 DCR


And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25 NIV)


Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37 NIV)


Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32 NIV)


Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. 9 Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. 10 Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, 2 Corinthians 2:7-10 NIV (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 for context)


Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them. (Luke 17:4 NIV)


Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends. Proverbs 17:9 NLT


If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23 NIV)


Jesus’ example
Jesus healed one of the men who arrests Him
And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. 51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. (Luke 22:50-51 NIV) (See also Matthew 26:51-54, Mark 14:47, John 18:10-11)


Jesus forgave from the cross
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[a] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. [a] Some early manuscripts do not have this sentence. (Luke 23:34 NIV)


Sure, you will get angry. Everybody does. But don’t let your anger turn into sin. Release it to God before the day ends. (Ephesians 4:26 DCR)


A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense. (Proverbs 19:11 NIV)


[Love] does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV)


My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20 NIV)


[Jesus said,] But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5:22 NLT)


Sometimes God does NOT forgive
Sometimes prophets ask God NOT to forgive people. Examples: Isaiah 2:8-9, Jeremiah 18:23. And sometimes God chooses not to forgive. Examples: Hosea 1:6, Matthew 12:32


Yet God wants all to repent

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)


And our enemy is not human
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12 NIV)


Blood atonement and forgiveness
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28 NIV)

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22 NIV)