How to Overcome Barriers to Forgiveness
Article by Linda Graham (2014)
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What is the Science?

Forgiveness is a difficult thing. It can take a great amount of time and work to arrive at a place where we can let go of hostility and arrive at a place of forgiveness, especially for more serious infractions. Research on forgiveness suggests three barriers that often prevent people from arriving at a place of forgiveness: unreadiness, self-protection, and “face” concerns. All of these are legitimate barriers and must be taken seriously. But by intentionality and practice (and, Christians would add, God’s help), we can arrive at a place of forgiveness and let go of the suffering and hostility we have experienced.

Forgiveness: “ the practice of letting go of the suffering caused by someone else’s wrongdoing (or even our own).”

Forgiveness “involves changing our relationship to an offense through understanding, compassion, and release.” – Linda Graham

What is the Theology?

As this article demonstrates, there are so many aspects of forgiveness: identity, fear, safety, compassion, power, relationships, guilt, shame, and many other important categories. These are all topics that the Church can address. The imprecatory Psalms remind us that it is okay to feel anger while penitential Psalms reminds us of the need for all of us to receive forgiveness. The stories of Joseph, David, and Jesus offer examples of a greater concern for reconciliation than on saving “face.” And the prophets demonstrate the pursuit of justice that accompanies God’s forgiving love.

What to Consider

  • Think about a time when you suffered wrongdoing. What barriers prevented forgiveness? Were you able to overcome those barriers? If so, how? If not, why?
  • What barriers might Jesus have had to overcome in order to offer forgiveness? What is the role of the Spirit in overcoming barriers to forgiveness?
  • Think of a situation where it was more difficult to forgive than usual. What about the situation made it more difficult to forgive? What were the barriers that needed to be overcome?
  • What is the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation? Can you have one without the other?

How to Go Deeper

  • Have a member of the congregation share their story about how they were able to offer forgiveness. Invite them to focus on the barriers they overcame before offering forgiveness.
  • Start a support group for those who have been hurt or victimized and have been unable to forgive. You might consider having a trained therapist facilitate or available as a reference for those who might benefit from one.
  • Use the story of Joseph to discuss these three barriers to forgiveness. You might even consider making this into a series to discuss each of these barriers in more length.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

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“Forgiving When it Seems Impossible”

“Nine Steps to Forgiveness”

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About the Author:

Zach is currently a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the role of leaders in congregational change. His calling in life is to train and equip pastors to faithfully lead local congregations. When not studying, he'll most likely be watching Sporting Kansas City score goals or hiking with his wife and two kids.


  1. August 8, 2017 at 12:58 am

    This is an interesting way of typologizing barriers to forgiveness. I wonder which of these three “bitterness” would fall under? That was the first one that can to my mind when I thought of barriers to forgiveness

  2. August 8, 2017 at 1:32 am

    I appreciate the depth of Scripture listed in the theology section. The Psalms play off of one another so well on the topic of forgiveness, and really speak to the human heart.

  3. August 9, 2017 at 3:52 pm

    The idea of self-protection as a barrier to forgiveness is so insightful.

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