Make no mistake: Forgiveness is a choice. God will never make you forgive anyone who hurt you. You can decide not to forgive if you want to. But before you do, you'd better know what you’re getting yourself into. Because if you fail to forgive those who offend you, you’re only hurting yourself.  Unforgiveness imprisons you in your past. What offense has scorched your spirit? Who inflicted your wounds? If you have ready answers to these questions, the offense and the offender are still very much on your mind. You know exactly when and how the knife punctured your peace. Adultery - and you know who betrayed you. A business deal turned sour - and the face of the person who ripped you off is constantly before you. An insult - and you vividly remember every word.

Or maybe the pain is more like that of a thorn, a persistent, gnawing discomfort that tells you something is wrong. Your heart is heavy. At times you’re depressed, but you’re not sure why. You suspect, with good reason, that there’s something you need to settle and someone you need to deal with. But who is it? What happened? And what can you do about it?

As long as you fail to identify and forgive offenders and offenses, you will be shackled to your past. Unforgiveness will keep the pain alive, pick at the open sore, and keep it from healing. You will go through life feeling just as bad as you do now, or perhaps worse, with no relief in sight. There is another alternative. You can forgive the person who hurt you and get on with your life. Forgiveness opens the prison door and sets you free from your past.

Unforgiveness breeds bitterness. Bitterness is a devastating sin that can be directly traced to the failure to forgive. You become caustic when you continually nurse the wound inflicted by another person. Malignant thoughts and harassing memories eventually distort how you look at life. Anger begins to rage and can easily get out of control. As your emotions begin to run wild, your mind may do the same. You entertain desperate ideas for revenge. Your flesh, that horrible remnant of your old sin nature, has gained control.

God does not want us to be bitter toward those who have hurt us: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit - Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (Ephesians 4:30-31). Mark it well: The Holy Spirit is distressed when we give vent to crippling emotions such as bitterness, anger, and rage. These stand in direct contrast to what He wants to produce in our lives, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The Holy Spirit’s fruit is thwarted in our lives until we get rid of bitterness through forgiveness.

Unforgiveness gives Satan an open door. The unresolved anger and bitterness that accompanies a failure to forgive is a welcome door for demonic activity: “In your anger do not sin - Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27). What is a foothold? It is a point of access and involvement. It is a base of operation that allows the enemy to advance. We normally think of a demonic foothold in terms of occultic practices, ritual abuse, etc. Less apparent, yet just as real, are the malignant emotions and attitudes, spawned by unforgiveness, that invite demonic activity.

Chuck Swindoll agrees that persistent unforgiveness offers Satan an opportunity: “For a number of years I questioned [Christians being demonized], but I am now convinced. If a ground of entrance has been granted the power of darkness (such as trafficking in the occult, a continual unforgiving spirit, a habitual state of carnality, etc.), the demon(s) sees this as a green light - okay to proceed. Maybe you have given Satan a foothold because you have been unwilling to forgive. Take heart. You can evict this trespasser, this squatter who does not belong in your life. How? By doing what you should have done long ago: Forgive.

Unforgiveness hinders your fellowship with God. Jesus said, “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15, see also Mark 11:25-26). The forgiveness from the Father our Lord mentions here is not the initial forgiveness we receive when we personally place faith in Christ as Savior. Your standing with God depends solely upon what Christ has accomplished for you by His death on the cross. If your eternal salvation depended on any action of yours after you believed and were declared righteous by God, then you could never be sure of your salvation.

Rather, in Matthew 6 the Lord is speaking about daily items “daily bread, daily forgiveness from God for ourselves, and daily forgiveness from us to others. God’s forgiveness here is that which comes repeatedly after salvation for our daily sins.

When you sin as a Christian, you are to confess your sin to the Lord (1 John 1:9). Since it is a sin not to forgive someone, your attitude of unforgiveness must be confessed to God as sin and forsaken or you forfeit a measure of fellowship with God.

Are you at odds with God because you have refused to forgive someone?  It could be that God is holding the sin of unforgiveness against you just as you are holding the offenders sin against him. So long as you act as the judge of that person, God will stand in judgment of you.

For your own sake, we urge you to confess your failure to forgive. Don’t continue to pay the price for nursing a grudge. Forgive and enjoy the breadth of fellowship with God you desire.

This article is an excerpt from “Forgive and Love Again,” a book co-authored by Songtime Co-Host John Nieder. Please see our offers page for details.