When Unforgiveness Holds You Back

Emma Sharma

by Emma Sharma

Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.



A recent medical emergency forced me to pause and reevaluate all remaining sources of unhealthy stress in my life. Given all the lifestyle changes I’ve made, I was frustrated, and a self-pitying voice began whining inside my head: “But I’ve adopted a solid exercise routine; I’m making good dietary choices and taking my vitamins; I’m sleeping well; I resigned from a miserable job. What’s the deal, God?”

Deep down I knew the answer. Before me loomed a grotesque giant that I would need to defeat before stepping forward into freedom and full health: Unforgiveness.

Forgiveness is tough. Peter grappled with this when he asked Jesus in Matthew 18:21, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” No doubt as the disciples fought the disrespect of the Roman authorities and Jewish religious leaders, they had to ‘let it go’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ repeatedly. Peter wanted to know, ‘When will I be done?’

Forgive as a Lifestyle

But what if some acts seem ‘unforgiveable’ to us? When we hear of children being trafficked, abused, and murdered; acts of war and genocide unleashed on innocent civilians; and terrorists attacking indiscriminately, it sure feels that human beings are capable of inflicting unforgiveable evil on each other. Yet Jesus’ answer to Peter (verse 22) indicates that forgiveness is not a one-time act; it’s a lifestyle. How many times must we forgive? Jesus answered: “…seventy times seven”. Or, maybe, said another way: ‘a lot more than you think, Peter!’


Well for a start, medical and psychological research shows that forgiveness is good for our physical and mental health. Forgiveness lowers the risk of heart attack, improves cholesterol levels and sleep, reduces pain, blood pressure, and lowers levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. For those of us who have endured prolonged trauma, our brain may even need to be physiologically rewired for complete healing to take place and forgiveness accelerates that process.

Forgive as a Way To Heal Layers of Pain

When someone hurts us, it is rarely on one level only. Pain has layers, like an onion. For example, I might quickly forgive my spouse for an ill-timed unkind comment (the outermost layer). However, perhaps a gossiping friend overheard what was said, and now we must also forgive (layers of) humiliating rumors that our marriage is in trouble. Or worse, maybe that unkind word touched a deep, emotionally painful childhood memory (the center of the onion) triggering a volcanic reaction that is disproportionate to what was said in that moment. We may find ourselves needing to forgive others many times over from just one seemingly ‘forgive-able’ incident.

God’s word is clear that forgiveness is not a choice. In Ephesians 4:32 we are instructed to “be kind to each other, … forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven [us]”. In fact, Matthew 6:14 suggests we are required to forgive in order to receive the forgiveness God offers to us for our own iniquities: “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” I know I need God’s forgiveness to such an extent that I must forgive others even when it’s incredibly hard to do so.

Forgive to be Free. Forgive Again to Stay Free.

Ultimately, Jesus requires us to live a lifestyle of forgiveness because He paid a price on the cross that was sufficient and complete for ALL sins of ALL people. If He who was blameless and pure can forgive everything, we must strive to do the same no matter how hard that seems. I don’t say this without my own experience of working hard over many years to forgive acts of horrible abuse that I endured as a young person and which many people would consider ‘unforgiveable’. This is hard to admit, but I am constantly astonished that—despite having made incredible progress forgiving my abusers from a long time ago—I still seem to need reminding that I need to do the deep work of forgiveness for more recent hurts. Cue: my quick trip to Urgent Care with chest pains.

Which brings me to this revelation: the opportunity to forgive is truly a GIFT. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the sinful behavior of others, but it offers me a chance to let go of burdens that Jesus would prefer I cast onto Him than continue to carry myself. Forgiveness is an act so profoundly healing that it affects me physically, emotionally and spiritually. Yes, He commands us to forgive every time because He knows this is the best way for us to live. Forgiveness unlocks the fullness of all that He has done for us. Unforgiveness holds us back. Let’s forgive quickly and often, as a way of life.




Emma Sharma is the Founder and Principal of Swallowtail Group (www.swallowtailgroup.com) and a global business executive known for her entrepreneurship, strong empathetic leadership style and willingness to go where ‘Angels fear to tread’. She is also a devoted wife and mom to two young children and lives in Northern Virginia.