FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Forgiveness: The Key That Unlocks Prison Doors

with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth | March 2, 2007
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Today on the broadcast, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, author of the book Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom, talks about the valuable need for forgiveness in marriage.

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  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Today on the broadcast, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, author of the book Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom, talks about the valuable need for forgiveness in marriage.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Today on the broadcast, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, author of the book Choosing Forgiveness: Your Journey to Freedom, talks about the valuable need for forgiveness in marriage.

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Forgiveness: The Key That Unlocks Prison Doors

With Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth
March 02, 2007
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someone in your life that you've never forgiven?  Here's Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

Nancy: When you've been hurt, finding healing may involve a process.  The problem is that a lot of people think they have to wait until the process is over before they choose to forgive.

Man: I think, at some point, God could lead me to forgive my dad.

Nancy: They think that healing comes first, then forgiveness.

Woman: It's taking a long time to work through this but someday I think I might be able to forgive.

Nancy: Let me suggest that the opposite is true.  The healing process begins with forgiveness.  You can choose, by God's grace, to forgive in a moment of time, then you can allow God to give you grace to heal from that pain and even to restore the relationship.  Would you like to be in the process of healing from the hurts of your past?  Why not begin that process today by choosing to forgive.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, March 2nd.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  Could it be that choosing to forgive someone even today would open a door of freedom in your life?

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  I think one of those passages in the Scriptures that is confusing for folks, at least it's been confusing for me, is when Peter goes to Jesus, and he says, "Lord, how many times am I supposed to forgive somebody?"  And Peter, thinking he's generous and magnanimous says, "As many as seven times?"  And I don't know if our listeners know this, but seven in the Hebrew mind was the number of completion.

 So seven times means, "Am I supposed to do it so many times that it's completely done?"

Dennis: Perfect.

Bob: Yeah.  And Jesus responds and says, "No, not seven.  Seventy time seven."  Or like saying super complete, abundantly complete.  And you think to yourself, "Okay, so what does that mean?"  If somebody has offended you, and you forgive them, and they offend you again, do you forgive them again, and they offend you, and you forgive and they offend – you know, you just get into the cycle and says "Does this just mean that I set myself up to be regularly wounded by another person?"

Dennis: Taken advantage of by another person.

Bob: Is that what forgiveness is supposed to look like?

Dennis: I don't think it is, and we have someone here with us in the studio again – Nancy Leigh DeMoss, who is helping us navigate the deep waters of forgiveness.  Nancy, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.

Nancy: Thank you, and they are deep waters, and when we get into this area, I think we all have to be willing to plunge in and realize that it's not an easy subject, it is difficult, and it can bring to the surface a lot of hurts and sometimes we may just rather not face this issue than to have to plunge in and deal with it.  But every person I've ever talked with who has taken that plunge, gone through the waters of forgiveness, comes out on the other side and says, "Why did I wait so long?  It was worth it.  I'm so glad that I did."

Dennis: Nancy, you've written a book, "Choosing Forgiveness."  You are also the daily host of a radio broadcast, Revive our Hearts.  You speak to literally hundreds of thousands of women, millions of women each year through your various outreaches.  This really is an issue for women today, especially who are in marriages who may be – well, at points, attempting to forgive a spouse who is taking advantage of that grace.  What should a woman do or, for that matter, a man, who is in a situation where they feel like their forgiveness may be taken advantage of.

Bob: Maybe they're going, "I'm at 271, so I only have another 199 to go, and then I don't have to forgive anymore."  What do they do?

Nancy: And I think Jesus is really saying to Peter, "Peter, you can stop forgiving others when I stop forgiving you, and that will never happen."  So there is this call to ongoing, perpetual forgiveness.  But, as we call for that, it's right – marriage and family are the places within the four walls of our homes that so much of this gets fleshed out and challenged.  That's where so much of the hurt takes place, and it's not just marriages, it's parents and children, it's siblings, it's family members who just, in many cases, don't speak to each other or are perpetually hurting each other.

 We're not saying that if a wife forgives her husband for his unfaithfulness or for ways that he is perpetually sinning against that family.  We're not saying you just forgive and imply that it doesn't matter or that there is no further action required, or that if you forgive, you will just say, "Do whatever you want to do to me, do whatever you want to do to our children," that is not what is implied in forgiveness.

 In fact, God has made, in His Word, provision for protection from such situations, and a woman can forgive her husband and yet still without malice, without anger, without resentment in her heart, say, "You need to experience the consequences of your choices.  This is an illegal activity, the law may be required to step in here, the church, pastor or elders' authority may need to step in here, and you can call someone to account and to be responsible for their behavior while still forgiving them in your heart.

Bob: In fact, when you do call someone to account, when you do hold them accountable for their behavior, it can be one of the most loving things you can do for that person.

Nancy: Absolutely, and one of the most restorative, and that's the goal – God is reconciling God.  He reconciles us to Himself and us to others, and so we're saying, "I forgive you, and I care so much about your relationship first with God, and then your relationship with others, that I am willing to take the steps required to help you deal with this situation."

Dennis: Forgiveness doesn't mean you let another person off the hook for their behavior.  There are consequences for wrongful behavior.  For instance, if a wife is being physically abused by her husband, a part of the reason why God has placed the law as a governing force in our land is to protect the helpless.

Nancy: And to punish those who do wrong.

Dennis: Exactly.  And it would not be an unforgiving act if a wife was being abused or had been abused, to call the police and to report the offender as one who has, again, broken the law.  I mean, that's a hard thing to do, but it may be the right thing to do.

Nancy: Absolutely, but I would just add this caveat.  If a wife, in that situation, has bitterness and unforgiveness in her heart, then she, too, is sinning in the situation, and she is not going to have the wisdom of God to know how to deal with that situation.  She is going to perhaps stop the flow of God's grace into that situation into her life.  She's going to become a hindrance rather than a channel through whom God can flow His grace into that man's life.

Bob: Okay, let's take a situation where a husband is coming home repeatedly having been drinking.  He comes home drunk every three weeks, and every time he comes home drunk, there is a conversation, and he winds up saying, "I'm sorry, I'll never do this again.  Please forgive me."  And the wife forgives him, and she hopes, again, that maybe this time he meant it, and maybe this is the last time, because that's what he said.  But she's heard him say it now 50 times.

 If a woman comes to you, and she's standing in line, and she says, "This is my situation."  How do you counsel her?

Nancy: Well, one of the first things I may do is say to that woman standing in line, "This is not a question that I can answer or resolve for you in 90 seconds.  The one thing I know I can do for you is take you to the throne of grace.  I can pray for you," and I will love that woman and put my arms around her and say, "Lord, I lift this woman up to you.  She needs your wisdom.  She needs you to show her how to handle this situation – not just today but tomorrow and next week and next month."

 And let me say, too, that we so hope for quick and tidy answers to the complications caused by sin, and to someone then I have to say, "You know, I can't promise you an answer.  I can't promise you that God will change your husband or change your situation.  What I can say is God will give you grace and wisdom to be the woman you need to be in this situation.  You may need to put yourself under the authority and the counsel of your pastor and elders to help walk through this situation with you.

 And here is another issue that – if we could broaden it beyond the illustration you just gave, Bob, of the drunken husband, but to a lot of situations we tend to look at other people's sins through a microscope but our own through a telescope.  And not to minimize other people's sins, what I have found in my own life – in fact, Dennis, a number of years ago the Lord used a book that you had written that came into my hands at a time when I was really struggling in a difficult relationship that had ongoing ramifications and implications, and I was very focused on how I felt this other person had sinned against me, had wronged me, and it wasn't the drunkenness kind of thing we're talking about here.  It was more under-the-surface issues, but it had been going on for a long time.

 And the Lord put that book that you had written into my hands, and I found myself – you were challenging about issues of forgiveness and reconciliation, but do you know what the Lord did in my heart first as I read that book – I found myself weeping my way through that book because, for the first time, I realized not only is this other person a sinner, but I am a sinner in this relationship.

 And I began to see my own sinfulness, my own responsibility, ways that I had not intentionally but, in fact, torn down that relationship and contributed to the breach in the relationship, and I found that before I could really extend heartfelt forgiveness and going to pursue reconciliation and restoration, I had to take some steps of repentance.

 And it was not, and you and I had talked about this at the time, it was not just a one-time thing for me.  It was a process of God bringing me to brokenness over my own sin, which was not as obvious in the situation but had to be dealt with first.

Bob: And, in fact, you have talked to a number of people who take the oftentimes courageous step to say, "I will forgive," and there's some fear in taking that step but, as you said earlier, there is freedom on the other end of that journey.

 In fact, you talked with somebody on a call-in show you were telling me about who just expressed that freedom that she had experienced in choosing to forgive a parent in this case, right?

Nancy: I've seen it actually go both ways, and I've been doing some call-in interviews on the subject of forgiveness recently and, I'll tell you, you just see the stark contrast – people who call in, as one did the other night.  She said, "40 years ago I was sexually abused by my brother, and all these years I've resented him, I've hated him."  She says, "Well, now his heart has turned, and he's begging me to forgive him.  She said, "I don't to forgive him.  I've held onto this all these years.  I don't want a relationship with him."

 So you have this anguish and this angst and this sense of struggling.  This is so hard, I don't even know if I want to do this.  And as I listened to this woman, I just thought, "She is in such torment.  She is in such bondage, which is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 18, which is where we started this program.  Jesus said this is what would happen if we refused to forgive – that God would turn us over to tormentors.

 So I've seen people in the torment, and then I've heard other people call in and talked with other people who have said, "Yes, it was so hard on the front side, but once I was willing to open my hand to release that person, to press the delete button and let the offense go."

Dennis: Back to the illustration of the woman who had been abused 40 years ago, what if she had learned about forgiveness 40 years ago and had been practicing it.  Every time that memory of that abuse came up, she'd practice the spiritual discipline of forgiving that brother who had sexually abused her.  When he finally came to her …

Nancy: Her heart would have been prepared.

Dennis: Yeah, and she would have not – she wouldn't have been the captive that she ended up being.  Bob, I'm thinking about an interview you and I did a number of years ago with Bill Elliff, where he told a story about his own father and mother.

Bob: Yeah, you mentioned this story in your book, "Choosing Forgiveness."

Nancy: I do, and this is a pastor who is a friend of all of us, and his dad was a pastor and a ministry worker for many years, and after the couple had been married, I think it was 40 years or more, Bill's parents were talking about a root of bitterness sprang up in his dad's heart.  He was passed over for a promotion that he had hoped for, and he let that bitterness simmer and then, long story short, became involved in an adulterous relationship with a younger woman in his office; broke up Bill's parents' 40-year marriage – this had been a godly man – and Bill's dad ended up marrying this younger woman, but Bill's mom kept practicing the grace of forgiveness. 

 Ultimately, she ended up hospitalized on what turned out to be her deathbed, but it was in that process, there in that hospital room that she taught a powerful lesson about God's grace and forgiveness to her adult children.

Bob: And Bill shared that with us when he was on FamilyLife Today.  Listen to how he describes that scene in the hospital as his mom was dying.

Bill: (From audiotape.)  My mother woke up on a Wednesday, and it was very unusual.  I mean, she was supposed to be dead.  The doctors were astounded, and she started trying to talk.  Well, she'd been in a coma for a week and had tubes in her mouth and nose and arms and everything, and we – my sister and I were there all the time with her, and she just kind of, at periodic times, would try to say something, and we couldn't understand.

 I know this sounds like a ministerial story, but the truth of the matter is, there was one word that we could make out all day long, and she said it, at least to our knowledge, at least three different times.  Maybe it's the word the Lord wanted us to hear, but at least on three different occasions she said, "Forgive, forgive, forgive."

 We thought, "Well, I wonder what she means.  Does she mean tell Dad one more time that I have forgiven him," which she had done just beautifully and gloriously, or "You children be sure and forgive Dad," or, you know, we didn't know.  And, finally, we felt, well, we'll just let the Lord make the application to everybody's life.

 Well, the next day my brothers and all of our spouses came in and, Dennis, we had around her bed the most incredible worship service I will ever know this side of heaven.  It was unbelievable.  We sang, and we prayed, and we testified.  We realized that we didn't even know it, but Mother had led all four of us children to Christ, and we just found that out around her bed and thanked her for it.

 She was awake, she could hear, it was unbelievable.  And that went on for about three and a half hours, just all standing right there.  And then the neatest thing, though, that happened, at the close of that time the phone rang, and it was my dad, and he had not spoken to Mother in two years, and I don't know how he knew or heard that mother was dying, but he said, "Can she talk?  Is she awake?"  And I said, "Yes," and I put the phone up to her ear and, I tell you, I'd give a million dollars if I'd had a videotape of her expression.

 And she began to mouth again words of forgiveness to him, and it was a really beautiful moment, and afterwards I got back on the phone with Dad, and he told me what he had said, asking for her forgiveness.  We put the phone down, and I shared that with my brothers and sisters, and it was like you turned on these fire sprinklers, you know, just of grace, and it was just an incredible moment of healing and cleansing for our family.

Dennis: Bob, that's what it's supposed to look like – practicing forgiveness all the way to the finish line, and if a person doesn't pursue that forgiveness, that's their responsibility.  But as much as it depends upon us, we're at peace with all men.

Bob: And I have to ask you one more– and I know this is a hard question, and we're near the end, but I know there are some folks who are saying, "Well, doesn't the Bible say that you only forgive if the person repents?"  In other words, "Am I not off the hook if the person doesn't – they're not sorry about it.  I don't have to forgive them, do I?"

Nancy: Well, I don't think you find that in the Bible.  In many cases, they aren't sorry, and we do need to forgive them.  Now, there's a sense in which we cannot extend to the other person the judicial forgiveness that only God can extend and that they will not receive unless they are repentant, but we're talking about our heart toward that person, which has to extend grace and forgiveness. 

 Jesus said in Mark 11, "Whenever you stand praying, forgive.  If you have anything against anyone, forgive so that your Father, also who is in heaven, may forgive you your trespasses."

Bob: And somebody who is listening and says, "I hear that, I just can't."  What would you say?

Nancy: I know there are some situations that do require a process to come to healing and restoration, but what I've seen again and again is that forgiveness, the choice to forgive, is what sets us into that process and opens the door to the possibility of healing.

 And when it comes down to it, ultimately it really is not an issue that I can't forgive.  It becomes an issue that I'm not willing to forgive, that I won't forgive.  And then I have to say, "Do I want to reap in my life the consequences, the pain, the torment, the prison, the bondage, that come from setting my heart and my will against God and resisting Him on this point?"

Dennis: I would encourage that person to find another friend and say, "I've just got to be honest with you – because of the evil that has been perpetrated against me, I do not want to forgive.  I know it's the right thing to do, I don't want to forgive.  Would you pray for me?  Would you help me?"  And then I would encourage that person to pray the following prayer.

 Lord, make me willing to be willing.  Take my hardened heart, soften it up as only You can do and remove a heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh that realizes that other person has got their own context out of which they've come at life, and they need compassion, they need grace and, yes, they need forgiveness.

 And I would just say to anyone who has been listening to our broadcast here today, if you've been convicted that there is someone in your life that you have been harboring resentment, and you're angry at, and you're letting the sun go down on your anger, take your hand and take that clenched fist that is holding and nursing the hurt, and open the hand and release the other person from your punishment, from trying to take out God's wrath on how they've hurt you.  And say to the Lord God, "Lord God, I forgive," and then name the person.  "I forgive him, I forgive her." 

 And then begin the process, as you are tempted to nurse the hurt in the future, and as you're reminded of your anger or as you are hurt again, keep on forgiving.  The command of Scripture in Colossians 3:13, Ephesians, chapter 4, is forgiving one another just as God, in Christ, has forgiven you.  Forgiveness is not an option, forgiveness is a command of Scripture and a Christ follower – someone who is pursuing Him is going to be modeling that same forgiveness that occurred on the cross.

 And, you know, Bob, your question back about should we forgive somebody who hasn't asked for forgiveness – when Christ died on the cross, I hadn't asked for His forgiveness.  But He died so that I might be forgiven.  He extended that forgiveness toward me when I was His enemy.  And that's the kind of forgiveness we are to extend toward those who hurt us.

Bob: And maybe part of the process folks need to go through is to get a copy of Nancy's book, "Choosing Forgiveness," and read through it, meditate on it, consider it, pray about it, in order for God to not only soften your heart but strengthen your heart and prepare you to offer that kind of forgiveness to another person.  Generous forgiveness – that's what we're really talking about here.

 We've got copies of Nancy's book in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and you can go to our website,  If you click the red button that says "Go," right in the middle of the screen, it will take you to an area of the site where there is more information about the book, "Choosing Forgiveness," and other resources from Nancy Leigh DeMoss including her book, "Surrender." 

 We've talked this week about the fact that sometimes we have to surrender before we can forgive and, in some cases, choosing to forgive is an act of surrender, and so these really are books that run along parallel paths and, in fact, if any of our listeners are interested in getting both books, we'll be happy to send along at no additional cost the CD audio of our conversation this week on the subject of forgiveness.  You can listen to that again or pass it along to someone who might benefit from hearing our conversation.

 Again, our website is  When you get to the home page look for the red button in the middle of the screen that says "Go."  Click that, and you're right where you need to be to get copies of these resources.

 Or if it's easier to simply pick up the phone and call 1-800-FLTODAY, you can do that.  It's 1-800-368-6329; 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  When you call, someone on our team will answer any questions you have about these resources, and they can get them sent out to you if you're interested in receiving copies of them.  So, again, give us a call at 1-800-FLTODAY.  Dennis?

Dennis: It's been a long time, Bob, since we've talked about the subject of forgiveness in such depth here on FamilyLife Today, and, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, I want to say thank you for your work on your book and your ministry.  We're extremely proud of you and how God's using you and just trust that His favor will be upon the message of this book and upon you for many, many years to come.

Nancy: Thank you, Dennis, and can I just say that this message of forgiveness is the key that unlocks prison doors.  It is a means to hope and freedom and joy and release.  It's tough, but it is worth walking through that process.  It's a journey to freedom.

Bob: FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.


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