“Forgiveness is a beautiful word until you have something to forgive.” C.S. Lewis
A friend and I were walking out of church a few weeks ago when he expressed skepticism about our ability to truly forgive other people. While he didn’t doubt in God’s forgiveness, he questioned how we could possibly do the same for those who have seriously aggrieved us. As I paused to gather my thoughts, he proceeded to ask how it was possible to forgive a wife who had been unfaithful, forgiven, and then unfaithful again? Or, he wondered, how to forgive a business partner who had systematically embezzled money from the business for twenty years? I suspected these questions were neither hypothetical nor rhetorical; rather, they reflected a deep struggle to apply Biblical truth to two crushing betrayals.
The Biblical truth, of course, is that the Lord commands us to forgive those who have wronged us. Jesus tells us that we should pray to the Father, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And lest we miss the point, He emphasizes it saying, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” To which He adds these chilling words, “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Indeed, God’s directive to forgive others is a cornerstone of life in the kingdom of God. Yet the challenge remains, which is how we can pull this off in the face of treachery and betrayal. Or even, how we can pull this off for the myriad of other offenses, great and small, that confront us daily.
And so today I write today about Forgiveness – not because I easily forgive others or because I have a naturally forgiving heart, but precisely because I don’t. I write because at times I struggle to forgive others when they have hurt me, and I believe there are many other Christians who, like my friend and me, struggle likewise. And finally I write because, other than humility, there is no Christian virtue that is more critical to our faith journey and yet more lacking in our world than forgiveness.
Who among us has not had his or her own struggle with forgiveness? A spouse who habitually makes you late, a friend who gossips about you, a sister who takes heirlooms that your parent promised to you, a child who borrows money and doesn’t repay you, a boss who fires you, a parent who neglects or abuses you, etc. The list of “unforgivable” offenses is infinite. Many seem silly to an outsider, like a disagreement my grandmother had with her sister over ownership of a ceramic dish that resulted in them not speaking to each other for fifty years. Some are beyond our comprehension, like the murder of a child. And yet, wherever our particular grievance falls on some imaginary continuum of offenses, there is always a deeper story of hurt that seeks to justify unforgiveness. Indeed and regrettably, few among us can say they “keep no record of wrongs.”
Why is it that forgiveness is so difficult? Why do we struggle to overlook even minor transgressions? Why are we instinctively defensive when offended? Why is our automatic response to injury retaliation? Why do we store up wrongs like so many artillery shells to be deployed in the future? As Christians, we know the short answer is that we are sinners who live in a fallen world and who keep bumping into other sinners like so many steel balls on a pinball machine. But really we have to dig a bit deeper to gain some understanding.
The thought process here is two-fold. First, is to recognize that the principal obstacle to forgiveness involves our feelings. Our feelings are powerful and as Dallas Willard has pointed out “People nearly always act on their feelings, and think it only right.” And so, movement towards forgiveness requires that we take an honest look at our feelings, specifically those feelings of injustice, pride, and/or fear, which fan the flames of our anger. Our goal is not to deny our feelings, but to start shifting our underlying thought patterns. Second, is to look at the specific choices that lead to forgiveness. The concept is that forgiveness is ultimately not a feeling, but a choice we make involving four promises.
Injustice is the screaming headline of my soul whenever I have been hurt. I believe we all possess an innate sense of fairness and justice. Indeed acting justly is a virtue that God commands of us. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) However, trying to balance the virtues of justice and forgiveness can be exceedingly difficult at times. Although we are told that “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), still the unfairness of the situation keeps running through the mind. The business partner who systematically embezzled for twenty years simply must be made to suffer proportionately – it’s only fair. But in reality, the circle will never be squared – even if the partner were to repay the money with interest, there is no justice that can ever even the score on betrayal. So we absorb the injury and trust instead in God’s ultimate judgment, knowing that in doing so we will receive the good life in the kingdom of heaven. For we believe Jesus’ promise, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
Pride is often creeping at the door when I have been wronged, but it is harder to recognize (or at least to acknowledge) than injustice. Pride, of course, is a sin – the sin referred to by CS Lewis as the Great Sin – the sin at the root of all others. Pride is the number one defense shield against wrongs perpetrated against me. It emerges automatically when I have been hurt. It says, “You dare to cross me? Don’t you know how important I am!” Pride is often masked by feelings of injustice, so it takes some honest reflection to recognize and acknowledge it. The corrective here is a decision to follow Jesus when he says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25) Easy to say, hard to do, but such is the narrow path we must follow to know the blessings of the kingdom. For as Jesus tells us, “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
Fear is a defense mechanism that also emerges when I have been hurt by another person. Fear says, “I have been hurt, I don’t like being hurt, I don’t want to be hurt again, so I will have nothing further to do with you.” It is the emotion that underlies the adage, “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.” In other words, take countermeasures now before I am hurt again. To forgive means I have to take the risk of being hurt again. Fear counsels me not to take the risk. I have seen this dynamic play out in my own family where a mother’s anger and critical nature so poisoned one son that he has nothing to do with her, except perhaps for an occasional phone call. When I told him how his actions were hurting her, his exact words were, “I don’t care if she is hurt because I am hurt.” The son is not a bad person, he is a hurt person who fears being hurt again. Jesus’ counsel here is straight forward – Do not worry, trust Him, and above all “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33)
Anger is a natural response when we have been wronged. And nowhere does the Bible tell us that anger is inherently bad; rather, we are instructed not to allow our anger to become destructive. When Paul cautions “in your anger do not sin,” (Ephesians 4:26) he is recognizing that while anger may be an automatic reaction to conflict, we should not use it as an excuse to harm others. And what can we do to avoid anger from becoming a sin? He counsels us – watch your words, get rid of bitterness and malice, and above all “forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
Botox is a modern wonder drug for treating everything from facial wrinkles to chronic migraines. Amazingly, it is derived from the same toxin that causes a life-threatening food poisoning called botulism. When I am wronged by another person the anger I feel is like Botox – a little bit can be healthy but not when taken in large doses. And so I try to take the “Botox” approach to my emotions – I acknowledge them but don’t let them run wild because if I do they will lead to sin and eventually poison my soul. In other words I try to find a middle ground between denying my emotions and totally succumbing to them. It is in this middle ground where forgiveness is born and healing can take root.
Coming to grips with our feelings is the first great movement towards forgiveness. However, forgiveness itself is decidedly not a feeling, rather it is a choice we make. This is good news for me because it means I can take specific steps of forgiveness while I am not feeling particularly forgiving. Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker, writes that forgiveness is essentially four promises: 1) Not to dwell on the incident; 2) Not to bring the incident up and use it against the offender; 3) Not to talk to others about the incident; and 4) Not to allow the incident to stand between or hinder the personal relationship with the offender.
The first promise is Not to dwell on the incident. My natural response to conflict is to brood over it, to replay it like an imaginary recording in my mind, to attribute evil motives to the other person, and to fantasize how I might get even. The problem is that I have never resolved any matter by brooding over it, nor do I feel better after doing so. And this is one of the many ironies of dwelling on an offense, namely that I am the one who is hurt. Some years ago an unknown author wrote, “Unforgiveness is the poison we drink hoping someone else will die.” Dwelling on a matter simply stirs up all of the negative feelings and I get trapped in a cycle of anger and unforgiveness.
A woman I know believes that forgiveness is a sign of weakness, and so she seldom forgives offenses. Sometimes in the middle of a normal conversation the mere mention of a person’s name or incident will set her off into an extended diatribe about how that person wronged her. No doubt she has suffered hurts in her life, but not apparently out of the normal. Her remarkable memory for names and places seems to be a burden at times when bad memories of seemingly insignificant events trigger a wave of bitter thoughts and words. Not surprisingly her attitude is poisonous and drives off people, including her own family.
The second promise is Not to bring the incident up and use it against the offender. This is the essence of “love keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Cor. 13:5) When we decide to forgive an offense we give up our right to use it against the perpetrator. A common misconception about forgiveness is that it means forgetting. This is not Scriptural, and it defies common sense. Our memories record what has happened in the past, our hearts choose how we are to deal with those memories in the future. I know people who carry past offenses around like so many arrows in a quiver, ready to be pulled and used at a moments notice. I am so grateful in my marriage that Pat does not recall the egregious acts that I have committed over the past 45 years. Indeed, if she did it would be a ponderous pack for her to bear.
The third promise is Not to talk to others about the incident. Of course, sometimes it is necessary to involve others in attempting to resolve a matter. In fact, Jesus gives us a procedure in Matthew 18 for confronting someone who has harmed us. The process starts one-on-one and slowly adds others to help in the resolution. But at some point the process ends and forgiveness is extended. This means no rehashing of the matter with others. The first promise of forgiveness is not rehearsing the matter with myself, the second promise is not repeating it to the offender, and the third is not replaying it for others. The idea here is to tamp down the memory, or in the words of Proverbs, “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.” (Proverbs 26:20)
The fourth promise is Not to allow the incident to stand between or hinder the personal relationship with the offender. This may be the hardest of the four promises because it depends upon so many factors. If there was no close relationship in the first instance, there is no Biblical call to create one now. In the case of serious betrayals, the other person may have no interest in rebuilding the relationship. Indeed, even Jesus and Paul recognized times when divorce is permitted. Other examples abound – the perpetrator has disappeared or is dead or is unknown. Nor is there any Biblical call to place oneself or others into an abusive situation. In all of these examples, and others, one can truly forgive even though the relationship cannot be restored. My goal is to have an attitude of forgiveness that releases the other person from chains of guilt and releases me from chains of perpetual anger and bitterness.
Honestly examining the underlying causes of our anger when we are aggrieved and choosing to make the four promises can go a long way in helping us forgive others. However, we Christians don’t have to forgive under our own strength. We have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth and to help us grow in the fruit of the Spirit. Some years ago I was struggling to forgive an acquaintance with whom I was having conflict. As I was praying to God about my frustrations, the Holy Spirit revealed how an unrelated incident fifty years earlier had set up a lie in my mind that was generating emotional turmoil in some of my then current relationships. The revelation was a cathartic moment in which I experienced supernatural healing. And as I look back, I now see it as a turning point in my spiritual journey that has helped me to more easily forgive others.
I end today with the timeless Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi – Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O heavenly Father, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.