(Adapted from Wounds That Heal by Stephen Seamands, Chapter 8)
Throughout His ministry, Jesus consistently stressed that as God has forgiven us, we in turn ought to forgive others. In the Lord’s Prayer, he taught us to say: Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:12).
On another occasion, He commanded His disciples, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone” (Mark 11:25). When Peter inquired how many times He was obligated to forgive, Jesus insisted, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). He then told a story about an unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-34). Although his master had forgiven his immense debt, the servant refused to forgive a minor amount owed to him by a fellow servant. When the master found out what the servant had done, he had the servant thrown in jail. Jesus warned His disciples, “So, my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
Jesus not only consistently preached radically extending forgiveness to others, He also practiced it. And He practiced it when it was incomprehensibly difficult – as He was hanging on a cross. The victim of gross injustice, His body wracked with pain, the vicious taunts of His enemies ringing in His ears, He gathered His strength and cried out, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,”
The Christian imperative to forgive those who have inflicted pain on us is a call to imitate Jesus. However, we are not called to imitate Christ in our own strength. We discover that as we will to forgive, He imparts His strength to us.
The Process of Forgiveness
I cannot overemphasize the importance of forgiveness in the healing of human hurts. Forgiveness unlocks the door to healing, restoration, freedom and renewal. Until we open that door, we will remain stuck in the past, destined to carry the hurt and burden forever without hope of a restored heart or a renewed future. There is no greater blockage to a person’s receiving healing from God than that person’s refusal to forgive others. We will never find healing for our hurts until, like Jesus, we say, “Father, forgive them.”
What then does true forgiveness – Jesus called it forgiving “from the heart (Matthew 18:35) – involve?
1. Facing the facts. Forgiveness begins when we are ruthlessly honest about what was done to us. We don’t cover up what happened, explain it away, blame ourselves or make excuses for the other person. Squarely and realistically, we face the truth: “I was violated and sinned against. I was hurt. What they did was wrong.” Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and, nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the person who has done it. In facing the facts, it is important to be specific. General acknowledgments of wrong followed by sweeping generalizations of forgiveness won’t do. For many, the first step in forgiving will involve getting out of denial. Truth can be hard to bear, and at times, we will go to great lengths to avoid it. Forgiveness begins by acknowledging the nails in our hearts hammered in by the actions of others and looking at them intently.
2. Feeling the hurt. Forgiveness begins with facing the facts but then goes further. More than “just the facts,” we must connect with the feelings bound up with the facts – feelings like rejection, loneliness, fear, anger, shame and depression that still reverberate in us today. For many of us, the emotions of past hurts are so painful and threatening we have simply disconnected from them. And so we have to persistently ask, “What was I feeling when that happened to me?” Answering that question can be extremely difficult. No one wants to reexperience such unpleasant feelings. Better then to deny them, it seems, or sweep them under the rug. But we can’t reach the threshold of forgiveness until we recover, at least in some measure, the feelings bound up with the painful facts.
3. Confronting our hate. Forgiving involves letting go of hatred or resentment toward the persons who have wounded us. But again, before we can let go of something, we have to acknowledge it’s there. We must admit we resent those who wronged us, for a part of us hates them for what they did. Forgiveness is not blaming ourselves for what happened. We may not be completely innocent, but what our victimizers did was unjustifiable. They are to blame for our pain, and there is a part of us that hates them for it. Forgiveness requires the courage to confront our hatred.
4. Bearing the pain. When others have wronged us, there is a demanding voice within us that cries out, “What they did isn’t right. They ought to pay for what they’ve done.” This is a God-given voice. The desire to see justice in our own – and all – relationships has been planted in our hearts by God. So, when we forgive, do we ignore the divinely implanted desire for justice and set it aside? No. The sin, the injustice, must be taken seriously. But instead of achieving justice by insisting the guilty party pay for the wrong, we choose to pay ourselves. Though innocent, we choose to bear the pain of the injustice. In forgiveness, as the Scripture says, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). It triumphs, however, not by ignoring judgment, but by bearing it. Whenever we forgive, we bear pain. That’s why forgiveness is always costly.
The ultimate example of the costliness of forgiveness is the cross of Christ. The Scripture says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (I Peter 2:24). He took on Himself the guilt, punishment and shame of our sins. We deserved to suffer for them but instead, God in Christ carried them in His own being. God did not overlook our sins or pretend they didn’t matter but bore the pain and the judgment Himself. Christ, the Judge, allowed Himself to be judged in our place. To a much lesser degree, whenever we forgive others, we do the same thing: we take the punishment they deserve, absorbing it ourselves. We bear the pain.
5. Releasing those who have wronged us. Although forgiveness does not set aside the demands of justice, it still seems to run cross-grain to our natural sense of fair play. In part, our anger and resentment is our way of regaining control of an unfair situation and getting back at the persons who have wronged us. It’s our attempt to even the score. But forgiving means releasing our offenders and turning them over to God. It’s saying, “I know what they’ve done and I feel the pain of it, but I choose not to be the one who determines what is justice for them.” When we forgive we relinquish the roles of judge, jury and executioner and turn them over to God. When we forgive, we relinquish control of the persons who have wronged us. We quit playing God in their lives. No longer will we determine what is just for them or make sure they get what they deserve. Thus, forgiveness is an act of faith. We turn the ones who have wronged us over to God. We entrust them to God, saying, “Vengeance is not mine, but Thine alone.” And like all faith acts, forgiveness contains an element of risk. What if God doesn’t get even with those who have wronged us? What if God chooses to extend mercy to them?
By giving the people who have wronged us over to God, we also give ourselves to God. Parts of ourselves we have been holding are now entrusted to Him. No wonder there is such healing power in forgiveness. When we release others and ourselves to God, we give up control, and then His Presence and Power are released to us. Bearing the pain and releasing those who have wronged us constitute the heart of forgiveness. But I want to emphasize that forgiveness doesn’t ignore or set aside the demands of justice. One might conclude that when we forgive, we refrain from any effort to hold those who have wronged us accountable for their behavior, leaving that totally up to God and to others. However, that simply is not true. Forgiveness doesn’t mean tolerating injustice. “Unfruitful works of darkness” should be exposed (Ephesians 5:11). Actions have consequences that evildoers must be forced to accept. When crimes have been committed, offenders should be turned over to the judicial system.
Bearing the pain and releasing those who have wronged us have to do with our attitudes toward those who have wronged us; seeking justice has to do with our actions toward them. These attitudes and actions are not opposed to each other. In fact, practicing forgiveness and promoting justice go hand in hand. Having made a decision to forgive, our concern in promoting justice is not to avenge ourselves or destroy our offenders but to protect ourselves and others in the community from future injury at the offender’s hands. Furthermore, by insisting that offenders be held accountable for their actions, we are actually extending grace to them by offering them an opportunity to face the truth about themselves, admit their wrongdoing and turn from their wicked ways.
6. Assuming responsibility for ourselves. As long as we blame others for our problems, we don’t have to take responsibility for ourselves; they’re on the hook. By releasing them, however, we let them off the hook. Now, we’re on the hook. We must take responsibility and can no longer make excuses for ourselves. Often people hesitate when challenged to forgive because instinctively they know that if they do, they will have no one to blame for their predicament. Unfortunately, we live in a culture of victimization that encourages us to play the blame game. For many of us, portraying oneself as a victim has become an attractive pastime. Forgiveness strikes a blow at the root of one’s victim status. We may have been a victim, but we’re not stuck there. By taking responsibility for ourselves, we declare that what happened doesn’t define who we are. We have an identity apart from our pain. That can be risky and frightening, of course. We may have grown to depend on our excuses and become comfortable with our victim identity. Losing an enemy whom we can resent and blame may disturb us more than losing a friend. We may be meeting needs by our holding on to our pain and resentment.
Yet how liberating it is when, by forgiving, we do accept responsibility for ourselves. The persons who have hurt us no longer exercise control over our lives. When we forgive we not only release them, we also release ourselves from them and set ourselves free to determine our destiny apart from our wounds.
7. Longing for reconciliation. The ultimate goal and purpose of forgiveness is reconciliation, or the restoration and renewal of broken relationships. Thus, forgiveness is not only about letting go of bitterness and revoking revenge. It is about the coming together of persons who have been alienated from each other. From a Christian perspective, forgiving simply so I can get my hurts healed and get on with my life doesn’t go far enough.
Of course, the nature and extent of reconciliation depend on a number of factors, the most important of which is the offender’s willingness to be reconciled with us and to take the costly action necessary for its accomplishment. In many instances we won’t be able to achieve the measure of reconciliation we desire. What do we do, for instance, when the offender refuses to be reconciled with us or persists in offensive behavior? On occasion we will have to settle for less than the best. Still, forgiveness ought to put within us a longing for reconciliation. At first we may grudgingly say, “I’ll forgive them, but I don’t want to have anything to do with them ever again.” And that may be a sufficient place to start. But as forgiveness does its work, it will change our attitude. We will begin to see our offenders through eyes of compassion. One day we will even find ourselves wishing good for them. Our longing for a reconciled relationship may so intensify that we grieve when it fails to work out.
The process of forgiving someone who has wronged us brings us once again to the Cross of Christ. As we stand at the cross, we must remember that initially forgiveness is more about a decision than an emotion. First and foremost, it is a matter of the will. We come to a place where we choose to forgive. We might be struggling with negative feelings toward those who have hurt us, and we may continue to do so for a considerable time. What is most important at first is our willingness. In forgiving, we send our will ahead by express; our emotions generally come later by slow freight.
But what if we are unwilling to forgive? The hurt is so great, the anger and resentment so intense that nothing within us wants to let go of it. Then we should pray, “Lord, make me willing to be made willing.” As a Puritan preacher once advised, “If you can’t come to God with a broken heart, come to God for one.” So if you can’t come to the cross with a willing heart to forgive, come there for one.
On the cross, if Jesus bore both the wrongs done to Him and the wrongs done to us, then when He cried, “Father, forgive them,” could it be he was offering forgiveness not only to those who had wronged Him but also to those who have wronged us? If that is true, then in effect, Jesus has already extended forgiveness to the persons for what they did to us. So if we can’t will to forgive them, we can pray, “Jesus, You live in me. Therefore speak the words in me and through me. Help me to join you in saying, ‘Father, forgive them.’ Even though I can’t speak them myself, I can at least allow You to speak them in me.”
We obtain grace in His Presence to release resentment and revenge. As we wait at the cross, Jesus will speak the forgiving words in us. The healing of our hurts and the transformation of our feelings toward those who have wounded us can then really begin. But often this part of the forgiveness process happens slowly – layer by layer. Sometimes after making the decision to forgive, our negative feelings toward the person actually intensify. Repressed emotions surface. Anger may burn more hotly than ever. Or we find ourselves overwhelmed with sadness. Choosing to forgive may cause the pain to intensify. Now that the lid is off, we begin remembering hurtful incidents. Agonizing pictures flood our minds. Old wounds open up all over again. We seem to be going backward, getting worse rather than better.
At this point, we may be tempted to think, I haven’t really forgiven so-and-so. If I had, I wouldn’t be experiencing such intense pain and resentment. The truth is, forgiveness is both a crisis (a definite decision) and a process (releasing hurt and resentment and receiving healing at ever-deepening levels). We have made the decision to forgive, but we are still engaged in the process where many emotional twists and turns lurk along the way. So we don’t need to start over. We simply need to reaffirm our will to forgive, asking the Lord to deepen it. We must also continue to offer our hurtful and hateful feelings to God, praying, “Lord, heal the hurt and cleanse the hate.” As we do, we discover that God, who has begun this good work in us, is faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6). But the healing and cleansing of our hearts is not a one-shot deal. In the crisis of a moment we can will to forgive, but working through our hurt and bitterness happens slowly. We may even find Jesus’ charge to forgive “not seven times, but, �. seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22) applying to the same offense. At the cross, however, grace awaits to see it through, to finish the good work of forgiveness begun in us.
Do you need grace to begin the process of forgiving someone who has wronged and wounded you? Do you need grace to continue as you struggle with feelings of hurt and bitterness? Come to the Cross. It is the Place to remember how we have been forgiven. It is the Place to forgive. Listen to Jesus as He says, “Father, forgive them.” He not only is asking the Father for forgiveness for those who have wronged and hurt us, but He is also asking for forgiveness for you and me.