Once again I find myself studying the topic of forgiveness because I keep stumbling, or maybe it's more accurate to say that I fall flat on my face occasionally. I get to the point where I think I am doing okay and have dealt with the bitterness that comes along with experiencing deep betrayal and cataclysmic damage as a result of other people's choices (as well as a few of my own), but then it hovers over me again like a black cloud that I can't see through.
Unfortunately, struggling with forgiveness isn't easy to admit, especially to others in the church since this is one area that seems to carry a lot of shame and guilt along with the emotional, physical and spiritual side-effects that it naturally brings. I have seen and heard some "Pollyanna" statements made that seem to say that forgiveness should be easy for someone who has accepted the forgiveness Christ gives to us. If we are all honest though, it takes a lot of resolve and spiritual maturity to forgive truly deep hurt. It just isn't easy and sometimes it doesn't seem fair.
Difficult as it may be, however, Jesus seems to take a serious stand on the matter. In Matthew 6:14-15 He says "For 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." That seems pretty cut and dried and I since my desire is to follow Jesus and become like Him, I don't get a bye on this one. Since forgiveness really doesn't make a lot of sense to us with our human tendencies, it's hard to it figure out. I have discovered that I didn't really understand the intricacies and needed to take a better look.
First of all, I needed to grasp what forgiveness really is. I have read and heard a lot of explanations, but the best so far has been from James McDonald. He explained that when sin has occurred and an offense has been committed, a debt is owed by the offender to the one sinned against. As we all know however, when someone has deeply wounded you, no amount of payment through apology, justice or kindness can really make it all better. The scars from it are permanent.
This owed debt is best demonstrated by God Himself demanding payment for sin committed against Him through sacrifice; first through ceremonial offerings of sacrifice and finally by the offering of His own Son. Jesus was the final payment for this debt that we owed for our sin and God felt that it was enough to clear the books. All we have to do is accept this payment and we are good to go. Since Jesus was willing to absorb our debt, He asks us to do the same for others. Since our goal in life is to become more like Him, we need to be willing to do what He asks.
Understanding this has changed everything for me. I really struggled with the "fairness" involved with forgiving someone and thought that it meant that it let them off the hook. I would obediently forgive since I knew I was supposed to, but it was really "obedience with an attitude". I didn't really understand the honor involved following Christ's lead. I also now understand that forgiveness stops the hunger for justice to be served when it really never will be since the damage has been done. Forgiveness releases the energy spent on always stewing about what the person has done to be used in more effective ways. It actually lets me off the hook.
Second, I needed to understand what forgiveness is not.
- Forgiveness is not...Denying that there was wrongdoing. Pretending that the offense didn't cause any pain or hurt just creates a wound that can later get infected and cause a lot of problems. Forgiveness actually acknowledges the wrongdoing and deals with it.
- Forgiveness is not...A way to enable sin. Forgiveness does not include ignoring ongoing problems. Sometimes forgiveness even needs to include confrontation and an understanding of accountability.
- Forgiveness is not...Approving or diminishing sin. Sin is sin and anything that has been done that creates this debt of offense among people was first done to God. The debt is owed to Him first but because of Christ, repentance and acceptance of this forgiveness is all we need to do. But since the death of God's own Son was required for this to be possible, that means that God takes this sin very seriously.
- Forgiveness is not...Dependent on an apology. Unfortunately, most offenses come with no apology. Sometimes the person isn't aware that they have hurt you, doesn't care if they hurt you, lets pride get in their way, or has long sense passed away. If you are waiting to forgive when you get that apology, it may never happen.
- Forgiveness is not...Forgetting what has happened. Even after forgiveness, the hurt remains and you will never really forget it. If God is all-knowing then He remembers all of our sin forever. It has to be part of His character. So when He says that He will remember our sins no more (Hebrews 8:12) it must mean that He will not bring them up to us over and over again like we tend to do with people we are bitter towards. We don't need to replay it in our minds, but we will never forget.
- Forgiveness is not...A one time event. Sometimes, things will remind us of the offense and anger and bitterness swoops in and engulfs us all over again. That's what happens to me. It can be a song or a date or really anything that sparks the memory. That's when self control needs to kick in and we need to make the decision to absorb that offense again. It can be exhausting!
- Forgiveness is not...Neglecting Justice. Sometimes consequences still need to occur. Testimony needs to be given and discipline needs to occur.
- Forgiveness is not...Automatically trusting again. Trust is lost very quickly but is built slowly. Forgiveness can be a beginning for this to occur, but it will take time and proof.
- Forgiveness is not...Always a pathway to reconciliation. Because you forgive someone, it doesn't mean they have to be a part of your life. Forgiveness involves one person but reconciliation takes two people working together to rebuild a relationship. Sometimes those relationships simply don't need to exist.
- Forgiveness is not...An elimination of the pain. This is the one that led me to study this topic. I was under the assumption that once you forgave someone and the hurt remained, it meant the forgiveness wasn't real. Unfortunately it isn't a magic pill that takes the hurt away like I would like. I am finally learning that part of the healing process includes walking through the pain, recognizing it, grieving the effects and loss created by it, and then choosing to be and more effective then you were before in spite of it. But that is for my next post..........