The Hard Stuff of Forgiveness
Want to do hard things? Want to succeed at life’s toughest challenge? Learn to forgive.
Even the most talented people have limited impact until they learn the basics of forgiveness. But what does forgiveness mean, exactly? Is it merely saying “I forgive you”? Does it mean forgetting as well?
We can try to squeeze it into a simple definition by saying: forgiveness is the continuous state of a guilty person not receiving the punishment that justice or intuition demands he receives. But it is still complicated and cerebral and not very practical.
Then of course, life doesn’t have simple answers: there is no logical rationalization which we can unpack and forevermore know how to forgive.
If forgiveness is so complicated, how can it be understood? Just as scientists can observe light and say it “is such-and-such” or “affects this-and-that,” but cannot say exactly what it is made of; so can man see forgiveness and give an explanation, albeit a weak one, of its attributes.
Forgiveness is mercy. If someone says “You are an egghead!” forgiveness continues to love that person. It is not merely words: it is an attitude. The words “God bless you” or “I forgive you” mean nothing unless continuously lived out on a day-to-day basis. Forgiveness means not holding the actions against the actor.
When God says in Jeremiah 31:34 that He “will remember [our] sins no more,” He is not insinuating that he has a bad memory. God cannot merely “forget” sins.
Instead, He is demonstrating to the world that forgiveness involves the injured choosing to put out of his mind the actions of the injurer.
In other words, when someone says “I don’t hold it against you” then he really must not hold the other person accountable for their hurtful actions. This is the example set by God. “Disciples, pick up your cross; follow me; learn from me.”
Charles Spurgeon spoke well when he said “You forgive me, and I forgive you, and we forgive them, and they forgive us, and so a circle of unlimited forbearance and love goes around the world.”
Forgiveness, like glue, holds relationships together and binds families into single units, creating strong foundations for societies. Unlike glue, however, forgiveness is hard work. It takes persevering dedication (through time) for forgiveness to fully rule over one’s heart.
Going against the natural instincts of man, forgiveness says “pardon the sinner.”
But nature and justice demand that the sinner be judged and punished. Nature and justice are correct: sins must be punished—everyone’s sin must be punished.
For this reason, perfect Christ took upon Himself the sins of the whole world thereby obliterating the need for anyone else to be punished. All that is required for an individual to receive this exemption is for him or her to accept it.
Yet how could one accept such generous forgiveness but refuse to extend it to others?
Jesus said that 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” (Matthew 6:14-15).
If a man wants to receive forgiveness, he must give it, as well.
“Forgiveness is not an elective in the curriculum of servant-hood. It is a required course, and the exams are always tough to pass” says Charles Swindoll.
In other words, if someone desires to have a flourishing life, forgiveness is not an option: it is a hard mandate.
Also, we must not wait to forgive: we must act immediately and completely. To not forgive is like tying a person to your leg and forever dragging him around. Not only do you wear out, but you repulse your friends, as well.
Not forgiving destroys. When you do not forgive, your heart becomes like the liver of an alcoholic — hard and deformed. Learn to forgive. “Father, forgive him. He doesn’t know what he did.” This may need to be said 490 times a day. But it needs to be said.
How do we forgive?
By allowing others to “nail us to the cross,” even if we do not deserve it, and begging the Father to forgive the pain-givers because they do not realize the (full extent of) pain they have caused.
True forgiveness gives someone the opportunity to slap you twice, if he has slapped you once already (Matthew 5:39).
Forgiveness is raw love falling like a slow rain, lightly washing the heart clean of bitterness and grudges allowing the forgiver to once again love the pain-giver.
Yes, true forgiveness results in, not just “moving on,” but actually loving the pain-giver, releasing him from any physical, mental, or spiritual punishment which the injured deems the injurer deserves (for a definition of love, check out 1 Corinthians 13).
Forgiveness is very personal and intimate.
Everyone has been hurt — and has hurt others. Even the loveliest of women and the most honorable men need to be forgiven at times.
For Christians, extending forgiveness ought to be a daily habit, but unfortunately it too often is not because it is uncomfortable and painful.
But then again, being nailed to a cross is always uncomfortable and painful.
Really, the best explanation of forgiveness is wrapped up in one word: love.
Jesus said that when a man dies for his friends, he demonstrates the greatest of loves (John 15:12-13).
Jesus was not necessarily saying that the greatest love is heroically dying for the innocent (although love does that, too), rather he was saying that the greatest love is willingly laying down your life (your rights, hopes, passions, and such things, or your physical body) for someone who has caused you pain; because that is exactly what He did for us.
“Husbands,” he said, “love your wives as I have loved the church by dying for it.”
Why did he die for us? Because we have done wrong. He was showing forgiveness.
Jesus is saying that in marriage sometimes you have to forgive your spouse because they have hurt you.
He is saying “Pay the consequences, accept the pain, and bring it to me, not to them.” This applies to family, to fellow Christians, to coworkers, to nonbelievers — to all relationships.
No, forgiveness is not very practical; it is not very easy; and it is not very fun. But it is good, it is Godly, and it is necessary. It brings joy, and enables loving relationships. May we all do hard stuff. May we all learn to forgive.
I can’t say that I’m a master at this — and don’t expect I ever will be.
Forgiveness is a continual exercise. Even since originally writing this article I have felt intense pain, both from recent and long past experiences, and needed to struggle through forgiveness, again.
It’s as if God is saying “Are you for real?” This is a daily process of feeling pain, embracing it and letting go; letting people crucify, letting the wound bleed, and taking it to Jesus.
We will never move beyond needing to forgive.
What freaks me out the most, though, is not that I’ll always need to forgive others — but that people will always need to forgive me, and I won’t always realize it. I may never know how I’ve hurt people.
This is why we must keep our hearts and “eyes” open and sensitive to how other people react to us and may be feeling as a result of our actions.
As is often said, “hurting people hurt people” — and we’re all hurting.
We cannot stuff or dismiss our pain.
An over-stuffed pillow will inevitably pop. Running water forgotten will overflow the tub.
We can’t ignore the pain or it will build up inside our hearts and impede our growth. We can’t wallow in our pain and “feel sorry for ourselves,” but neither can we ignore it.
Let it hurt. In order for wounds to heal they must bleed properly. Let the blood seep out of the wounds in the heart and let them heal.
If we feel angry, that’s normal. If we weep, that’s okay. Emotions like these reveal that we can at least “feel.”
But while we are feeling the pain — when it hurts so much we just want to die, we must cry out to Jesus. He always hears our prayers; he knows our pain (Isaiah 53:3-4; Hebrews 4:14-16). Although we may not “feel” his love, we must remember that He never leaves or forsakes us. His love is everlasting — forever — never not there.
Forgiveness does not dismiss the wrongness of abuse.
Abuse is always wrong and sometimes actions must be taken to protect others.
But there are still consequences. Forgiveness is painful and messy, but it is very important. Although the abuser may be locked up in jail serving his (deserved) consequences, the abused will be locked up internally if he does not forgive.
Pain can feel devastating and hopeless. But remember that for every ounce of pain you feel — whether just or unjust — God always has a plan. Always, always, always. It’s a wonderfully extraordinary plan, that when fully revealed (probably in eternity) will leave you astonished and in awe of Almighty God, your passionate Lover.
May God bless us all and give us strength as we follow Him in forgiveness.