“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
Few things are more like Jesus than a willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. We don’t forgive because we don’t believe they deserve it and often that is right. We don’t forgive because we are bitter at some offense and don’t want to give up our right to that bitterness. We don’t forgive because it is, frankly, unnatural to us to do so. Why would I forgive someone who has hurt and harmed me? Or someone close to me?
And so we often allow offenses to fester for years, sometimes decades. In some cases the one who hurt us has gone to the grave and we still carry that offense and still deal with anger and bitterness. The dilemma we have with the act of forgiveness is that we often don’t want to do it but we know God commands us to do it. It can be one of the hardest acts of obedience that we ever have to take depending on the offense.
There are some myths that surround the issue of forgiveness which also get in our way. The first myth is that someone must ask for forgiveness before we grant it. If only life was that simple. One of the most difficult things about forgiveness is that those who have hurt us rarely apologize to us, ask forgiveness or acknowledge the depth of their hurt to our hearts, souls or bodies. In fact, we don’t forgive primarily for the individual who wronged us but for our own sake. When we refuse to forgive, we allow ourselves to be incarcerated in a cell of bitterness even while we have the key to unlock the cell door - forgiveness - but we choose our dingy cell to the joy of sunlight, freedom, and peace. The one who wounded you may well not deserve your forgiveness, but you deserve to forgive them so that you don’t live life in the prison of bitterness.
Myth two: Forgiving means forgetting. Our memories don’t work that way. We don’t forget moments or periods of intense pain. They are indelibly locked in our brain. The pain we feel when we remember those events may start to fade with time, and the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. but we will not forget. The goal of forgiveness is not to forget. Rather, it is to be free of the bitterness and hate that we feel for those who wronged us. The more freedom we experience, the more healing we can experience. As we heal the memories don’t go away but the pain associated with them starts to recede.
Myth three: Forgiveness relieves us of the pain of the wounds inflicted on us. Not so. The pain only recedes with the passage of time and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As we heal, the pain may become less painful and there may come a day when there is no pain left. But that only happens when we choose to forgive and give up our bitterness.
Myth four: It is easy for a Christian to forgive. Not so. Forgiving others is one of the most difficult things we will ever do, and the greater the wound the harder it is to forgive. This was the topic of one of Jesus’s parables: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. As Jesus was dialoguing about this parable, He had this conversation with Peter: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” - Matthew 18:21-23
Why would Jesus say this? He said it because of how hard it is to forgive. In many instances, forgiveness is a process of forgiving, and forgiving, and forgiving until finally we don’t need to forgive any longer. It is a hard discipline that must be exercised time and again until the pain has receded and the bitterness is gone. It may be the hardest thing you will ever do. The command to forgive is one of the hard sayings of Jesus because it goes against everything inside us.
Is this not why holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom forgave those who committed the most heinous crimes against her? Her father and her sister Betsie died at the hands of the Nazi's and she endured the infamous Ravensbruck prison camp. Years later she recounts the day she forgave her SS guard.
“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pained, blanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message Fräulein”, he said “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your Forgiveness. As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
Ultimately we forgive because He commands it and Paul reminds us to forgive as God in Christ forgave us. And it is in that hard act of obedience and a lessening of our pride and will that we start to find obedience, healing, and in many cases, relational healing as well. Is there someone that you need to forgive today and will you do that in this lenten journey?
Father, help me though your Spirit take the step of forgiveness that I need to take and in so doing lesson my bitterness and allow me to start healing. This is a hard step but one that you command me to take. So I will do it. Amen.
The question for today: Is there someone that I need to forgive?