I’m not sure why I’m writing about forgiveness today; I’m certainly no expert in this area, and it’s a pretty common theme among Christian writers. There are others much more qualified! And yet… I’m compelled to write about it. It’s a common theme because it’s one of the most common difficulties that we all face: how to forgive.
I think it comes to mind today because I ran across a passage in 2 Corinthians chapter two where Paul talks about obedience, forgiveness, and being outwitted by Satan. (See verses 5-11.) I don’t think it’s an accident that these three are closely intertwined. We are called to forgive, we know that, and yet, we don’t. This is blatant disobedience. Or perhaps, we think we have forgiven, but in reality, we haven’t. We’re still waiting to feel like it. In either case, to be disobedient and to be unforgiving is choosing to allow Satan to outwit you! Satan somehow makes us all feel like forgiving that other person is letting them get away with something, and we don’t think that’s fair. So, we withhold our forgiveness….the bitterness then begins to creep in and consume us….and we continue to suffer. Yeah, good one, Satan.
As I said, I’m no expert in this area. In fact, I’m really just beginning to understand it. I guess it kind of feels like a fresh revelation… I had a situation in my life not all that long ago where I felt that I had been misunderstood and mistreated by someone else. It was one of those times where it was a repeated offense, happening multiple times. It took me a while to realize that every evening as I was preparing for bed, I would mentally replay aspects of the situation. A slow burn would come into my chest and I would imagine what I would say to this individual. I would kind of be staring off into space, lost in my imagination, and would have to shake myself to get out of it. This went on for a very long time – I don’t even know how long – and I hated it. I would alternately feel angry at the person (all over again) and then angry at myself for letting it still bother me! Then, of course, that niggling feeling that true forgiveness was what was needed and what was missing, would come into the back of my mind somewhere.
One of the things I despise most is to be misunderstood. Generally, I take great pains to communicate in such a way that there can really be little doubt about what I mean or who I am as a person. So this particular situation was really striking at my core. But, you know what? I did forgive. And wow – it was a truly revelatory experience. I will say it was more like a process rather than a momentary action, but it made me feel like I “leveled up” in my walk with God once I did it!
I often hear forgiveness treated in a philosophical way and rarely a practical one. The call to forgiveness is constantly ringing from pulpits and from Christian writers, but the path to actually doing it can seem elusive. On the chance that it might help you, here’s what the practical process felt like to me…
- I started asking God to help me to forgive when those thoughts about the misdeeds would creep into my mind. I would pray for the person. It is noteworthy that I did not feel like forgiving at either of these points; it really did just feel like I was saying words that almost tasted bad on my tongue. But my desire to forgive was real, my desire to obey God’s call was real, so I just started there, even though I was still angry.
- I started trying to see the situation from a different perspective. Again, this was something I did with little or no empathy; it was more like a science experiment. I tried to look at it from the other person’s angle, and while I still felt like they were wrong, I realized that seeing that there was another side did take some of the sting from it. Again, I can’t help but note that I believe my prayers were making a way for me to do this. No, I don’t feel like I had totally forgiven at this stage, but things were turning as I continued to ask the Lord to help me get to the point of forgiveness.
- Some understanding started to dawn with regard to the other person. The understanding was that we are all imperfect in our pursuit of spiritual growth, and this person was going through a growth period.
- My own sinfulness also began to come to light. I began to understand that my own pride and self-importance were what had made this particular pill hard to swallow. How dare someone mistreat me?? When this thought finally penetrated my heart, I believe this was a true turning point. My mind went to the mistreatment of Jesus, and all those who have gone before me. What I was calling “mistreatment” was not worthy of comparing to the true persecution of fellow believers. I started to feel ashamed that I had let something that truly was small bother me to the point that it had.
- Now my feelings were changing. My attitude become one of repentance for my own pride, and I began saying out loud, “I forgive for the way they acted.” And I continued to pray for them, now with more fervency. I began to really see my calling as “servant of all,” (see Mark 9:35).
- It happened. I forgave, and I could feel the difference in my heart. It was like setting down a very heavy, bulky suitcase that I had been trying to carry for a long time. Whew! Relief.
- When old thoughts threaten, I change my internal narrative. The feelings really are different toward this person. I can even think about the past hurts without the rancor from before, though, using wisdom, I do not dwell there long.
We so often want things tied up in a package with a nice, tidy bow, but frequently in life, this doesn’t happen. That’s when a powerful act of will coupled with prayer gives the needed resolution. I’m left feeling so much like the forgiveness that I imparted was really simply a decision I made before I felt like it. And – through prayer – after the decision was made, I finally did feel like it! I do believe that in matters like this, the feeling of desiring to forgive someone will not come first. Your desire to be obedient and to be free of the thing are perhaps the initiation of the process.
God knows we are weak, yet He has compassion on us. As is always the case, when we obey His word, we are never disappointed with the outcome. Bold claim? Yes, but true. God desires us to dwell in abiding peace and joy, despite our circumstances, and the only way this is achieved is through our continual obedience to Him. The forgiveness we give really is a gift we give ourselves.
So…..let it go. And then soar the heights with your newfound freedom!