Forgiveness is difficult. When we have been wounded our natural response is not usually to extend an abundance of grace and mercy. As Christians, however, we are called by Jesus to forgive and to keep on forgiving. But how do we do it? In this short article I want to outline 5 steps to forgiveness.
First, We must Prayerfully Reflect on the Shared Brokenness of our Humanity
The ethicist Lewis B. Smede calls this, ‘rediscovering the person’s humanity.’ When a person sins against us we tend to identify them solely with their sin. If they have lied, ‘they are a liar;’ if they have abused, ‘they are an abuser,’ and that easily becomes all that they are in our thinking.
While it may be true that the person is a liar or an abuser that is also not ALL they are. They are also an image bearer of God, loved by Him, and broken and flawed like you. Reflecting on the fact that the person is an image bearer of God, as well as considering one’s own sins and shortcomings, provides fertile soil in which forgiveness can blossom.
Second, We must Prayerfully Reflect on the Folly of Revenge and the Poison of Bitterness.
Revenge doesn’t heal our hearts. Revenge doesn’t lead to reconciliation. Revenge perpetuates a cycle of hurt and brokenness that can escalate over time.
And bitterness is the continual rehearsal in our hearts of the hurts that people and circumstances have given to us. Bitterness is the opposite of love. Love keeps no record of wrongs whereas bitterness keeps a detailed ledger. A person consumed by bitterness won’t be a loving person or, sadly, invite feelings of love and affection from other people. Rather, a bitter person will tolerate people and be tolerated by people.
The bitter person may have been an innocent victim of an unjust act, but in allowing themselves to become bitter they are making other innocent people the victim of their bitterness. Bitterness does not erase pain; it carries pain and spreads it to others.
Third, We must Prayerfully Reflect on the Gospel of Jesus Christ
Forgiveness is the anti-dote to bitterness and forgiveness is always a Gospel issue. The debt of our sin before a Holy God is great. We all deserve wrath and judgment. That would be fair and just. But God has chosen to show mercy to us on the cross. As one ancient writer says, ‘the debt of our sins was so great, that while we only owed it, only God could pay it.’ And God does! God pays the debt that our sins have accumulated at the cross. God refuses to keep a record of wrongs, He nails them to the cross and remembers them no more because He loves us!
As we have been forgiven at great personal cost to God, we are to forgive others at great personal cost to ourselves. We pay the debt they owe us by choosing to forgive. This act of forgiveness, however, will remain brutally difficult until what God has done for us in Christ looms larger in our hearts then what as been done to us by our perpetrator. This takes a miracle, so, Spirit of God, make Jesus’ atoning work real in our hearts.
Fourth, Recognize that Forgiveness is an Act of the Will.
Forgiveness is fraught with various fallacies that sound like this, ‘I will forgive when they say they are sorry.’ When translated, what we are really saying is, ‘I will heal when they mature and now my healing requires their permission. Rather than taking this approach, forgiveness is more like saying, ‘you hurt me without my permission but you only continue to hurt me with my permission. I refuse to give it any longer. I release you from my hostility and I release myself from carry it around any longer.'
Here is another fallacy: ‘I will forgive when I feel like it.’ The truth is we will never feel like forgiving. So we must make a choice to obey God, not our feelings in this matter. Forgiveness is an act of the will. But, though it is an act of our will, it is not an unassisted act; the Holy Spirit is willing to help us forgive.
Fifth, Recognize that Forgiveness is a Journey
Forgiveness is not always a one-time event. Sometimes we may find ourselves forgiving the same act multiple times until the wound eventually mends and no longer feels so raw. And we must also remember that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily erase the natural consequences of sin, which could be the loss of a relationship, nor does forgiveness always mean forgetting. As I once heard it said somewhere, ‘we can forgive without forgetting, but we will never forget without forgiving.’
In the end, when someone has wounded us there is no going back. The abuse, the harsh words, the loss of a loved one, cannot be undone. The past is permanent. There is no going back. But there is going forward, there is a future that is open to us where our choices haven’t been set in stone. While forgetting what has been done is not always an option, forgiving what has been done always is. And forgiveness is the way forward into hope, healing and a new day.
There is no Substitute for Forgiveness