“Forgive and forget,” some say. “Just let it go to God and move on,” urge others.
Often it’s not that easy. Maybe you grew up in a family in which it wasn’t okay to express anger. Or the pain and violation seem too great. Or you’re not sure how to forgive. Read on and you’ll see that you can forgive and set your soul free! (And when you do forgiven it will make your life much easier. It’s true, Jesus’ yoke is easy!, Matthew 11:28.)
They Needed to Forgive
JoAnne’s (names and identifying information are changed in this and other cases) father was an alcoholic who had been verbally abusive of her throughout her childhood. Now she had children of her own ad she was wary of being around her dad. She was told that she need to forgive him and to “put it behind her” for the sake of her kids. She had been trying to do this for years, but the bad names he called her, the anger on his face, the way he acted when he had been drinking it still bothered her.
Similarly, Mike’s wife had an affair with her old boyfriend. Then she ended their marriage and took their three kids with her. Mike was stunned. Then he was enraged. He lost his family, his home, his dreams, his life as he knew it. He knew the Bible said he needed to forgive her, but he felt he couldn’t do it.
Over the years many people like JoAnne and Mike dealing with forgiveness issues have sought my help. Even if you weren’t abused as a child or betrayed by a spouse you’ve surely been wounded. How have you dealt with that? How do you respond when:
- A friend shuns you in your time of need
- A co-worker criticizes you unjustly around the office
- A neighbor keeps having loud parties late into the night after you’ve asked him kindly to be quieter
- Your adult child repeatedly is too busy when you call
- Your spouse continues to speak harshly to you in spite of your requests to be respected
When my kids were little I had an issue with a neighbor who kept driving recklessly. My kids would often play in the street and it scared me for him to drive so aggressively. Furthermore, he kept parking in front of my garbage cans so that the garbage wasn’t being hauled away. I started to build a resentment till I prayed about it and talked with the neighbor.
Maybe you too hve some forgiveness issues. How do we deal with these issues? How do people like JoAnne and Mike forgive those who have wronged them?
What Forgiveness is Not
There are so many misconceptions about forgiveness. I find that many people don’t understand what it means to forgive someone.
Forgiveness is not Excusing
Abuse, child neglect (physical or emotional), manipulation, betrayal, slander, rage, and the like are sins. When you’ve been violated like this it isn’t excusable. We may say, “He did the best he could.” “She didn’t know any better.” “She was just having a bad day.” Or “He was just reacting to his own hurt.” But these are excuses that don’t change the reality of an injustice. The only real solution is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not Forgetting
The old adage, “Forgive and forget” sounds nice, but it’s misleading. Forgiveness and forgetfulness are not related. In many cases, forgetting a hurt or injustice is harmful. For instance, if a friend has a habit of gossiping about you then you’re best to remember that and be careful what you share. By remembering when you’ve been violated you can guard against additional injuries or mistakes. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” (Proverbs 26:11) Remembering helps us not to repeat pain.
Forgiveness is not Overlooking
There is a time to overlook an offense. If a stranger cuts you off on the freeway or your spouse is having a hard day and makes a comment that’s a bit snippy then it’s best not to worry about it. “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.” (Proverbs 19:11) On the other hand, it wouldn’t be healthy for JoAnne to overlook the years of rage and abuse she experienced from her father. She needs to heal and to protect herself from further abuse. She needs to forgive.
Forgiveness May Take Time
Hurts like JoAnne being abused by her alcoholic father and Mike being betrayed by his wife take time to forgive. It’s not just a matter of making a decision and saying a quick prayer, though it begins that way and God honors your intention. Forgiveness of deep wounds and old resentments is a process and you’ll need God’s help with it (Matthew 18:20-22).
Forgiveness may not include Reconciliation
Some people think that forgiving someone means you must reconcile your relationship with that person. Whenever you’ve been violated you need to forgive to be set free of toxic resentments and to regain your capacity for love. But you only reconcile with someone when it’s safe and wise to do so. For a battered wife, reconciling before her husband has gotten help means being abused again—that wouldn’t be right. First, she needs to get help for herself to heal and to set some boundaries with him. Then she needs to observe over time that he’s really changed. Only then is it good for her to reconcile. (Matthew 18:15-17 outlines the reconciliation process.)
Forgiveness is not Deserved
No one “deserves” to be forgiven. Forgiveness isn’t something that we can earn. An injustice has been done and God and the person wronged can choose to give the gift of forgiveness or not. Of course, God always chooses to give this gift to us because He loves us and because we’re valuable! (If only all of us always would choose to ask for God’s forgiveness!) And when we pass on God’s gift or mercy to others then it helps us to appreciate God’s forgiveness for our own sins. Remember Jesus said, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14).
Why forgive? Why let go of your anger and let a perpetrator off the hook? “He doesn’t deserve it!” JoAnne protested to me. “I don’t want to forgive my father for his abusive behavior towards me. He knew he needed to stop drinking and he didn’t. His anger crushed me as a girl and it still hurts me! He has to pay a price!”
The cause of victims cries out for justice. Instinctively we want perpetrators of abuse to pay a price. It’s natural to be angry when you’ve been violated and for many it’s tempting to seek revenge. And yet “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38). Refuse to forgive and you will pay a heavy price, perhaps more than the one who violated you.
JoAnne had to discover the tragic irony of withholding forgiveness: it was hurting her! Whether in the form of repressed anger or seeking to hurt back, resentment or revenge, the pain is kept alive and worsened by not forgiving. And accompanying the pain are guilt, negativity, anxiety, conflicts in relationships, stress-induced illness, and even disease. Worst of all, if you don’t forgive then you block yourself off from appreciating God’s forgiveness for yourself! (Matthew 6:15). Is your anger and desire for justice worth that? Is the person who violated you worth that price? Of course not!
So, if nothing else, we want to forgive to experience the peace and healing and freedom that come when we do. Also, we want to forgive to honor God and to bless others. When we forgive we are like God. Jesus taught us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45). (Loving your enemies does not mean being a doormat, living in a posture of shame and fearfulness, vulnerable to abusive people. The capacity to love your enemies comes from a place of strength. Read “Jesus Jujitsu” to learn more about this.)
How to Forgive
Forgiveness is a process. There are feelings to work through. Attitudes to adjust. Prayers to pray. New, capacities for love to develop.
I find it helpful to think of forgiveness of deep wounds as a healing, character-building journey. It’s a process in which at times you’re likely to take two steps forward and one step backward as you proceed toward resolution. Here are the steps that I teach people like JoAnne and Mike.
Look to God
God is the author of forgiveness. It’s His mercy and grace and strength through Jesus Christ that you need. And you can start to participate in his gift when you decide with God’s help to “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).
Go with the Process
Forgiveness is a like a merry-go-round. Hop on at any point and the music will play and you’ll get a full ride. Being forgiven by God, forgiving others, forgiving yourself, and being forgiven by another person are the four horses on the “forgiveness-go-around.”
Whichever horse we get on first, we’ll quickly realize that we won’t make real progress until we appreciate that we’re forgiven by God through trusting Christ. Receiving God’s forgiveness helps you to forgive others and extending forgiveness to others helps you to ask for the forgiveness that you need. So jump in the process and it’ll get easier the longer you stay with it.
Deal with your Anger
It’s natural and appropriate to be angry when someone sins against you. I was angry at my neighbor whose driving habits endangered my kids and got me stuck with the week’s garbage still in the cans.
But what to do with the anger? Ignore it and I’m not protecting my kids and my garbage is going to pile up. Repress it and I’d get depressed and eventually I could start to become negative, bitter, and isolated. Turn it against myself and I’d feel bad that I was making an issue of it and I’d try to not feel or need anything. React by cussing out my neighbor or parking in front of his garbage cans! and I’d just cause more damage by escalating the conflict.
Instead, I let my anger point me to my underlying feelings—fear for my children’s safety and the need to have our garbage picked up. And I used the anger—tempered by love—to alert me to the need to deal with the situation. So with God’s help I “spoke the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) to my neighbor by asking him to watch for my children and to please park somewhere else on garbage day.
Feel your Hurt
You can’t heal what you don’t feel! If you’ve been violated then you’ve been hurt. Whether your hurt is loss, rejection, embarrassment, insecurity, or something else, find someone safe to verbalize your pain to and seek God’s comfort through your friend. This is the heart of the forgiveness process.
Are you susceptible to be wronged again in a similar way by the same person or someone else? Even as an adult in her 40’s JoAnne still felt vulnerable to her father’s anger, especially as far as her children were concerned. But she learned from her experience and set appropriate limits with her dad. She adjusted her expectations of him to guard against being too needy of someone who had a history of disappointing and hurting her with his drinking and anger. And she focused on living by the wise, old adage, “The best revenge is to live well.”
Jesus Set Boundaries, always in love for others, but also to care for his own love relationship with the Father. We need to learn from him.
Entrust Justice to God
Ultimately, forgiveness means to let God be God. He alone is the Righteous One with the right and the capacity safely to judge and punish sin. The story of the woman caught in adultery recorded in John 8:1-11 is a good example of this. And as the Apostle Paul taught us, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: `It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
When Mike was struggling to forgive his wife for having an affair and divorcing him I showed him how to give his anger to God like David did in the “cursing psalms.” (See Psalms 10:15, 18:6-15, 31:17, 35:1-28, 54:5, 56:5-7, 58:6-8, 69:19-28, 70:13) Like David, Mike told God how angry he was at his ex-wife and he asked God to deal with her. This helped him to let go and move on.
Praying an angry Psalm can helps you to feel your emotions, share with God, and leave justice to God. The Psalmist shows us that “Angry Prayers can Bring Peace.”
Pray for your Enemy
I was so surprised when I discovered the power in this! I knew that the Bible teaches us to bless and pray for our enemies (Proverbs 25:21-22, Matthew 5:37-48), but I didn’t realize how much it helped with forgiving. This was the key that helped me to forgive my rude, reckless neighbor. It’s hard to do at first, but it gets easier as you learn to place yourself in the Kingdom of God, drawing peace and strength from Christ. Eventually it makes all your relationships easier! Beside, it pleases God when we share his mercy with others.
Remember, “When we were yet still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). When we appreciate how much God loves us we’ll share his love and mercy with others.