What it is…and what it’s not
Noun: The action or process of forgiving or being forgiven.
What is this thing called forgiveness? The definition seems so simple, but is it? Good questions. One thing I can tell you is that true forgiveness is very misunderstood. Having grown up in church, and knowing what the Bible says about forgiveness, I thought I had a firm grip on what it was. Looking back I can see that I was very selective in whom I forgave, and only did so when the offense wasn’t serious. I used forgiveness as a weapon. I withheld it from those who asked to make them hurt, at the very least, as badly as they had hurt me. I also used it as a tool of manipulation; I will forgive you, if you do as I ask. I can hear the gasps already. You think I’m horrible. But unless you understand real forgiveness, you are also guilty. Sometimes it’s so subtle, you often say it jokingly yet your goal is not to forgive-it is to get even.
“I don’t feel like forgiving them,” I’ve heard people say so many times. If we wait until we feel like forgiving, we never will. Forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a conscious act. It is something we choose to do. And, in spite of the deceptively simple definition, it’s hard. Forgiveness goes totally against our nature. It is not the normal reaction. The normal reaction is payback. Forgiveness is first and foremost an act of faith.
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave. – Colossians 3:13
To the outside world I lived a pretty privileged life. I was smart, talented and could have pretty much anything I wanted. On the surface my life seemed almost perfect but scratch beneath the surface and you would find an almost unbearable amount of hurt and pain. Every day I lived with Jekyll and Hyde. My father was Jekyll, kind and loving, and my mother was Hyde, emotionally and physically abusive. I buried myself in school and my music and because of other people God placed in my life, I survived. I didn’t have many friends because kids were envious and could be quite cruel. As an adult in corporate America, I had to deal with the glass ceiling. As a woman, climbing the ladder was rough and I was not without my share of battle scars. Over the years I went though a divorce and the death of my second husband. I would marry a third time and four children later would go through a second divorce. Two women who were supposed to be my best friends would end the friendships with no explanation. I would then become quite ill.
Several years ago I started attending a church that I liked very much. I was having a lot of problems financially, physically and emotionally and nothing seemed to help. In talking with the pastor, a lot of my past came out and he explained to me that I was harboring a lot of unforgiveness and it was having a very negative affect on me. I told him that I had forgiven them but he showed me that as I talked about those people and events in my life, I spoke with bitterness, anger and hate in my voice which meant I was speaking what was actually in my heart. For whatever is in our heart will come out of our mouths.
He explained to me that to forgive required a conscious decision on my part. I had to pray and consciously decide to forgive. The pastor then gave me an assignment. I had to take a sheet of paper and on it I had to write down the name of anyone and everyone who had ever hurt me, angered me or offended me in any way. I then had to one-by-one make a conscious decision to forgive them.
I’m not embarrassed to tell you that it took more than one page because it encompassed an entire lifetime. Then one-by-one I prayed and told God that I was making a conscious decision to forgive (and then I said the name). I even mentioned incidences where an offense had occurred but I didn’t know the individual’s name. It was a long process and sometimes I had to forgive more than once because the hurt was so deep. I shed many tears and it seemed like I was just wasting my time. Then something happened. My entire life completely changed. Joy returned to my life, my illness left and I was hired in my dream job of teaching choral music. Not only had I set my oppressors free, I had set myself free.
“Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.” – Corrie Ten Boom
The best medicine…
Is it wrong to want justice? No, but there is a very thin line between seeking justice and judging. It is far better to let God deal with injustices than to let them consume us. We are not equipped to harbor offenses; they eat us alive. If you think you have forgiveness mastered, look again. Some clues are illnesses doctors can’t seem to treat or your life is just out of control. Yes, it may just be life, but it may also be unforgiveness taking you under. As we have received grace (undeserved favor) from God, we need to extend it to others. Instead of treating someone as he deserves to be treated, treat him with kindness. By giving an enemy a drink, we’re not excusing his misdeeds, we’re recognizing him, forgiving him, and loving him in spite of his sins-just as Christ did for us.
Don’t make the mistake of not forgiving because you don’t want the other guy to be happy. Forgiveness is for you. It is for your spiritual and physical well-being. Yes, the other guy gets the benefit of being forgiven, too, but if you don’t you will be the one to suffer. If we obey God’s command to forgive, God promises to forgive us in return and, we get something very powerful as a result-freedom.