Forgiveness is not something that happens automatically or easily. This is especially true if what you must forgive is something very personal and painful.
Colossians 3:12-13 says, "As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." The means by which we can be kind, gentle and forgiving is stated in v.14: "And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."
If this verse isn’t challenging enough, Jesus himself said, "If you do not forgive men their sins, our Father will not forgive your sins." Matthew 6:15. One apostle listening to these words was a bit slow in getting the message of forgiveness. He later asked Jesus, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, by seventy-seven times" (or seventy times seven times). Matthew 18:21-22.
These verses provide some very direct, sharp teaching about forgiving people who have hurt us and thus people at whome we are angry. Forgive, Jesus said, and don’t even keep track of the number of times you do it. Forgive, Paul said, because God has given you the love required to do it."
I believe that. But I still believe that forgiveness is not always automatic or easy. If it was, the Bible wouldn’t say so much about how and why we must forgive. If forgiveness was automatic or easy we would just do it.
I think forgiveness is a process, a process that sometimes takes months, even years, if the offense against us is serious enough. If you have been slandered, abused, violently mistreated, forgiveness may be a long, long process. If a family member has been violently mistreated, forgiveness may be a life-long process. That is ok, so long as you keep working at it.
The first step in the process of forgiveness is feeling hurt. If you have been badly mistreated and are hurt, admit that hurt. Stuffing the feeling or ignoring it will not help you or the situation. Stuffed feelings are still there, pressed deeply into the heart and psyche, breeding ugly thoughts and revenge. Instead, honestly and openly admit, "I have been hurt." Your emotions may swing from just wanting to forget it to feeling numb to crying. That’s ok, own those feelings.
The second step is anger, even hate, if the offense is serious enough. During this phase we may feel anger, rage, and even a hunger for revenge. We may want to retaliate and hurt the person who hurt us with as much or more severity. We all know what the Bible says about hate. It says, "Don’t do it!" We know it is wrong to hate, so when we feel hate we tend to deny it. Don’t. Again, if we are feeling this emotion the proper response is not to stuff it deep inside, where it will smolder and erupt violently later on. The thing to do is diffuse it through acknowledging the presence of hate and confessing it.
After confessing our hate and hatred we can move on to the third step in the process of forgiving: healing. Healing means we have worked through the hurt and hate and we experience a lessening of the negative emotions. We can actually begin to pray for the one who hurt us. We can move from wishing him harm to wishing well for him.
Finally, we can begin again. Beginning again means we can enter into and enjoy relationship again. In many cases it means we can function again with the one who offended us. It means we can look objectively at the conflict situation and even take responsibility for our part in it. Beginning again is very, very refreshing. (Note: The above 4 points are from Lewis B. Smedes, "Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve").
How can we possibly work through the pain of hurt and hate to healing and beginning again? I’ll repeat Colossians 3:14: "And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity." God has blessed us with a loving and compassionate spirit. This is our power and ability to forgive.
John Patton has written: "Human forgiveness is not an act but a discovery that I am more like those who have hurt me than different from them; that I am capable of also hurting others very deeply. I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position to forgive ... at its heart is the recognition of my reception into the community of sinners - those affirmed by God as his children." ("Is Human Forgiveness Possible?", p.16).
This is a humbling statement: I am like those who hurt me. Haven’t I hurt others? Sure. I am part of a community of sinners. Can I claim to be without sin? No. I need to forgive others for the simple reason that I need others to forgive me.
How do we know when we have successfully navigated the steps of hurt, hate, healing and beginning again? One writer answered this by saying, "You know when you have forgiven when you can wish the other person well." (Managing the Congregation, p.372).
I am thankful to God for the forgiveness we have received from him. Rom. 6:8. I am also thankful that he has given us the means by which we can forgive others: his love.
September 7, 2008