Be kind and compassionate to each other, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32 (NIV)
This question has been on my heart and mind for quite some time now. What does it mean to truly forgive? I don’t mean forgiving the rude teenager working the counter at Starbucks (although some mornings a messed up coffee can seem quite unforgivable), or the friend who borrowed your favourite white sweater and spilled red wine on it…. I mean forgiving the significant insults that cut way too close. Deep cuts that remain on your heart, alive in your mind, and begin to shape your outlook. Injuries that may have made you feel betrayed, taken advantage of, humiliated, wronged, left in a lurch, or left alone.
Do any of these words ring a bell for you? When I think of these words, a flood of emotions come over me. I remember the wrong that happened to me. You may have had a similar experience, or many of them. Maybe you can’t identify with how hard it is to figure out how to truly forgive; though most of us can think of a time we were badly hurt by someone. After all, no human relationships are perfect.
I knew I needed to figure out how to truly forgive in order to move on. So this thing, this wrong, didn’t consume me. Actually, if I’m being honest, it already had consumed me.
The concept of offering forgiveness may seem simple to you. And it used to be a simple concept for me too, until God started to reveal to me what it means and all that’s involved to truly forgive.
In order to forgive, I needed to directly face what it was I was forgiving. That was hard. On the path of forgiveness, God brought me to face the pain and the full breadth and depth of this thing, this wrong, head on, which left me in a dark puddle. I had to grieve what happened.
Grieve. Who would have thought that in order to offer forgiveness, one first needs to grieve? Does that not seem like the biggest rip-off ever?? I have come to realize this needs to happen first before true forgiveness can be offered – an authentic, very direct examination at what happened and the damage that it caused. Forgiveness is the opposite of denying or forgetting that something happened. Rather, we need to fully understand and feel the impact of what happened before we can move on to forgiving it.
Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning. Your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up. – James 4:9-10 (NIV)
One of the things God has been telling me to do it to humble myself. I do not ‘have this under control’. In fact, God challenged me to let go of control. To be swept up in the storm of grief. I had to let it overwhelm and overtake me. There is a season for everything. God called me into a storm and wanted me to feel every bit of it, to be tossed around in a dark and tumultuous ocean of grief. It was after I cried and felt bad and sad and mad that my head finally started to clear, and I was able to receive guidance on how to let it go.
Popular author, researcher and social worker, Brene Brown, found that the common theme in people who were able to forgive was not love and generosity as she expected, but rather grief. In her book ‘Rising Strong’, Brown quoted priest Joe Reynolds “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. If you make a choice to forgive, you have to face into the pain. You simply have to hurt.” She went on to write that we need to be willing to encounter grief in order to forgive. The key word for me is ‘willing’. I had to give up control to God and let grief do its thing.
Deciding and Then Practicing Forgiveness
I have learned that forgiveness is an action, not a statement…A verb, not a noun…A to-do item, not a to-say item.
It is not as simple as ‘I forgive you’. In fact, true forgiveness may not involve those words ever being said to anyone. And… (wait for it) true forgiveness is completely independent on ever receiving an apology. Providing forgiveness is separate from hearing ‘I’m sorry’. It can come before those words, or in the absence of them.
What?? I asked myself, So I am going to be such a big person to first grieve in agony over what has happened, and then go ahead and offer forgiveness, but not get the satisfaction of at least hearing ‘sorry about that’ from the person who caused the wrong?
Yes! I have come to learn that true forgiveness is not about what we get or hear back. It is about what we let go of. This is the action for me to take, not for the offender to take. And it is not a one-time action. It is more of a practice.
God doesn’t ask or encourage us to forgive. He commands us to. He expects us to forgive. I understand now that if we refuse or resist to forgive a wrong or a loss that someone caused us, then we are the ones to pay the price. We can end up living in a place of judgment, condemnation and resentment.
My outlook had been to focus on the failings of someone else, and the damage that was done to me, rather than on my own growth. That is the hardest part for me. Letting go of any expectation that something is coming. I was waiting. For an apology. For an acknowledgment of what I had gone through. For something…
… [God] forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; He has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14 (NIV)
I needed to forgive to break out of the prison of resentment and grudges of the past. Forgiveness takes the power away from the person who did you wrong. I am no longer waiting for an explanation, an apology, something to right the wrong, to even the score. I stopped feeling that the ‘ball was in their court’. In forgiveness, the ball is taken off the court. The game is over. Final whistle blown. The debt is cleared.
I had to let the ball go, and then I had to resist any temptation to grab it back. It is a practice to continue to let it go. Releasing it gives permission for the chapter to be closed. Forgiveness allows for space to be created between me and what had happened, in the same way that God moves our sins away from us when he forgives us.
As far as the east is from the west, so far as God removed our transgressions from us. – Psalm 103:12 (NIV)
Forgive and Don’t Forget?
Forgiveness does is not always equal forgetting. God does not call us to be naïve or foolish. I have not forgotten. Forgiveness is also not the same as reconciliation. These are two separate things. I have learned that I when I make an active decision to forgive, there is a separate decision to be made about how to proceed forward.
Forgiving doesn’t create an obligation to repair the relationship. God calls on us to search for wisdom, and not be fools. We can be forgiving and wise in our relationships at the same time. And because we don’t forget, we need to continue to go back to actively practicing forgiveness and not slip back into a space of bitterness, resentment or sense of injustice.
Forgiveness opens the path to healing. By confronting what happened head on and humbling yourself before God to fully grieve the impact of it… by seeking God’s direction to actively decide to forgive, calling on God’s strength to let it go and to continuing to practice not slipping back onto it… true forgiveness can be offered, and hearts be mended.
Lord, my God, I called you for help and you healed me. – Psalm 30:2 (NIV)
He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. – Psalm 147:3 (NIV)
I have learned and experienced that forgiveness is a much more active and purposeful action than what I had always assumed. And I think that most of us don’t fully understand what forgiveness really means. I believe this is why many families suffer from long standing problems, friendships are damaged, and marriages lost. It is hard.
I have often fallen off the path of forgiveness. But God has nudged me back to it. Forgiveness takes a lot of emotional energy and work as a continuous practice. This is the amazing healing power of God.
Forgiveness Reading Plan. Dr. John Tonsend and Dr Henry Cloud. Retrieved from: https://www.bible.com/en/reading-plans/1048
Rising Strong. Brene Brown. 2017