“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” – Matthew 5:7
As I mentioned in the previous chapter, there are two aspects of forgiveness. We went over asking forgiveness for our sinful acts against those we harmed and making amends to them accordingly. We’re working on that assignment but it’s not easy. However, granting forgiveness is even harder. Principle 6 states that, in evaluating all our relationships, we must be willing to “offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me…” and there’s no tougher task in the Celebrate Recovery program (or in living as a dedicated Christian, for that matter) than that one. Unconditional forgiveness is probably the number one thing that Jesus’ audiences objected to most. The Israelites were struggling and suffering daily under the brutal, racist and often inhuman rule of the Roman Empire. They’d had enough and desperately wanted someone to deliver them. Then the long-awaited Messiah shows up and tells them to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) That’s not all. In 6:14-15 Jesus informs them “For if you forgive others their sins your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.” Surely more than a few exasperated listeners muttered, “What the…?” and “You gotta be kidding me!” under their breath as they turned away in disgust. They’d been hoping He’d promote more of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” stuff. Our Lord’s commandment to forgive those who’ve trespassed against us is no easier to swallow today than it was two millenniums ago. Yet it wasn’t a case of Him just spouting off some utopian philosophy or being controversial for controversy’s sake. On the cross He demonstrated literally what He meant. After getting railroaded in a Jewish court of law, beaten cruelly with barbed whips by heartless thugs and then crucified like a common criminal He spent some of the last energy remaining in His tortured body to utter, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:24) Who among us would even entertain that thought for a nanosecond while slowly suffocating to death? None but our beautiful Savior.
Forgiveness is not optional for a believer; it’s required. Thomas Watson wrote, “Our forgiving others is not a cause of God’s forgiving us, but a condition without which He will not forgive us.” That being the case, we’ve no alternative but to accept it as truth and get busy on it pronto. There’s no argument that offering forgiveness to those who’ve hurt us goes against every instinct in our earthly frame. But, as C.S. Lewis eloquently expressed, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Your inventory exposed not only the folks you needed to make amends to but those who did horrible and sometimes immense damage to your psyche, your heart and your very soul. This part of Principle 6 is yet another reason for securing a sponsor. He or she is the person you can open up to in complete confidence and convey the resentments and deep-seated loathing you’ve been nurturing for particular individuals. Because you’ve come to respect your sponsor’s counsel you’ll be amenable to their presenting you with a different perspective. Of course, don’t overlook the Bible for wisdom and guidance. In Luke 6:37 Jesus said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:17; “Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people.” Alexander Pope’s famous quote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” still holds a ton of water. Betty Smith wrote, “Forgiveness is a gift of high value. Yet its cost is nothing.” When we choose to forgive someone we transcend the physical and material realm and assume a humble, worshipful posture that confirms our total surrender to God’s perfect will. It signifies we’ve finally concluded our Heavenly Father knows best. What we’ll inevitably discover is that forgiveness, to our shock and amazement, is a holy yet powerful weapon to wield. As William Blake said, “The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.” In many instances it’ll yield an ironic twist. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”
However, you may not have embraced the I’m-ready-to-forgive deal just yet and that’s not unusual. You may be thinking, “How dare you toss forgiveness in my direction like some random card pulled from a deck! You don’t know what that monster did to me!” You’re right. While I’m honestly saddened over what happened to you and what you’ve had to endure because of it, I’m not privy to the ugly details. What I do know is that Jesus knows all about your agony and, nevertheless, encourages you to forgive the guilty party. In your recovery and spiritual growth you must become willing to forgive. But hey, don’t take my word for it. You can’t read the gospels or the epistles without encountering it repeatedly. Christ even included it in the prayer template He suggested we use when addressing the Father: “…And forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) In Romans 2:1 Paul states, “Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else,” and in his letter to the Colossians (3:12-13) he taught, “As the elect of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another… Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also forgive others.” You can run from the Word of God but you can’t hide. Its message is clear. You also don’t get to pick and choose only the commandments that suit you. Being a follower of Christ is an all-or-nothing proposition. The truth is, sometimes we must coerce and goad ourselves into forgiving another human being. The respected Pastor Kirk Shelton preached on the subject and in his sermon he related a personal battle. Long ago a close associate accused him of committing a terrible sin and it resulted in Kirk’s leaving a church he’d led for years. It was a despicable lie but it cost him and his reputation dearly. Granting the slanderer forgiveness was the last thing Kirk wanted to do. But he knew he had to, so he began to picture the man in his mind every morning and, through gritted teeth say, “I forgive you.” He did that dutifully for months on end until one day he realized that he actually meant it. Pastor Shelton experienced a “transformation of his mind.” He’d had to force his will to forgive but the payoff was a liberated heart. The chains evaporated. He found, as Max Lucado wrote, “Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free and realizing you were the prisoner!”
Some will say, “Since Kirk’s an ordained minister, it wasn’t as difficult for him to forgive and, besides, pastors are supposed to be more righteous than the rest of us.” That’s not true, necessarily, but it does make for a convenient excuse. When you get right down to it, lots of us savor the feeling we get from hoarding grudges. We’ve rationalized that we’re entitled to them. This C.S. Lewis quip is appropriate: “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until he has something to forgive.” Hypocrisy runs rampant when it comes to complying with this important doctrine of our faith. Randy Alcorn said, “Truth-oriented Christians love studying scripture and theology. But sometimes they’re quick to judge and slow to forgive. They’re strong on truth, weak on grace.” John Rice didn’t mince words when he wrote, “When boiled down to its essence, unforgiveness is hatred.” In our former life when we were doomed unbelievers many of us found being spiteful to be a rush. So was unleashing our anger and frustrations without restraint, telling or spreading falsehoods that boosted our image, complaining about anything that didn’t go as we wished, being sarcastic, etc. The list was long. All those selfish indulgences were stress-relieving behaviors that, for the briefest of moments, made us feel better. However, nothing compared to or was more gratifying than projecting non-stop resentment and bitterness toward someone who’d hurt us. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. We’re all guilty.) But nowadays we’re not the same person we were back then. 2 Corinthians 5:17 proclaims, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come!” If we truly believe in the Scriptures and yearn to fully embody the new creation that is the temple of the Holy Spirit, then unconditional forgiveness must become an indelible characteristic of our born-again selves. One cannot be a follower of Jesus and at the same time be like one of novelist David Weber’s protagonists of whom he wrote, “It was rumored she held grudges till they died of old age, then had them stuffed and mounted.”
It’s vital we comprehend precisely what forgiveness is and isn’t. D.L. Moody preached, “Forgiveness is not that stripe which says, ‘I will forgive, but not forget.’ It is not to bury the hatchet with the handle sticking out of the ground, so you can grasp it the minute you want it.” It’s also not a declaration that what the person did to you is suddenly okay or acceptable. Not at all. C.R. Strahan wrote, “Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim – letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.” In other words, it’s something God wants you to do for you. After my divorce in the late 80s I built up a grudge against my ex-wife the size of Mount Everest. She’d walked out on our marriage without trying to save it and in the process she’d demolished our two young children’s trust in us. I was mad all the time and felt justified in demeaning and criticizing her in front of the kids whenever I got the opportunity. The fact that she was happy in her new life while I was miserable in mine gnawed at me day and night. Another lyric in the Henley song I cited in the last chapter could’ve been written for me: “There are people in your life who’ve come and gone/they let you down and hurt your pride/better put it all behind you ‘cause life goes on/you keep carrying around that anger, it’ll eat you up inside.” One day a friend commented that my concept of forgiveness was screwed up. I had it backwards. They said forgiveness is strong medicine that’ll help me to heal, not the one who injured me. For whatever reason the logic of that statement got through my thick skull and I released my grip on my animosity. As William Young said, “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It’s about letting go of another person’s throat.” For me it put a halt to my persistent trying to get even. I realized that my contempt for her was something she was rarely mindful of anyway and, therefore, a total waste of my energy. To gain the closure that would allow me to move on I sent her a note that read, without elaboration and without stipulations, “I forgive you.” M.L. Stedman once wrote, “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day.” It felt good to say “get lost” to my 24/7 companion, enmity.
Just as in making your amends, when you offer your forgiveness don’t expect anything in return. Though you’ve changed, they might not have. They may not even acknowledge they did anything wrong whatsoever. Worse, they may don a smirk when you tell them you’ve forgiven them! It could be that the culprit in question is no longer near your sphere of existence or perhaps they aren’t alive anymore. It may be virtually impossible to look them straight in the eye and say “I forgive you for what you did.” But don’t let that prevent you from forgiving them in your heart. Never lose sight of the fact that you’re performing an act of obedience to God that will further cleanse you of your sinful nature. You’re never going to be able to change what they did, but you will be able to change how you feel about them and their deeds. As Jesus taught in Luke 6:35-36; “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons and daughters of the Most High, because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Look, if what happened to you contributed in any way to finding the path that led to your salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ then there can be no regrets to harbor. Reap the benefit of the words of Nelson Mandela who was unfairly imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa. He wrote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Gandhi was another who took the road less travelled. He said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” No doubt a number of your friends and family members won’t understand how you can forgive someone who devastated your world, especially if that person’s actions damaged them, as well. And if the crime was particularly heinous (such as sexual or physical abuse, gross negligence that resulted in tragedy, or even murder) they’ll likely consider it a form of treason if you forgive them. Keep in mind, though, that you now answer to Christ and to Him alone. God’s unwavering admonition is to forgive and leave retaliation up to Him. Rick Warren wrote, “You’ll never be asked to forgive someone else more than God has forgiven you.” It’s also important that we don’t then consider ourselves “special” because we forgave someone who isn’t all that sorry for what they did. We shouldn’t wear mercy like a gold medal or behave as if we now have something to hang over their head. Ivern Ball said, “Most of us can forgive and forget, we just don’t want the other person to forget that we forgave.” Instead, consider it an honor that God has given you the strength and courage to follow in Christ’s footsteps.
The Bible says we should be willing to forgive even those who’ve dreamed up or imagined offenses we didn’t commit! We all know someone who misunderstood something we did or said and got their feelings hurt so badly they avoided being around us. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus states, “So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift.” He’s telling us if we have to go the extra mile in order to make peace, so be it. Dr. Martin Luther King preached, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it’s a constant attitude.” We should strive to be the kind of person who’s quick to forgive. Besides, we Christians don’t have time to dwell on past events. We should be focused on testifying about God’s grace and glory to as many as possible. Joyce Meyer said, “When you forgive, you must cancel the debt. Don’t spend your life paying and collecting debts.” If it’s any consolation, realize the human being who harmed you, after you’ve offered them your forgiveness, has lost all the supposed “power” they had over you. You’ve disarmed them. Thomas Fuller coyly wrote, “Forgetting of a wrong is a mild revenge.”
Always remember there are two ways to handle adversity: Our way and God’s way. Our inherited sinful nature’s method is to seek revenge by utilizing every tactic available to get back at those who’ve crossed us. But that only generates more suffering and sorrow. God’s way is less complicated and drenched in mercy: Forgive all trespasses and trust that He will make all things right if we surrender to His will. We’ve got much more productive things to do in our Father’s service. As Paul Boese wrote, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”