“Thanks for being a sojourner with me in this messed up life we live.” A young friend of mine sent me this message the other day.
His battle was my battle, and it’s your battle too. In a word, the battle is forgiveness.
He had suffered a very real and awful wrong. The perpetrator, a trusted friend, had shown no remorse.
Even though my friend had extended forgiveness, reminders of the hurt kept coming back to him. And so he was struggling with the question, “Have I really forgiven?” Or again, “What more do I have to do?”
These are critical questions. Forgiveness is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Christianity revolves around the idea that God forgave us for the seemingly unforgiveable wrong we did to him. Jesus stated quite clearly that unless we pass this forgiveness on to others, we cannot count on God even answering our prayers. In another place, he said our refusal to forgive would throw us into a place of torment.
The most common misconception about forgiveness is that it involves pretending the wrong never happened, or pretending that we weren’t hurt by it, or pretending that God didn’t care about it. The truth is that when a wrong is done, God is more offended than we are. After all, if he overlooked or diminished wrong and hurtful acts, what kind of God would he be?
And so the first thing we do when we are wronged is to acknowledge that fact. God hated what happened to us more than we did. This takes all the shame out of the fact that we feel hurt. Our hurt is in fact a pale reflection of God’s hurt.
My conviction is this. You cannot forgive unless you have first fully acknowledged the wrong that was done to you. God does not require us to paper over wrongs done to us any more than he papered over our sin against him. He required an accounting of it, which was paid by Christ at the cross.
And our wrong against Christ was a pretty prominent part of the preaching of the early church. It wasn’t papered over at all. “You killed the author of life” was one of the statements made by the apostles.
So first, we acknowledge what the person did to us. Next, we acknowledge what we did to Jesus. We thank God for forgiving us our great debt. And that in turn leads us on to forgiving the lesser debt owed by those who wronged us.
The key is in how we perform this act of forgiveness. We take the person, and the wrong they did, and hand them over to the Lord. To continue to hold an offence against them is to take the place of God, who alone has the right to sit in judgment. Forgiveness takes us out of the equation, and places the one who wronged us in the hands of God himself.
If this were just mind over matter, it would never work. But it isn’t. The Holy Spirit comes in and helps us. He imparts life to us and blows away the death of hurt and pain. He even enables us to fulfill Jesus’ command to pray for those who have persecuted us.
Of course, this is not a quick and easy process. We forgive, God helps us, and then something happens to remind us of the wrong, and the hurt returns. And so we go through the process again. Bit by bit, we come through to a place of life.
Years ago, I was involved with a family where an elderly relative died. The woman and her sister had had a falling out decades before. They had never spoken again. Both womens’ lives were blighted through bitterness.
Whatever wrong someone did to you, the bitterness you bring on yourself through failure to walk in forgiveness will damage you more. When what they did is long past, your bitterness will keep you locked in prison every day of your life. It’s the gift that keeps on taking.
Forgiveness is the biggest battle. But with God’s help, it can be won.