Occasionally, we need to revisit tough topics. One of the toughest that we face as humans is that of forgiveness. It is one of our greatest deterrents to peace. It is complex, multi-layered, personal and intimate, and so very necessary.
We have all faced pain, hurt, abuse, criticism, offense, and humiliation of one kind or another, of one level or another. Some of us are quick to take offense at small things that weren’t intended or misunderstandings. Every now and then, rather than pardoning a so-called offender, we may need to admit that we had no valid cause for being offended in the first place. Ecclesiastes 7:9 gives this advice regarding such minor offenses: Do not be quick to take offense, for the taking of offense is the mark of a fool.”
But there are times when people and situations just get to us. Part of our challenge with insult and injury is that at the human level we know exactly how to respond … with vengeance and retribution. We’ve heard the expression: “I don’t get mad; I get even.” Some people take that even further: “I don’t just get even, I destroy them.” That is the ego nature speaking. Since the Garden of Eden, it has been our chief adversary: the out of alignment ego.
As human beings, it is often impossible to forgive some situations and some people. The hurt is just too great; the pain to deep. Yet, the Bible is clear on this topic. In Matthew 6:14-15 we read: For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Christ is telling us here that there are consequences for our decisions and actions. It is not that God is going to withhold forgiveness from us, but that the consequences of our actions block God’s Light and Love from penetrating our hearts; our unforgiveness conceals God’s forgiveness.
We are told repeatedly to forgive others, yet this is so hard to do. It has been said, “To err is human; to forgive is divine.” There is truth in that adage. It is our spiritual nature that moves most quickly toward forgiveness. It is through Spirit that we gain the strength to forgive. Ghandi said: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” It takes strength, perseverance, and commitment to adequately forgive someone so that we feel the joy and exultation of Christ moving through us.
Forgiveness is such a large and important topic that it is difficult to adequately cover on a Sunday morning. So, I am just going to pare it down to what I think is most important to me, and I hope some of that is important to you as well.
To begin, let us remind ourselves of what forgiveness is and what it is not. There are misconceptions and fears around forgiveness. Let us be clear, forgiveness is not for the person we are forgiving; it is for ourselves.
In the Bible the word that translates as ‘forgiveness’ has a wide range of meanings, including: to let go, to remit a debt, to leave someone alone, to allow, to send away, to desert or abandon, and even to divorce. Today we understand forgiveness to mean a conscious and deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment and vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed us, regardless of whether they actually deserve our forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not something we do for the person who has harmed us; it has nothing to do with them. Whether we forgive them or not, their life is likely not to change, but ours will.
Research over the past few decades has revealed enormous personal benefits to forgiveness. Forgiveness makes us happier. Research suggests not only that happy people are more likely to forgive but that forgiving others can make people feel happy, especially when they forgive someone to whom they feel close.
Forgiveness protects our mental health. People who receive therapy designed to foster forgiveness experience greater improvements in depression, anxiety, and hope than those who don’t. Forgiveness may also play a role in preventing suicide.
Forgiveness improves our physical health. When we dwell on grudges, our blood pressure and heart rate spike; when we forgive, our stress levels drop, and people who are more forgiving are protected from the negative health effects of stress. Studies also suggest that holding grudges might compromise our immune system, making us less resistant to illness.
Forgiveness sustains relationships. When our friends inevitably hurt or disappoint us, holding a grudge makes us less likely to sacrifice or cooperate with them, which undermines feelings of trust and commitment, driving us further apart. Studies suggest that forgiveness can stop this downward spiral and repair our relationship before it dissolves.
Forgiveness boosts kindness and connectedness. People who feel forgiving are more likely to volunteer and donate money to charity, and generally feel more connected to other people.
Forgiveness is good for kids and teens. Kids who are more forgiving toward their friends have higher well-being. Forgiveness training can help adolescent girls who are bullies and bullied decrease their anger, aggression, and delinquency, while increasing their empathy and improving their grades.
If you want to know how unforgiveness affects us, turn everything I just said upside down: more anger, suicide, stress, and anxiety. Increased illness and unhappiness. Unforgiveness leads to a stark, dark, miserable world filled with angry, resentful, and dismal wretched people.
Forgiveness is not forgetting, denying, excusing, or dismissing; it is not approving or condoning. When something offends or hurts us, the process is to face it and forgive it. That requires strength. Forgiveness is not accepting, and saying, “That’s ok… I forgive you.” No, it is saying, “That was not ok, in fact that was not acceptable. I forgive you so that I can release the disappointment, anger, and hurt your actions and words have caused me.” At this point, it is up to us whether we continue a relationship with that person or not. That is a separate issue. The point of forgiveness is to unburden our self from the negativity of the act and find peace. It doesn’t have to include that person in our life.
Forgiveness is not being a doormat and allowing intolerable treatment. Trust must be earned, and boundaries set. Forgiving someone does not abdicate the consequences of their actions, whether spiritual, moral, or legal. It is God’s job to dictate what happens to their soul.
Forgiveness is an act and a process. Feelings may not be immediate or easy; usually, it is difficult and uncomfortable. When we decide to forgive, God gives us the grace and strength to forgive and to keep on forgiving. Peter asks Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy times seven.” This is Bible-speak for an unlimited amount of times. We keep praying for forgiveness until we are free from the emotional burden caused by the incident. As Steve Maraboli, wrote: "The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward."
Rarely do we have the opportunity to tell someone face-to-face, “I forgive you,” nor is it necessary. An apology, yes … face to face. But in most instances, the people we pardon will probably never know it happened. But we will. Remember, it’s really not their business; it is ours. Eventually, we’ll feel better, do more, and get more of what we want out of life. Think of it as the best present we ever gave our self.
The power of forgiveness is restorative; it is release, affirmation, and empowerment. It is claiming our strength and not giving it to someone else. We regain all the energy tied up in a past that no longer exists and apply it toward all the things we want to do with our life. Through forgiveness we are able to live fully in the present, no longer trapped in the past. It is a powerful thing we can do, and breaks the hold that evil has on our life. Refusing to forgive allows evil to continue to hurt us, whereas forgiveness helps stop the destructive power in our life.
Mature forgiveness means we wish well the person or the group that has hurt us. In fact, we wish them the best and pray for their wholeness. As Oprah Winfrey says: "True forgiveness is when you can say, 'Thank you for that experience.'" Forgiveness is never the easy way through life. Anger, hatred, and victimhood are easy; forgiveness … not so much.
When considering forgiveness, it is important to remain empathetic. CS Lewis shares this: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” As much as some people hate to admit it, we are imperfect. Just as we appreciate being forgiven, we should likewise forgive the mistakes of others. When we have a minor cause for complaint, we can learn to apply the counsel of Colossians 3:13: “Continue to put up with one another.” We can do that. We can put up with one another, especially if we keep in mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.”
To wrap up, forgiveness is all about you. We are not condoning the wrong and hurtful deed, or acting as if it never happened – we are simply letting it go. Releasing anger and resentment can help us to keep calm, improve our health, and increase our happiness. Even more important, forgiving others is a key to remaining open to God’s forgiveness of our own missteps.
So, it is my prayer that we can open our hearts and minds to Christ, to understand that our feelings of anger and hurt are not caused by anyone or any situation ‘out there’, but by our repeated judgments and habitual decisions to cling to bitterness and indignation. I pray that we will choose to burst the chains of hurt and resentment, purge the influences of the past, and vanquish our “victim thinking”, so that we may at long last experience the healing, redemptive, victorious, and freeing power of forgiveness.