“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Lewis B. Smedes
I listened patiently as a friend told me the disturbing details of abuse suffered. He told me he could never forgive, that he didn’t want to forgive or trust again.
He went on to tell me all the reasons that kept him from forgiving. I’d heard many of them before. In fact, I’d used some of them when coming alongside a friend facing similar turmoil. Personally, I’ve felt the same, not wanting to forgive or go through difficult steps to restore trust when I too have faced betrayal. Instead of seeking restoration, often I wanted to walk away rather than face the wound head on.
Years ago a friend spread rumors, twisted an already extremely sensitive and painful situation and escalated it into a living nightmare. Instead of coming alongside to comfort, she told lies creating a divisive atmosphere in havoc which spiraled into threads of gossip, false stories, character assassination turning a season of much required mourning into mass confusion and deeper soul pain. I was overwhelmed, felt betrayed and mistakenly misunderstood.
And then to forgive her! That was the last thing I wanted to do!
Instead … I disengaged as the sadness consumed, taking the time to pause to grieve and process. A few days later, I met with a trusted counselor, and as the days turned to weeks then months, I met with friends who helped me walk through this season of grief toward healing. Their healing balm of wisdom – God thoughts – helped prod and keep me focused on my journey back to freedom – freedom from the bitterness and its bondage.
When I read what the apostle Paul said about forgiveness, his familiar words touched my heart when the Holy Spirit whispered God’s truth, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). As I meditated on that verse, I was reminded afresh, I’d been forgiven much. And because God had forgiven me of much, I needed to forgive. I needed to forgive even if I didn’t feel like it. I needed to make a choice – the choice not to allow my heart to be swept away in bitterness but be set free. I did make the choice to forgive. Yet, in forgiving and though we are friends, we ended up not becoming close friends. The consequence of this betrayal fractured the possibility of a close relationship. Not a bad thing. I learned there is great value in healthily relational boundaries.
As I have struggled with forgiveness, many have struggled too. Why? Because it’s difficult, almost impossible, to do.
In Luke 6:37, Jesus says, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” He further states in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” The apostle Paul repeats Jesus’ command: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Surely Paul’s “whatever grievances” covers any kind of hurt, betrayal, or injury another person could inflict!
In pondering, reading and talking with lots of women about forgiveness, I’ve discovered something of importance, there are several false narratives that keep us from embracing God’s healing and ultimate freedom.
False Narrative: Forgiving means the offender didn’t really hurt you. We think if we forgive, it lessens the severity of the offense.
Truth is, forgiveness doesn’t deny the fact that you were clearly hurt, in fact, it clearly recognizes the enormity of the evil. If the offender hadn’t deliberately caused you pain, you would have no reason to forgive. Choosing to forgive acknowledges the pain endured. It also begins the healing process.
False Narrative: Forgiving means you excuse the offender’s hurtful act.
Truth is, when I chose to forgive my friend, I didn’t condone her cruel behavior and it didn’t lessen the impact of her painful action. But, what forgiveness did, it unlocked my own “prison” of bitterness. Forgiveness in reality is an intentional response that seeks to redeem the hurt, not dismiss it.
False Narrative: Before forgiving, you must first understand why the offender hurt you.
Truth is, our human mind yearns to make all the confusing puzzle pieces fit together neatly before we forgive, however, we can forgive an offender even if we never discover the reasons for the inflicted pain.
Philip Yancey writes in What’s So Amazing About Grace, “Not to forgive imprisons me in the past and locks out all potential for change. I thus yield control to another, my enemy, and doom myself to suffer the consequences of the wrong.”
False Narrative: Before forgiving the offender, you must feel forgiving.
Forgiveness has nothing to do with how you feel. You can feel hurt, betrayed, and angry, and still completely forgive the one who wounded you. Biblical forgiveness is an act of the will. It’s a choice you make. Can you still feel angry after you forgive? Yes! Anger means you’re in touch with reality – it’s all part of being human. But be cautious to aim your anger at the offense, not the offender.
False Narrative: Forgiving means the offender will face no consequences.
Truth is forgiveness doesn’t mean justice shouldn’t be served.
False Narrative: When your offender is punished, you’ll find closure.
Truth is not even a confession, apology, and execution can bring closure. Often it brings more disappointment, not relief. We think we can more easily forgive others if they confess the crime and apologize for the pain they caused. Be on guard, do not look to justice, imprisonment, or even an execution to bring needed closure and healing – only forgiveness can do this.
It’s A Choice To Forgive
The decision to forgive is probably the hardest choice we will ever make, especially when some crimes seem too horrible to forgive. Our instincts tell us to avenge the person who caused us pain, not to release him from the debt he owes us. But if we claim to be Christians, we can’t afford to have unforgiving hearts, for we have been greatly forgiven by God in Christ (Ephesians 4:32).