On forgiveness

Forgiveness is a funny thing. Many of us talk about it, but few of us really practice it. Maybe that’s because I’m not sure we’ve really got an accurate portrait of what forgiveness really is, and I’m not entirely sure that we can really, truly forgive unless our own forgiveness has been so indelibly carved into us that we’re aware of the remarkable change. Now, I think it’s essential for me to point out that I’m not claiming to have the sole view of forgiveness, or even that I have it completely correct. What I share here on forgiveness is something that’s been wrought in my own heart, born out the fires of trial and even justifiable anger. These are things that I have found are effective in my own soul and scripturally supported. I would challenge you to read the Bible for yourself, to pray for yourself, and ask God to reveal the truth of forgiveness to you rather than to rely on a housewife in northeastern Oklahoma.

The entire idea of forgiveness is riddled and overburdened with ideas of what it is and isn’t, what is required and isn’t, and things that seem good on the surface and actually, may be more harmful than not. For instance, we’ve heard “forgive and forget”. Those in the Christian community have heard this compared the willful forgetfulness of God, who casts our sins into a sea of forgetfulness and separates us from them as far as the east is from the west. The idea is that if we’ve truly forgiven someone, we shouldn’t remember what they’ve done to us anymore. But there are something to remember about this comparison. First of all, in every account I can find of God “forgetting sins”, the offender had repented and turned from their offense, begging God for forgiveness. In other words, God’s forgetfulness seems to be connected with the admission of guilt. I’m not saying His forgiveness is attached to the admission of guilt, I’m only discussing the idea that forgiveness comes hand in hand with forgetting. So while God forgives unconditionally, I’m not certain it would be accurate to just make the blanket statement that He automagically forgets the offense. Secondly, we’re trying to attach the ability of an all-powerful deity outside of the limits of time to men and women who are in a body that will die, who are trapped in time. We’re not God. While God can risk the offender doing it again, we, in our temporal bodies, sometimes dare not, lest the offense be repeated to the detriment of all. I tend to liken this to the idea that I can forgive the guy who shoots me, but only a fool stands there while he reloads and lets him shoot a second time. It is wise to learn from things that have caused you harm, both physical and emotional, in the past and learn to avoid them. We dare not forget that some people are apparently incapable of not hurting others, and to allow them to hurt you again and again, saying you forgave them and forgot what they did. We dare not forget the types of evil mankind is capable of committing. (It’s worth noting here that remembering what was done and being afraid of it are two different things; it’s a delicate balance to not fear the evil that may come to your temporal body, but to be wise enough to avoid it anyway. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m not going to go actively seek it out, either.) Down the road of forgetfulness lies the Holocaust, Death Marches, Gulags, and repeated victimization by sick people. Remembering that these things were done helps us protect ourselves and the innocents who are in our care. Remembering wrongs that have the power to kill and destroy is being wise, or “shrewd as serpents”… not fearing them leaves us “innocent as doves”.

I am absolutely not advocating that there are offenses that we cannot forgive, only that to tie forgetting unconditionally to forgiveness is folly at best and deadly dangerous. I don’t need to remember the kid who tripped me on the playground when I was 6 when I’m 36; I need to forgive him and move on with my life. On the other hand, if someone shoots me, or cheats on me with someone else, remembering the hurt that came from those actions protect me from being hurt again. I forgive the shooter, I forgive the cheater, but I don’t walk around with blinders on, either.

OK, so how do you forgive when there’s been no repentance, or when you can’t afford to forget what was done? How do you get past an offense that continues to do you harm?

That’s where we come to the most important truth in forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about what was done. It’s not about the offense, it’s not even about the offender. You don’t forgive for the good of the one who wronged you. You see, your unforgiveness has no effect on them. They aren’t carrying the physical effects of your unforgiveness in their bodies, you are. Every time you think of them and grow angry, your body has a physical reaction; your brain triggers the release of stress hormones that cause your heart to beat harder and faster so that you can get away from the danger. This reaction is so intrinsic in you, so basic, that it’s not affected by the fact that you aren’t actually seeing the person, that you aren’t in any physical danger now… your body reacts the same to the memory as it does to the initial offense. You’re the one who’s blood pressure rises, you’re the one with stress hormones rising, you’re the one who is slowly but surely being poisoned by a reaction you can’t control to a stimulus you can control.

Wait a minute… a stimulus you can control? Yes. As long as you are unable to forgive someone, the thought of the offense is the stimulus that sets off the biochemical reaction. The way to avoid the chain reaction of stress is to remove the power from the memory… to stop associating even the name of your offender with the offense. Instead of being “Ooooh, that Frank Jones, he did me wrong…” or “Ooooh, I’ll get that Lucy Smith! How dare she!!”, you remember “Oh, yeah… I haven’t thought about Frank or Lucy for a long time… I wonder how they’re doing? They were in a bad place the last time I saw them.”

Bad place? How do I know they were in a bad place? What does that have to do with what they did to you? How do I even begin to get where I care more about them than I care about what they’ve done?

Forgiveness isn’t about what was done. It’s not about the one who did it. Forgiveness is all about your relationship with God. Forgiveness is all about the recognition that you are a sinner, unworthy of grace or forgiveness yourself, no better than the worst of offenders. Forgiveness is readjusting your view of yourself until it’s in proper perspective.

You see, unforgiveness lifts you onto a pedestal, where you’re better than the one who dared offend you. It lifts you above your brothers and sisters. You don’t have to be afraid of heights to know that being high and lifted above others is a dangerous and untenable position. You make a bigger target of yourself. You have farther to fall when you, yourself, are the offender… and don’t pretend you aren’t, because right now, as you’re reading this and thinking of someone who you can’t forgive, someone else puts your picture in the “unforgivable” column.

Forgiveness is recognizing that we are all guilty. It is the recognition that we all need grace, we all need forgiveness. It’s understanding that I am no better than the one who wronged me, that I am no more worthy or deserving of the forgiveness I need than the one I need to forgive.

When I put myself in the right perspective, when I elevate my view of God and demote myself back to my right position as human first, just like my offender, it’s a lot easier to forgive.

It’s not easy. We’re always tempted to think more of ourselves than we ought. (Even if you think ill of yourself… constantly thinking less of yourself is still constantly thinking of yourself.) It’s even harder when the offense is one that we can’t really risk forgetting, when it’s one that’s changed us forever, marked us forever somehow.

But as one who has been greatly offended, hear me out. My father was killed in a car accident in 1994. I can harbor unforgiveness towards the man who ran the stop sign, putting my father in danger, or in the couple who collided with him, causing his death. But what does that get me? None of them did it intentionally, none of them were considering the effect his death would have on me.

Big deal, you say… that was an accident. It wasn’t intentional. It’s different when they knew they were doing you harm and were intentional in their wrongdoing.

My mother’s second husband is serving time in prison for molesting me and my sister for over 3 years. He threatened to kill me repeatedly. He raped me over and over again. He stole my childhood from me, and even though I told repeatedly, he intimidated me into recanting repeatedly. He’s been in prison since I was 13, when I finally had the courage to insist that I was telling the truth, that I had been all along. I had to go to court and testify against him, to his face. To this day, red-headed men scare me.

But I am no more deserving of grace than he is. I am no less a sinner than he is. He is a human first, before he is an offender. I am a human first, before I was his victim. And I will not give him the power over me of being his victim still. I will not poison my body with hatred for a man who was created to be loved, just as I was.

I have to remember to actively forgive him from time to time. I admit that it’s not easy. I don’t pretend it is. But I’ve decided that I am no better than he is, that he, separate from his actions, is just as deserving of God’s grace and love as I am. I don’t deny that his actions were wrong, and I can’t afford to be cavalier about it; I do bear the effects in my person. But until I can remember his name, not in fear or anger or hatred, but in sorrowful remembrance of another soul desperately in need of God’s bountiful grace and love, then I can’t pretend I’ve forgiven him.

I’m getting there. Because the truth is that God loves him just as desperately as he loves me… and just recognizing that was a powerful step of forgiveness.

I’m inviting you to walk with me on this difficult road. The first step is a doozy, but then, falling from the heights we’ve lifted ourselves to always will be. You’re not alone; there are plenty who’ve gone before you and who will come after you yet. But healing can’t begin unless you take the first step.

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