When I was a child, the rule was that if someone apologized for taking your toy or pulling your hair, you had to forgive them. And generally forgiveness comes easily at five years old or perhaps being easily distracted serves the same purpose. As a kindergarten miscreant, I stole a marshmallow Easter bunny from another child’s basket and bit off its ears. My wise kindergarten teacher had me apologize to the other student and give her my own Easter bunny in restitution. Then she asked if we wanted to see the real bunny that had come to visit. All was forgotten in the thrill of touching a live bunny.
Forgiving small childhood slights does not prepare one for the real work of forgiving the larger betrayals of adulthood. Forgiveness, barren road that it is, is the only real path to healing and moving on from adult sized conflicts and injuries. So how to accomplish lasting forgiveness for someone, even if they do not deserve it, have not asked for it, or worse, don’t think they have done something wrong? I use these examples because if someone wants forgiveness, then the path is towards reconciliation which is a two-sided process. Forgiveness is one-sided.
First: understand what forgiveness is.
Forgiveness is grieving a loss. It is letting go of a debt that cannot be repaid.
While some wrongs can be righted, those are in the minority. The big ones like adultery, abuse, lies, and betrayals of all kinds cannot be undone on this side of heaven. Even when healed, the loss of innocence and trust cannot be restored as if they were new. This is not to say that healing can’t happen, otherwise I would not write this at all. But recognize that the act of forgiveness causes significant pain even as it heals the wound. It is recognition of what is real. If your parents caused you harm by whatever their issues were, be it alcoholism, neglect, or constant criticism, what you lost as a child is lost. You cannot regain a happy childhood that wasn’t. And ironically, the first step to reclaiming a happier adulthood is forgiving and letting go what was lost. Trying to get back what was taken from you is to run endlessly in circles.
Second: Understand what you are forgiving. We would like to take our forgiveness as one giant lump, but it doesn’t work like that.
Just like the king counting his money in Luke, we need to look at the sum of our loss, counting up the individual losses that make the whole.
Because of this, forgiveness takes time. A wife cannot absolve her husband of adultery in one swoop without lying to herself. First she must count out the lies, the missed holidays, the missing funds, the insecurities, the betrayal of the children and so on. Forgiving one of those things at a time is possible. Trying to do it all at once is denial of what has been lost.
Third: Ask for help. Sometimes it is enough just to be willing to go through the process. Cast these burdens upon Jesus. Ask him to free you from the anger. Perpetual anger is addicting, I think, in part because it gives the illusion of safety. Anger is the shield with which we protect ourselves from others and from recognizing the reality of what we have lost, what has been taken cruelly from us. I often stand at the foot of the cross in my prayer times and ask Jesus to absorb into his body, my sins, my
angers, and griefs. Humbling but effective.
Fourth: Give up your right to revenge. Revenge is a siren that beckons very convincingly to us. My father once told me that there is no love without justice. How easily we confuse revenge and justice in our hearts. Forgiveness requires humility. It is admitting that you are not the final arbiter of justice. God metes out justice in His own timing and in His own way.
Last: Practice receiving the comfort of the Holy Spirit. I remember during one of my early attempts at forgiving my ex-husband, or at least giving up the wrath I had carried towards him, I found myself telling God that He had to have seen everything that this man had done to me and our children. And in a quiet moment, after that storm of frustration and grief, God said to me in His gentle way that He did not hold me responsible in any way for anything that my ex had done.
Until that moment, I did not realize how I had held on to the guilt that I had somehow deserved the mistreatment, that if only I had been different, then I would have avoided years of abuse.
When others harm us, we frequently blame ourselves. It is in the pursuit of forgiveness that truth and healing are found. If we steel ourselves with wrath, we cannot absorb the generous love of the Father.
My next post will focus on the various lies that prevent us from forgiving others, so stay tuned, folks.