Forgiving is not one of the easier parts of the Christian faith. In fact, it’s something that I myself struggle with from time to time.
I know, I know. You’re saying, “Not you! Surely not you! You are such a nice guy, such a nice, easy-tempered guy. I simply can’t believe that you ever have trouble with forgiveness.”
Well, it’s true. Saintly, though I may be, I too struggle and falter and fail in the area of forgiveness. If you really want to know about my temper and my struggles with forgiveness, you should ask my family. Once they’ve stopped laughter at the fact that I just referred to myself as “saintly,” I’m sure they could give you quite a different picture of just how easy-tempered I might or might not be.
But of course, it’s mostly like that with all of us. It’s most often the people who are closest to us who know – probably better than we ourselves know – just how easily we move from resentment and anger to forgiveness and then on to reconciliation. Certainly, we can sometimes find ourselves fuming over what some stranger at the supermarket or on the highway has done. But most destructive is the resentment that simmers and grows over time in the closest and most important relationships in our lives – family members, close friends, neighbors, co-workers, and, of course, fellow church members.
And it is destructive. Few people will argue with me that unforgiveness is a damaging and unhealthy thing to have in our lives. It can ruin the very relationships that should be the most fulfilling, enriching, and life-giving relationships in our lives.
But the damage to our lives is not just outside of us in our relationships. Unforgiveness is toxic to our soul. The longer we harbor the presence of unforgiveness in our hearts, the more we come to suffer its poisonous effects in our character and personality. Unforgiveness is fertilizer for such traits as bitterness, intolerance, and a critical spirit. Who of us would want to be known as a bitter, intolerant, and critical person? But the more we tolerate unforgiveness in our hearts, the more we will become just such a person, though we will probably not realize it.
Bitter, resentful, easily offended people rarely recognize those traits in themselves. There’s a reason for that. Unforgiveness with its children, bitterness, resentfulness, and criticism, are equipped with a sort of natural camouflage. That protects them from being seen by the person who harbors them, while they are usually all too obvious to others.
There is an ugly sweetness to unforgiveness that we fallen human beings can find almost irresistible. We relish its savor. We protect it from discovery like a drug addict protecting his secret stash. We know that unforgiveness is not allowed and that, if it’s revealed, we’ll have to get rid of it. But it’s so addictively sweet to us that we sometimes can’t bear the thought of letting it go. And we know that the effort involved in letting it go can be very hard and unpleasant work. So, most often we are inclined to try to hide our unforgiveness like an alcoholic trying to hide his bottle.
Refusing to forgive can infuse us with a sense of power and self-justification, especially so if the offense or injustice we’ve suffered
is a real injustice. That’s what makes it so sweet and appealing to us. We can, if we want, use someone else’s wrongness (or perceived wrongness) to emphasize our rightness (or perceived rightness) to build ourselves up in our own eyes.
We usually use one of two ploys to hide our unforgiveness from ourselves. One approach is to deny that we are angry or hurt. That’s my personal favorite. This approach is especially popular among emotionally repressed, middle-class folks like the family I grew up in. People in my family rarely got angry. They might get “upset” or a little “put out.” But no lingering evidence of the presence of these feelings was allowed to remain for very long. I don’t say that we ever did much apologizing or forgiving. We just pushed whatever anger or hurt we might have felt down into the dark inner corners of our psyches and insisted that everything was fine.
But just because we no longer admit to feeling hurt or offended against, doesn’t mean that forgiveness has taken place. To forgive, we have to acknowledge that we have been hurt, that we have experienced a wrong, and then deciding that we will forgive it. We decide that in spite of the wrong that has been done us, we will not harbor ill-will toward the person who has hurt us. Forgiveness is the decision to behave toward the one who has hurt us with kindness, decency and good-will, even if we don’t feel like it and even if they don’t deserve it.
That last bit is the other way we try to get around forgiving. We claim to stand on justice. We insist that the other person has done wrong and, therefore, does not deserve to be forgiven until they have made amends. We stand on our “rights.”
But this, I think, is the right moment to play the trump card that must forever silence any such talk from Christian people. The ultimate reason to forgive those who hurt us is that God has told us that we have to. And not only has he told us that we have to, he has also demonstrated that that is how he treats us. Because, my friends, that is exactly what he has done for us in Jesus. He has forgiven us, even though we don’t in any way deserve his forgiveness. We forgive because he has forgiven us.
So, I’m going to be working forgiving everyone who hurts me. How about joining me? I’m going to work hard at admitting to myself when I’m angry and resentful. I’m going to try to stop myself from hiding those feelings from myself and burying them in secret in my heart where they will just fester and become bitterness.
I’m going to be working hard at reminding myself that I don’t deserve to be forgiven by God, yet he has forgiven me anyway. Therefore, I will not allow myself to insist that those who hurt me must first somehow earn my forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift, and I propose to be very free about giving it out.
I believe that if you and I work hard at this, we will begin to look pretty extraordinary to the rest of our community. But in the end, we won’t be the extraordinary ones. The really extraordinary One is the One who has forgiven not only me and not only you. He has forgiven the whole world. And we can show the world that if we work on showing it to the people around us.
And to those readers who know me and have to deal with me personally, let me say: no doubt, I will be helping you all by giving you plenty of opportunities to practice forgiveness. Despite my best efforts, I will certainly give you plenty of reasons to forgive me. Thank you in advance. I promise to try not to give you too many opportunities to forgive me. And although you all are really very wonderful people, you too might give me some practice at forgiving. I will not withhold it from you. Because I love you.
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.
- Forgiveness Builds Character (menofredemption.wordpress.com)