Is it possible to forgive? Redeeming emotions (3)

Posted by on Feb 26, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

We all know that we are supposed to forgive others. Provided the offence against us has been minor, it might be relatively easy to do. ‘We all make mistakes,’ we’d say philosophically, and let the matter drop. But sometimes it is not so easy. Not all offences fit into the trifling category. Some will impact us until our dying day. Is forgiveness then possible?

We started this redeeming emotions series with two posts on anger. Today we shift our focus to the question of forgiveness, and the healing of emotions that might need to take place before that is possible.

What might we need to forgive people for? I remember the caller to a radio chat show on forgiveness say, ‘He was drunk when he smashed into the back of her. At first we thought she would pull through. One operation followed another. But then she died – died after endless surgery, pain and helplessness. The court thought the man should spend a few months in jail – and he did. A few months… Forgive that man for what he did to my daughter… what he did to all of us? Never. I will never forgive him.’

Sometimes the offence is less obvious, but still deep. I recollect speaking to a young man who in spite of a lofty intellect and great natural ability, was plagued with self doubt. It crippled his ability to make decisions and to opt into life. As we talked, it became clear that the source of his insecurity was his parents. He grew up facing their endless criticism of every decision he made. Nothing he did was ever good enough. In the end it was easier for him to assume that he couldn’t do anything and to withdraw. As our talks continued, he came to realise how angry he was with his parents and how much he needed to forgive them for.

I know several people whose parents have tried to live their lives through them. As I write, I am thinking of the young man whose father had not been able to go to university because there was not enough money in his family. Determined that his son should not be penalised in that way, he almost forced him to go to medical school. Trouble was that though the son had the grades to get into medical school, he had no desire to become a doctor. He still lives with the sense of failure for having dropped out of his studies and is working at forgiving his father for trying to make him live out his unfulfilled dream. In turn he feels that his father cannot forgive him for making different choices for his life.

In life we are both sinners and sinned against. We all face times when we need the forgiveness of other people and, in turn, need to forgive. But how do you do that? How do you forgive the relative who molested you as a child? Or the parent who walked out on you? Or the husband who cheated on you? Or the colleague who you thought was your friend but who grasped promotion at your expense? The list can go on and on…

Forgiven we forgive

Though we are speaking in terms of how to forgive others, the biblical picture of our lives is that in the first instance we are people who need to be forgiven. Whenever Jesus spoke about forgiveness of others he began by reminding those who didn’t want to forgive that they too were in need of forgiveness. Take the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), where Jesus allows those who are without sin to start the stoning. His line of reasoning is clear. If you are without fault then you can participate in this execution. No one met that pre-requisite. It is similar in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:21-35). A servant released from a huge debt refuses to forgive another who owes him only a small amount. In Jesus’ mind there is no doubt that the listener is always the one who has been forgiven the huge amount. The reason is simple. We have been forgiven for our sin against God. No matter what others have done to us, it pales into insignificance alongside the offence of our sin to God.

It is worth remembering that our sin required a costly remedy. When we arrogantly compare ourselves to others and consider ourselves superior, we need to stand at the foot of the Cross, see the agony of Jesus, and remember that our sin put him there. Any offence committed against us must be impacted by that comparison.

Furthermore, Jesus sees forgiveness as an everyday affair, needed over and over again. He includes it in his model prayer for believers, which many pray on a daily basis. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive them who sin against us’ (Matt 6:12). We are not to ask from God what we are not prepared to give to others. Forgiven, we forgive, and the flow of life sees the need for both arise on a regular basis.

Forgiveness is usually a process

You may well be thinking, ‘Brian, what you say is fine and I’m sure it works for minor offences. So if the boss yells at me unfairly, I can accept that his partner yelled at him earlier and he is now taking it out on me. Or, I realise that Megan has been feeling unwell lately, and that is why she is being so difficult (horrible actually). OK, I can manage to forgive that. But what when the things we need to forgive are so much larger than the trivial? What if they continue to negatively impact our lives on a daily basis?’

I wish there was an easy answer to that question, but there isn’t. Forgiveness is often a process, and it might well take years before you have fully forgiven someone – and that someone might be yourself – for often we are harshest on our own self. There are however some steps that set us in the right direction, and here are a few of them…

Step 1: Ask God to heal the hurt

It is hard to forgive if the pain of what we need to forgive is still haunting us. Every time we feel the pain we might well feel unable to forgive. Perhaps the first step to forgiveness is to ask God to take the pain away. In asking God to heal the hurt it helps to ask for some insight into the larger purposes of God. Is there some good that God wants to bring from this situation? While your instinct might be to say, ‘Never in a million years’ – don’t rush to an answer.  No matter how hard the blows have been, they have never been outside of God’s control and God’s nature is such that good can come out of the most broken of situations. Joseph is able to forgive his brothers after they have sold him into slavery because he comes to realise that their actions have been used by God to save thousands of lives. In his classic statement in Gen 50:20 he says: ‘What you intended for evil, God has worked for good.’ That is not at all the same as saying that it was good that they sold him into slavery, but it is saying that God is able to redeem the most hopeless and fallen of situations and work them for good.

When we view our lives as under the control of God we are liberated. We are not powerless victims. We are children of the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Because God is in control there is always the possibility that good might come from the pain suffered. We can work together with God to write a different outcome to even the most negative of scripts.

Step 2: Take actions which don’t penalise the other

Forgiving others starts as an act of obedience. We may not feel like forgiving them, we may not feel they deserve it, but out of obedience to Christ we forgive. It starts as an act of the will.

The Bible is very clear that as the Holy Spirit controls our lives, we start to develop ‘self control’ (Gal 5:22-23). That self control is not meant in the sense of doing everything ourselves but as being disciplined. Even if we feel like hurting someone because of what they have done to us, we can still act for their good.

An important step in forgiving others is to make a firm decision that even though our heart may not yet be in it, we will act in the interests of the person who has offended us.

In my own life, that has meant some practical things. It has meant remaining silent about someone rather than speaking a malicious word when the opportunity has arisen. It has meant refusing to get drawn into negative discussions about people. It has meant trying to act as though the offence is forgiven.

One of the common Old Testament verbs for forgiveness is ‘ns’ which means to lift a burden from someone. This picture of forgiveness is that what the person has done against you is like a tangible obstacle that you can’t get around in your relationship. But by ‘ns’ you can lift the burden by refusing to act as though it is there any more. You can make the choice to not allow it to hinder your relationship.

There are of course limits to this. Sometimes it is important to speak up against someone. The most common reason is your conviction that what they have done to you, they will probably do to others. Speaking up against the office bully can liberate 20 other people from their attacks. Even more importantly, speaking up against sexual offenders helps to ensure that this horrible evil is not perpetuated. So whilst we usually work at forgiveness by acting in the interest of the person who has hurt us, we do so against a broader backdrop of the potential impact of our silence. That impact might require us to take a different path.

Step 3: Commit to acknowledging the good

When someone has hurt us a common response is to notice everything about them that is wrong. Most of us have fairly simple minds. It’s why in movies the villains are usually very, very bad and the heroes are very, very good. We can often only cope with life if it is hopelessly oversimplified. But real life is far more complex.

When someone has hurt us the normal response is to see no good in them. Our hearts harden. A helpful step is to choose not to notice the negatives but to focus on the positives. Someone has accurately said that “There is so much bad in the best of us… there is so much good in the worst of us…”

Think of the person you don’t want to forgive. Get some paper out. Freely and generously acknowledge five good things about them.

Step 4: Invite God to change your heart

Up until now I have been speaking about the ambulance stuff. At the scene of the accident, one of the first responsibilities is to try to stop any excessive bleeding. Acting in other people’s interests and noticing the good in them is stopping the bleeding. While ensuring that things don’t get worse, in the end it is not enough. We have to ask God to change our hearts.

One of the wisest men I know commented that we are most offended by the sins in others which we secretly harbour in our own hearts. The more I have thought about this, the more I have realised its truth. The things that I find most unacceptable in others often lurk not too far below the surface in my own life. By contrast, I am able to be remarkably relaxed about ‘deficits’ in others that I don’t struggle with. I am not sure what the dynamic behind this is. Perhaps seeing our flaws magnified in others is a little too confronting. Is it that subconsciously we think: ‘If I stop being vigilant, is this what I will become? And if I have to try so hard to prevent that from happening, how dare this person adopt so cavalier an attitude towards it…’?

Our heart is a strange place. Other people often act as a mirror of our own weaknesses. Ask if you resent this person so much because they remind you of your shadow self.

We start to forgive from the heart when we realise how much our own hearts need to be changed.

Step 5: Strive with words

The Bible attaches great importance to the people of God living at peace with each other. When our hearts are ready to forgive, we must complete the cycle by risking honest conversation. Too often we talk about people instead of with them. God goes to the most extraordinary lengths to reconcile us to himself. He sends Jesus to die for us. If reconciliation is so important to God, shouldn’t we at least be prepared to talk to those we hold in bondage by our lack of forgiveness. That requires courage, honesty and the willingness to speak about what happened with humility – recognising that we might have had some role to play in the relationship breakdown.

Sinners and sinned against: Forgiven to forgive…

I realise that if you have endured a ‘major league’ offence – if you have been assaulted, or sexually violated, or bereaved because of the evil of another, what I have written will seem hopelessly inadequate. In the end, only God can heal the pain. And so even as I urge you to work towards forgiveness, I pray that God will give you strength and courage in spite of all that you have endured. But if you are someone who hasn’t really endured much… stop sweating the small stuff. Forgive, because you have been forgiven…


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