By Anne Peterson, Crosswalk.com
My assignment is to write about forgiveness. This should be easy, I think flippantly. Then something unexpected happens. I listen to a phone message from a family member. That in itself is not noteworthy, but I realize I am not in a hurry to return the call. In fact, I don’t want to at all. And I recognize why.
I’m holding a grudge.
I once heard a speaker say, if you’re not sure if you’ve forgiven someone who’s hurt you, answer this question. “What would you do if you saw them walking toward you down the street?”
How in the world can I write an article about forgiveness when I am holding onto something? And then it hits me. I can write it, because I too, struggle with this whole area of forgiveness. It doesn’t wrap up nicely with a bow on top. God knew it.
A prayer to invite forgiveness:
Dear Father, please prepare our hearts for the truth you have in your Word. Help us God, when we seem to hold onto the hurts others have inflicted on us instead of opening our hearts toward forgiving our offender. God, you know how hard forgiveness is. You’ve seen our struggles. I pray that you would give us a fresh picture of what grace is and how you forgave us totally and completely. I pray this in your Son’s precious and Holy name. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
All of us have had to forgive someone.
We’ve also been on the other side where we’ve had to ask someone to forgive us. I won’t ask which has been the most difficult, but I know for me, I have a tendency to hold onto hurts.
To forgive, we need to understand what forgiveness is and what it’s not.
Forgiveness is not condoning the wrong done to us.
I remember thinking I cannot forgive this readily because then the message I’m giving is that it was no big deal. And it was a big deal. One that hurt me deeply. Trying to see this from the other person’s perspective is sometimes helpful, but there are also times when all we can see is our wounded hearts.
Forgiveness is acknowledging the wrong done, but making the choice to not hold it against the person.
Little slights seem easier to forgive than big ones that have us looking up, wondering what happened. When a person knocks into you by accident and says, “I’m sorry,” that slight is forgiven readily. But when someone who loves you hurts you, it’s a different story.
Part of us is surprised by the hurt, and the other part cannot justify what they did, no matter how hard we try.
If we were to look at the wrong done as just that, a behavior instead of a statement about whether they love us or not, we might have an easier time. If our hearts are not in the right place, forgiveness will not be possible.
In Ephesians 4:32, God tells us to be kind and tenderhearted. When we get in that frame of mind, we are not seeing the wrong done the same way as when we are only concerned with only ourselves.
Forgiveness is a choice.
When my grandsons were just 3 and 4, they would hurt each other. It resulted in a time out, and eventually one of them would say, “I’m sorry, I hit you.” And the other would offer, “I forgive you.” It would be followed up with a precious brotherly hug. And off they’d run to have more fun.
Grown-ups struggle more with this whole area of forgiveness.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel like forgiveness is a choice. We may feel like we are being forced into it. But like everything else God instructs us to do, we still have our free will. We get to decide if we are going to be obedient or not.
Grudges make forgiveness harder.
I have this closet in my mind. In it, I have kept all the offenses done to me. I’d often go there, take them out of their proverbial plastic bags, which kept them fresh, and I’d go over every hurt, reliving all the pain I felt.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that continually reliving the hurts prolonged the day I would forgive my offender. Listening to the words of the enemy kept me from following the words in scripture (Ephesians 4:31). I had to look up malice to better understand what God was telling me to put off.
Malice is defined as ill will, or revenge. That didn’t sit very well. I knew that God told us not to seek revenge, but holding onto hurts was paying back the person who hurt me.
The enemy would whisper, you don’t deserve to be treated like that. And I would agree. I didn’t deserve that treatment. I found myself getting angrier and angrier. And I justified storing away my resentments. But bitterness grows best in angry soil.
One day while sharing with God about my hurts and how unfair it was, I told him someone had to pay. Quietly, he reminded me someone did. It was his Son, Jesus who gave his life as payment for sin. Holding onto those resentments was negating what Jesus did.
And what if we forgive and still remember? It’s important to realize that we can forgive someone for a wrong done to us, but still remember the hurt. Does that mean we haven’t forgiven them? Not necessarily.
Forgiveness is not a one-time deal.
There have been times I’ve forgiven an offense and then down the road I am still struggling with feelings about it. We need to remember Peter’s conversation with Jesus about forgiving someone in Matthew 18:21-22. We’d like forgiveness to be a one-time thing, with no need to forgive again. But Jesus’ reply shows us that at times we will need to forgive the offense again and again. Is this even possible?
When Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane, he asked his good friends to wait with him while he prayed. He came back and they were all sleeping. Then he asked them again only to find a repeat performance. Not only had they let him down once but now they did it again. It always surprised me that he asked still one more time.
But what surprised me even more was Jesus’ attitude towards them. He forgave them. Jesus does not just give us instructions; he shows us how to live out what the scriptures say. You can read this story in Matthew 26:36-46.
Forgiveness is not possible apart from God.
I have hurt people and needed to ask forgiveness and I’ve also been hurt by others and needed to forgive them. True forgiveness is impossible apart from God. Read Philippians 4:13. God would not ask us to do something without empowering us to follow through.
I had just gotten a call from my sister. “You’ve got to see dad, he’s dying.”
My dad had been abusive to us five children. And he also had blamed a couple of us for our mother’s death. Now my sister expected me to go and see him? I would not do it.
But my sister brought up a good point. “Anne, you have regrets about not going to mom, don’t do it again.” She was right. I called up my Bible teacher and asked for prayer. God showed up in a big way. As I stood beside my father’s hospital bed, I heard words I had never heard before.
My father apologized for not being a good father. And at that moment, God gave me the grace to forgive him.
Our last conversation together had been our very best. God had made my hard heart tender.
What is necessary for forgiveness?
For forgiveness to be possible, the person who wronged you must acknowledge it. When a person does not admit the wrong, he is not seeking your forgiveness, he/she just wants you to forget it. You can still choose not to hold this against the person, but with forgiveness, the person who wronged you accepts responsibility.
If we feel the temptation to hold onto something we’ve forgiven, we need to keep taking it to the Lord, each time it surfaces.
I have remembered times when I’ve felt something was in the way of my relationship with God, creating distance between me and the Lord. And in those times, I prayed God would reveal to me if there was something I needed to address. I have to confess, sometimes it has been a person I needed to forgive, or one I needed to ask forgiveness from.
It doesn’t matter how big or small an offense is, when we hold it against another person, this does not please God.
It’s as if we are saying, “We know Jesus shed his blood and died on the cross for our sins, and for the sins of others, but this offense? This one was not taken care of.”
Forgiveness is not only possible, it’s something God instructs us to do. God will help us when we choose to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply. Remember, he knew all about it. God can make our hearts tender and give us the words we need to say.
We need to remember just as another person has hurt us, we are also capable of hurting others. Sometimes we see only how it has affected us. But remembering God is aware of the whole situation is helpful. In 1 Peter 5:7, God tells us to cast our anxieties or cares on him. Why? Because God cares about what we care about.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to make a phone call.
Anne Peterson is a regular contributor to Crosswalk. Anne is a poet, speaker, published author of 14 books, including her memoir, Broken: A story of abuse, survival, and hope. Sign up for Anne’s newsletter at www.annepeterson.com and receive a free eBook. Or connect on Facebook or Medium.
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