In the movie, “Second Chance”, starring Michael W. Smith and Jeff Carr, an incident occurs in which a pastor is betrayed and his inner city church is going to be destroyed. Those who are going to destroy it decided to do it without the pastor’s knowledge and when he finds it out, he grows very angry at the insensitivity to his ministry and the injustice of it all. Managing with difficulty to restrain his anger, he responds to his “enemy” with these words, “The Bible says I got to love you, and right now all I want to do is beat the hell out of you.” Jesus gave us a very difficult assignment when He commanded us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us. (Luke 6:27-28).
There is a distinction to be made between forgiving someone and loving someone. God loves everyone all the time, but that does not mean everyone experiences His forgiveness. Two men died on crosses next to Jesus and apparently one was forgiven and the other was not. (Luke 23:39-43) How can a person be forgiven who does not want to be forgiven or who is incapable of receiving it? For now, I will pass up the deeper theological questions this leads us into, for example the extent of Christ’s atonement, and stick to the practical matter at hand. The problem is that it feels impossible for us to love someone who has hurt us and is continually offending us. We are angry, and justice rightly demands that their wrongness be righted. One of my goals in this letter is to help us see how we can let go of angry or bitter feelings so as to become free to be loving and forgiving persons. This is no easy or automatic task. It seems to go against our natural human tendencies.
When you care about Jesus’ teachings, there is no doubt that he wants us to learn forgiveness. Here are some of the things he says. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. “If you do not forgive others for their transgressions, then your Father in heaven will not forgive your transgressions.” (Mathew 6:12, 14-15) When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother who sins against him, Jesus replied, “Up to seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22) Jesus told his followers to go out and proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all the peoples of the world. (Luke 24:47) Forgiveness, according to Jesus, is very important, and is a huge calling to master. But it is so unnatural to the wounded, hurting, and angry heart. How can we do it?
In many ways forgiveness is not an easy concept to understand. Throughout my years of ministry I have had people ask me questions about forgiveness. Most of them have to do with why or how should we forgive people who continue in their unhealthy ways and do not change. All it seems to do is let people who say they are sorry “off the hook” so they feel better and think everything is ok, but it is not and they keep on being the way they are. This makes it difficult to keep forgiving them. We need to understand that the Bible is clear about the main requirements for being forgiven. They are confession and repentance. (Luke 17:1-4; 1 John 1:7) If a person honestly and sincerely confesses and repents, we are to forgive them. Repentance means a person is committed to the process of changing. It is easier to keep forgiving someone when we see that they are trying and that they are truly working at overcoming their character defects and wrongs. But the question is still asked, “Shouldn’t I forgive everyone who hurts me? Isn’t that what God wants us to do?”
Everyone at some time in life experiences being wronged by someone. We become hurt, angry, and frustrated if something is not being done to correct the wrong and make it right. We ourselves may not have the power to right the wrongs and so we suffer under the tormenting feelings of injustice and anger, becoming upset every time we think about what they did. Often the hurt and wrong cut so deep that we cannot forget it and we hold on to our ill-feelings and resentments toward the person or persons who wronged us. But we may find it hard to live with our growing feelings of bitterness and our desire to retaliate or get even. To remain in this position is terrible because we are continually troubled and we feel ourselves becoming someone we do not want to be. Perhaps we are unable to think about, or be around those people, without the ill feelings rising up in us again. It may not only be affecting our minds and emotions, but also our physical well-being. Perhaps we are unable to sleep, or eat, or we have an upset stomach, or whatever. As this injustice toward us smolders within, our personality can change and we become so bitter we are hard to live with. (Hebrews 12:15) We blame others for what they did to us and we cannot seem to get past it. We don’t like the idea of forgiving them. It doesn’t seem like an option we want to choose because if we forgive them we think they are getting away with their wrongs and are going free. Letting them go free doesn’t sit right with us. We want to see them punished as they deserve and our only way may be to maintain our right to be mad at them and to believe that they deserve certain consequences. Of course, if they would humbly and sincerely say they are sorry, and repent of their wrongs, we might be able to more easily forgive them and move on with our lives, but they don’t, and so we have no alternative but to hang on to our resentments and perhaps pay them back by making their life miserable. A big problem with this is that often they don’t care and so our attempts to let them know we are not happy with them fail to have the desired effect of making them pay, or change; so we become even more angry and frustrated, or depressed. Unfortunately, as we hang on to these offenses and wrong treatment of us, we end up hurting ourselves more than we are hurting them; but it is hard to love them, let alone forgive them.
Forgiveness is not about letting evil win. Even when we do love and forgive, there are instances when justice must be done, or relationships made right. Just because people are forgiven, does not mean they can keep doing what they have done. There are definitely times, for the sake of safety or well-being, that the people committing the offenses or crimes must be stopped, whether in the society at large, or in a private situation such as marriage. To let them continue is to forfeit happy and healthy relationships by allowing ourselves and others to continue to be hurt by unchanged behaviors. Some seem to be able to overlook offenses more easily than others – it’s their nature or personality – but maybe that is not good if it allows evils to continue.
How do we get free of our hurtful feelings when the wrongs done to us never seem to be righted? How can we bring ourselves to love or forgive? What makes it possible for us to do it? We want justice. We want change. It is somewhat satisfying to remember that even though the wicked may win for awhile, their day is coming. (Psalm 73:2-19; Proverbs 2:21-22; 24:19-20) And, it is tempting to gloat or feel glad when bad things happen to them and they seem to be getting what they deserve. But God warns us that we are not to be celebrating when the wicked are suffering their due rewards. The Bible says that to rejoice and be glad when our enemy falls or stumbles will cause God to be displeased with us and turn His anger away from them. (Proverbs 24:17-18) We need to remember that God still cares for them. (Ezekiel 18:23, 31)
As Christians we have Jesus and His example to help us know the right thing to do. There have been times in my own life when I wanted to see others suffer for things they did to me. I know that forgiveness can be much more difficult for those with deeper hurts than I have experienced, nevertheless, for our own well-being, love and/or forgiveness must happen at some point. My faith in Christ has helped me to deal with being unjustly treated and having to live through sleepless and tormenting times. In thinking about those who wronged me, it helped me to realize that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, just as He did for mine.
This tells me that He cares for them in spite of what they have done. God wants everyone to repent of their wrongs and experience His forgiveness. (2 Peter 3:9) This helps me to see them in a new light – they also need God and the healing that He can bring to them. Sometimes when I remember Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who mistreat you”, I obey and actually pray for them and ask God to do good for them and to help them. This softens my heart toward them and helps me gain more willingness to love or forgive. I realize that because Jesus died for them too, He wants to extend His mercy and grace to them through the message of His love. The gospel says, “I love you, I died for you, I want to forgive you and free you from the evil chains that bind you. Therefore, repent and believe the things that I provide and want for you.” As true Christ-followers, we have done that and have been forgiven for the wrongs we have done to God and others and even to ourselves. We know what it is like to be loved by God in this way and to be set free. God wants my enemies, those who cause my pain and grief, to experience that too. The problem is that they do not receive it and they reject the offer, continuing in their evil ways. They do not change; they think they are all right and seem to be indifferent to my pain, and they do not care. I feel that I cannot forgive that. But please see what Jesus did on the cross. See how people unjustly and wrongly and falsely treated Him and put Him to death. He was treated every bit as unfairly and painfully and wrongly as I was, and to the severest degree. (Hebrews 12:3) Yet what did He say to God about those who treated Him like this and who refused to admit their wrongs and who kept on in their evil, and seemed to be winning because nothing was done to them. What did Jesus say? He said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:33-34) I take it that He felt sorry for them; He felt compassion, but why? Because they could not see that Jesus loved them and was making a way for them to be loved and changed. If they do not accept this message of forgiveness and reconciliation being offered to them, they will die in their sins, (John 8:24) and face the judgment of God, and be banished from His love and life forevermore. If we truly saw it this way, would it not change our heart toward those who unjustly treat us, give us a feeling of pity or more compassion for them, and make us want to see them come to Christ? We can love them as Christ loves them because we have entered into Christ’s sufferings by going through what He went through. We can pray for their forgiveness, and pity them, seeing that they need mercy, or they will be lost forever, separated from God and all that is good. We can have pity because of their ignorance. We can wish them God’s mercy and salvation.
How can I get past my anger and my need to see them punished for the wrongs done to me? It helps me when I realize that they will not get away with what they have done but will face God and be dealt with by Him for their wrongs. That doesn’t have to be my job. (Romans 12:19) I can let go of my need to punish them, turn that task over to God, and free myself to become a more loving and forgiving person. One of the best statements I have read concerning this hope is by N.T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. He wrote, “God’s coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, and yearned over. In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be.” For us to experience a change of heart and mind, it may be necessary to tell ourselves, “God will repay them; I will let Him do it, it is not my job.”
How will I know if I have loved or forgiven them? My feeling of animosity toward them will be replaced by coming to feel toward them like Jesus does, that they are in deep trouble and will be lost forever if they do not turn their lives over to Christ’s love. I will want to do good for them instead of acting in retaliation or avoidance. Loving my enemies does not mean I have to forgive them in the sense of tolerating and accepting them with their evil ways. But loving them does mean forgiving them in the sense of releasing them from my ill will.
Loving my enemies means that I have to learn to pray for them and to do good to them in order to have any hope of gaining victory over their evil and over myself. (Romans 12:21) It may help to do this if I think about what problems in their lives have caused them to be the way they are. I will know I have loved them if I have found God’s grace giving me the courage and strength to do what Jesus says to do in Luke 6:27-28. I have experienced victory over evil treatment when I have been able to think as Jesus does toward those whom I have been greatly embittered against. It is truly freeing, as though a heavy load is lifted off of my heart, mind, and body. But we will have a hard time doing it if we do not see the situation from the perspective of Jesus himself and if we have not experienced his love in our own lives. (Colossians 3:12-13) We cannot give to another that which we have not first received ourselves. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Let us turn now to the subject of forgiving ourselves. I often hear people say, “I struggle with forgiving myself”. Maybe we have guilt in a relationship where we have been terribly wronged, thinking we caused it. Or maybe we are haunted or regretful over something terrible we have done in the past. Often, the problem of those who cannot forgive themselves, even when they know that Christ is forgiving, is that they haven’t been able to believe it. By not believing that we are forgiven we are punishing ourselves as we feel we deserve, perhaps hoping that this self-condemnation will enable us to live with what we have done. The truth is that once we are forgiven, Jesus does not want us to carry our wrongs. (Psalm 103:10, 12) If we do remember the terrible things we have done, and those feelings of guilt or shame return, we must remind ourselves again that what Christ has forgiven can no longer be used against us to accuse us and defeat our joy. If we have been forgiven we must guard against allowing ourselves to relive the wrong, focusing on our guilt. (Romans 8:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:11) We can, however, use the sometimes nagging remembrance as a reminder not to repeat the wrong. Let me say again, it is not so much an issue of needing to forgive ourselves as it is believing that we are forgiven. We are acting as God if we judge ourselves unworthy of forgiveness when He has already said that we are forgiven.
In addition to believing we are forgiven (1 John 1:9), here are some additional thoughts to help us work through our need for self-forgiveness. (1) One of the things that makes forgiving ourselves difficult is that we are constantly faced with our past, that is, we cannot seem to overcome feelings of regret for what we have done and the feelings of self-blame for our part in what happened. It is true that we are guilty as charged and what has happened can never be changed. So how do we live with it and not have to feel the pain of regret and guilt? Actually, the pain may always be there, coming to mind at different times. But since God has forgiven, it does not come as a condemner of us; rather, it comes as a reminder of the greatness of God’s forgiveness through the sacrificial cross of Jesus, of our continued need to be thankful and to depend on God, and of our need to live differently. (2) Another reason it may be difficult to accept our forgiveness is the fact that the truth of God’s laws of right and wrong never go away. We may be reading the Bible or sitting in a setting where God’s word is being proclaimed, and hear again that we have sinned. God’s laws do condemn us. They are producers of death. We must remember that the law of God is good in the sense that it sets forth the standards of what is the right way to live so that people see their wrongs and come to a place of humility before God, seeking His forgiveness and power to change to a new way of living. There is no doubt that when we hear those standards of right we can easily feel like we are being condemned all over again. It is in such a situation that we want to run from the truth, or the people who proclaim it, so that we do not have to feel judged and unaccepted. However, we need to work through this by knowing that God has a good purpose for His laws, and that we are no longer under the law, but under the grace of Jesus. It is here that we need to remind ourselves, “Yes, I have sinned, but I have been forgiven and am being changed into a new creation of God bound for newness in God’s glorious kingdom. He loves me and I am now one with God in Christ Jesus.” Our relationship with our Heavenly Father is restored and God no longer holds our sin against us. (Psalm 103:1-14)
We need to keep hearing Jesus’ words to us as stated in John 8:11. If we can believe and know this to be true, we can sit in the hearing of God’s law and agree with it, but know that all is past and forgiven and that I am now on a new journey. (3) Part of the problem of still feeling condemned is the other people around us who do not forgive us and who continue to see us as sinners. We must see that as their problem, not ours, if they choose to treat us like that. But to dismiss them, or to run away from them only serves to allow the problem to continue unchecked and to allow us all to continue in unhealthy relationships. We need to build our relationships to become all that Christ wants His people to be. Even though we may consider them to be mostly wrong, we can improve our relationship by admitting to them that we were wrong, by learning to be honest with them about our feelings, by telling them the story of how God has forgiven us, and by saying that we would like their forgiveness. This helps to remove their sinful judgmentalism from us and puts it onto them to be like God wants them to be and forgive us as God has forgiven them. (Ephesians 4:31-32; Colossians 3:12-14) We all need the love of others and must work though issues of personal guilt with them. It helps us forgive ourselves when we experience the forgiveness of others. This must be part of what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples, “whatever you bind on earth, or loose on earth, has already been bound or loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) We are all sinners and we are taught by our Lord Jesus the importance and need to forgive one another. (Matthew 18:15-35) Entry into this kind of relationship helps us to forgive ourselves, and just as important, to know we are forgiven, and to feel forgiven.
Forgiving ourselves has a deeper dimension than just dealing with our sinful thoughts or actions. There is what some call existential guilt. I was coaching a team at a game event for kids. My daughter was in the final race which required running laps around a circle and finishing in the center. If she won, the team would win the games. I was to count her laps. As she was running she came around and looked at me as if to ask, “Is this when I should finish or should I go one more lap?” I realized that I had not kept track of her laps and I told her to run one more. She did what I said and came in last place instead of first. She did not need to go another lap. She looked to me for help and I had told her wrong and failed her trust. Not only that, I had caused the entire team to lose their first place trophy. I felt shattered on the bus ride home, knowing that I had failed everyone, but especially my daughter’s trust. Then it came to me, I realized in that moment that I am not a perfect person and that I cannot always meet the expectations of others. I was feeling down, not over a great sin that needed forgiveness, but over being an imperfect person; something in me I could never change or eliminate. How could I overcome the fact that I am imperfect, make mistakes, and will continue to let people down? I came to realize that Jesus not only died for my sins, but also for the very fact that I am an imperfect human being. I thanked Him that He loved me just as I was. That day I felt like I took care of something that I previously had been unaware of, my need to accept myself as imperfect. Christ died for all that is wrong with me and He accepts me. I should not have to keep trying to hide who I am, but rather, I can try to live honestly and openly before others. It was a good and freeing feeling to know that Christ loves and accepts me, but now, to feel totally healed in my situation with my daughter and the team, I needed their forgiveness. I told them I was responsible for their loss and how sorry I was that I let them down. To my relief, they told me it was okay, and I believed them. Being forgiven and accepted by Christ, and them, for who I am and for what I did was for me a great healing.
Walter Trobisch, in one of his writings called, “Of Flight and Forgiveness”, tells about a person who approached him to convince him that God is not Almighty. He is not Almighty because He is not able to make what has happened “unhappen”. As a new Christian, Mr. Trobisch was confused as to how to answer, but after some years passed, here is what he finally came to. “God showed me that that is exactly His particular work; the heart of all His dealings from the first to the last chapter of the Bible. God can make what has happened “unhappened” through His forgiveness…It has wiped out my past, and made possible a whole new beginning.”