i should probably start by saying i didn’t want to write this one. i’m not sure why, even. maybe it has something to do with the fact that part of me doesn’t think i have anything to contribute to the topic of forgiveness. maybe it’s because it seems so elementary, in a lot of ways. you forgive, you move on. end of story. right?… or maybe it’s because i don’t want to come across as though i think i have this one all figured out. i assure you, i do not.
but i did recently find myself in a pretty horrible situation. one that began with me needing to forgive someone. someone very close to me. for inflicting a deep amount of pain. but then it turned into a situation where i needed to ask the same person for forgiveness. and so i found myself spinning round and round in this confusing circle of forgiveness. it was horrible.
forgiveness is one of those things–like so many others–that you can’t really have an educated conversation about until you’ve walked through it. i mean really walked through it. when you’re faced with the reality of having to forgive someone for something significant. something you don’t want to forgive. something that hurts so bad that you just want to hold onto the pain with all you have and not let go. that’s the kind of forgiveness i’m talking about dealing with here.
and, like i said, i was forced to recently. the need to forgive hit me square in the face. like a cold, dead, stinking fish.
sanding down my edges
“for someone who believes in heaven and hell, it’s not okay to tell someone to go to hell,” i said, before taking a bite of french toast. the kind of french toast that’s made from thick cut, artisan bread. not the thin, sandwich style stuff. i was having breakfast with a good friend of mine. ryan. at a place in seattle. a place we always try to go when i’m in town.
it’s a really cool, open space with lofty ceilings, rustic wooden tables, concrete floors and big windows that serve as large-scale snapshots of the beautiful northwest sky on a clear morning. the place is always filled with lots of bustling people on the weekends. 30-somethings parents with their children. 20-somethings meeting friends. grey haired couples enjoying breakfast over the paper. or a good book. it’s a great place to be on the weekend, with wonderful smells of bacon and cinnamon floating through the air.
and the food is amazing. the berries come from local berry farms. the bread is made at the place down the street. the eggs are local, too. and the employees wear shirts that read, “eat like you give a damn.” it’s that kind of a place. very northwest.
we found ourselves sitting at the bar overlooking the open-air kitchen on this particular morning. watching the eggs spit and hiss as they hit the frying pan. omelets turned and spun in the air by guys who have obviously done this before. and it was over this breakfast that i shared with ryan a conversation i had just had the day before. one i now deeply regretted. one that still pained me to discuss.
“and after i said all those horrible things, i could feel Him at that moment reminding me that there was still much work to be done,” i shared. “i could picture Him with a wood plane in hand, sanding down my edges.”
“or cutting them off completely,” ryan corrected.
“indeed,” i nodded.
the day before, i had confronted a close relative on something they had recently done. and said. i am sometimes astounded to think it takes a license to own a gun, but that we are permitted to fire off our words without regard for the wounds they cause. the holes left by these wounds do not heal easily; they can sometimes remain with us for our entire life.
this all happened during what was already an incredibly difficult time. this family member had kicked me while i was down. they had pained me deeply. so much so that i have trouble thinking of much else that anyone has ever said or done that has hurt this bad. but that’s just how it goes. stabs always seem more painful when they’re from close range.
the plan was to tell him i forgave him. to let him know i knew i had no right to hold onto my anger for his actions in light of the forgiveness i have received in Christ. that it would be awfully hypocritical of me to accept forgiveness for my own mistakes with one hand, and hold him at arms-length with the other hand. out of anger. and hurt.
that was the plan. but things didn’t go according to plan.
what began as a slow, soft toned conversation quickly turned into a rapid-paced, hate-filled attack between us both. where words were thrown like spears. aiming to hurt. but it didn’t end there. i quickly found myself lunging at him with all i had. i found my wife’s arms clenched around my waist. to restrain me. another close relative who was there stepped in between us, and i found myself flailing with all i had. to get at him. i found myself yelling at the top of my lungs. threats. name-calling. and i remember seeing my sister covering her face. the tears streaming. sobbing.
his words had stuck. they had pierced my flesh. and i wanted a piece of his. with my own two hands. i wanted to feel the force of my knuckles against his skin and skull.
a place of self-righteousness
my grandpa likes to keep old newspaper clippings. of our family. of his grandkids. wedding announcements. academic honors. family members returning home from the service. he hangs them from the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. most of them are old now. so the paper has begun to turn colors.
and i usually just allow my eyes to glance over these hanging newspaper clippings. i’ve seen them a million times before. but on a recent visit, i found myself on the backside of these cutout articles, and i realized i had never taken the time to read what was on the other side. i found myself curious at what news had been hanging here. right alongside the wedding clippings and straight a’s. overlooked all these years.
and one of the articles was about forgiveness, and how an amish community had shocked the world when they displayed forgiveness for a man who had walked into their church and sprayed those present with bullets. killing many. children. and others. and how this forgiveness was the last thing anyone expected to be given in the face of such an incredibly horrific act. but that’s what this community gave.
the article went on to quote a professor who had been studying forgiveness. because that’s what you do when you write an article. you get a quote from an expert. and so this reporter probably called up this professor. this man who had been studying forgiveness as it varied by different people groups. to get a sense of what forgiveness takes. why some give it, and why others don’t. why some choose to let go of their anger and hurt and not direct their hurt onto the one who inflicted their pain. and why others simply do not. and what it does to them.
professor forgiveness talked about how when we choose not to forgive, we often end up displaying a sense of self-righteousness. we focus on how the other party has inflicted pain in our lives. we focus on their wrongdoing. and we overlook our own wrongs. and he talked about how, for those who do choose to forgive, it’s often because they acknowledge their own wrongdoings.
i’m not one who typically struggles with forgiveness. for whatever reason, it’s one of those things that i just haven’t really had a hard time doing. in a way, it seems like it almost comes naturally. i don’t know. maybe it’s because i’m pretty conscious of the ways i’ve fallen flat on my face so many times. wanting to do right, but failing to do so. time and time and time again.
like professor forgiveness said, if you’re not so focused on the other person’s wrongdoings, forgiveness comes much easier. and my own faults seem to stand out pretty fresh in my mind. so perhaps that’s why forgiveness has come easy for me. (i’ve got my own wrongs to work on. i simply don’t have time to worry about yours…)
until this. until those words that seemed to bore into my flesh and wrench my heart like someone ringing out a sponge. i was furious, to be sure. but more than that, i was hurt. and i wanted to show him how i hurt. i wanted to make it clear how hurt i was. and the only way i knew how at that moment was through physical violence. the last thing i wanted to do was offer him my hand in forgiveness.
savored like a werther’s hard candy
when i was holding onto this anger. when i didn’t want to let it go. when i wanted to suck on it and savor it like a werther’s hard candy. i wanted to know i was right. i wanted to know i had every reason to hold onto these hard feelings. i wanted others to tell me how wrong he was to say the things he said. and did. how no one should ever say such things. but especially not someone so close. and i could. easily. because of how obvious his wrongs were.
but there was another part of me that knew, deep down, that it wasn’t about finding people who would tell me i was right. that, no matter how many people i might be able to line up on my side of this terrible situation, that i must forgive. and it doesn’t make sense. like i said, he was in the wrong. i was in the right. there was no one who would say otherwise.
all the same, i knew forgiveness was necessary. after all, my not forgiving him was producing an obvious terror in my soul. one that had displayed itself during that recent rage-filled conversation.
as you have been forgiven
at one point in the Word, we’re told we ought to forgive as we have been forgiven. and part of me wishes it didn’t. probably the same part of me that would like to savor this pain from time to time. but It does. and so we must do something with that, if we claim to believe any other parts of His Word. for we cannot pick and choose. that is simply not how it works. this is no buffet line faith.
and so what do we do with that? well, it probably makes sense to ask what that forgiveness looks like for us. “…as you have been forgiven.”
what does that mean? well, we’re told our scarlet sins are washed white as snow. we’re told He no longer holds them against us. because of the payment made on our behalf. His blood makes us clean. with no remnant of our dreadful messups or blemishes.
we’re also told He loves us. that He doesn’t just forgive us, but that He goes one step further. it’s not enough for Him to simply pat us on the back and say, “it’s okay. I forgive you.” but He actually loves us. with the same love He has for His Son. His perfect Son. the Son who never once did anything that was outside His Father’s will. the same Son who He has loved from before time began. with that same love, He loves us.
and we’re called to do the same thing. we’re called not to just consider it enough to say, “i no longer hold this against you.” but we’re called to go one step further. to display authentic love for the one who caused us the pain. not because we think they deserve it. nor is it because we’re going to get a star beside our name at the end of this life. but because that’s what He calls us to. and because that’s what He has done for us.
as lewis puts it so well, “to be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (the weight of glory, p.125)
some time had gone by after that rage-filled conversation had taken place. after that scene that left me feeling both hurt by this person’s words and embarrassed at my own response. and a couple months later he sent me a text. to say he was sorry. and that this needed to be taken care of. so i agreed to meet for coffee. to talk.
and so he did. small talk, at first. but i wasn’t interested in it. i couldn’t be. not until everything else had been dealt with. and then maybe not for a while after that.
we were sitting in a coffee shop downtown. but not my usual spot. because i knew, even in the best-case scenario, i wouldn’t want to be somewhere people would know me. i was right.
and so there we sat. talking. between long gaps of silence. and i couldn’t look at him. i couldn’t even lift my head from the floor. in my hurt. but i knew i needed to talk.
so i began by apologizing for the things i had said. for my own horrible words and my response. i began by asking for his forgiveness. i acknowledged that my own words had caused me much sorrow. that they had made me feel pretty horrible about myself. and i told him i was sorry for allowing such things to come from me.
he nodded. acknowledging he accepted my apology. but then i went on. i went on to tell him why the things he said had hurt so bad. how they had stuck with me and tortured me in ways he could not have even imagined. i shared some of my most treasured memories with him so that he might have some context for my pain. in an attempt to help him stand in my shoes. so that he might feel the pain from the wounds he had inflicted. and the tears came as i did so. and i let them fall. knowing everyone could see. knowing the looks would come. all the while keeping my head down. my eyes burning holes into the floor beneath my feet.
and i told him that, even in this pain, i forgave him. and i meant it this time. i told him i didn’t want to hold onto this anger any more. i acknowledged that i’ve made many, many mistakes, and i knew he considered his own words a mistake. i told him i was sure things would be okay at some point, but i also told him i didn’t know when that would be.
doesn’t mean it’ll be the same
i grabbed lunch with another relative of mine around this time. a pastor. a guy who i often share the pains and struggles of life with. a guy i trust deeply.
this was before the second conversation had taken place. before the coffee shop. we were catching up on life. and all of this came up. i told him how i had been struggling with forgiveness.
and, after listening to me explain the situation, he said something that seemed to make the process of forgiveness easier for me. it made accepting the invite to talk things out a bit easier, when it came.
he told me just because we forgive someone, that doesn’t mean the relationship is immediately going to be restored. he told me it should be, eventually. but that this kind of forgiveness comes with the realization that those wounds don’t heal overnight. and we should be mindful of that.
and that was a relief. it made sense to me. if i accidentally trip and fall, for example, and i end up bumping into you, causing you to in turn fall and hurt yourself, there will be pain. i will apologize, of course, and you will likely forgive me, but there will still be pain from the injury. and that pain may remain for a while, even after you’ve forgiven me. that is simply how things work.
i was relieved to hear forgiveness did not equate to me having to fake a smile when i still felt wounded. i was relieved to hear that the act of forgiveness and the restoration of relationships are two separate activities. but i also recognized that they are related. they work hand-in-hand. the act of forgiveness brings about the restored relationship.
not just because it’s easier
i chewed on this for a while. i wanted to make sure i wasn’t accepting this advice simply because it made me feel better. or because it was easier.
i thought about how Christ calls us to perfect forgiveness. i thought about how He calls us to love those who persecute us. not just to forgive them. but to go on and actually display love for them. and this advice that i had received seemed to fly in the face of that teaching. so i was left wondering, if i’m told forgiveness should be shown with love. and if i’m still feeling wounded and not quite like loving this person, am i forgiving as i should?
but the more i thought about it. the more i realized this act of perfect forgiveness, much like our sanctification, much like our becoming like Him, is a process.
just because i choose to surrender my life to Him. out of love. and in obedience. acknowledging that He has purchased me at a price. at the price of His Son’s life. just because i do this doesn’t mean i suddenly become perfect. as He is. no, it does not happen immediately. nor does it happen perfectly. at least, not at first.
a gradual process
perfect obedience to Him is not present in my life. nor will it be. not in this life. but i am moving in that direction. with His help. it is a gradual process. one that will take much time. but, with His grace, it will occur.
in the same way, our forgiveness will come to mirror Christ’s. in any and all situations. to the point where we will one day be able to say, “…Father forgive them, for they know not what they do…”, even as we face the threat of death.
the fact that forgiveness did not come easy for me in this situation is merely proof that i am still very much a work in progress. but it will become easier. if we ask for His help. and when we acknowledge we have all messed up. that we all are in dire need of forgiveness. and that the judgement seat is simply not ours to sit in.
i have a pretty simple role during my time here on earth (to point others toward Him), and making people pay for their mistakes or earn my forgiveness simply isn’t part of that job description.