This month my husband and I have been counseling several different people with the same problem. Maybe you have been struggling with this issue or maybe, like us, you have been trying to help someone else with this trouble. That issue is unforgiveness! It seems like there is an epidemic of offended people right now.
Just because we are PWs, recognized and commissioned to serve others, doesn’t mean we never need forgiveness. And just because we have been believers for many years doesn’t mean we are pros at forgiving. Maybe because we don’t have the kind of support system our family and friends have back home, we may need a refresher course on this all important issue of forgiveness.
Some years ago my husband wrote this article on forgiveness. I’ve adapted it in places for our cross cultural community. You can see the original article written for husbands and wives at: Intermin
Every one of us need forgiving people around us. The reason is obvious: we need forgiving because we make mistakes. That would explain two interesting facts in the Bible:
- Fact one: God’s Word urges us to pursue perfection, to grow and mature in grace, and to become like Jesus.
- Fact two: The Bible also teaches us to forgive one another. On the road of life we step on many toes, so we need to forgive and to receive forgiveness.
Knowing how much we need forgiving, you would think we would quickly forgive those who hurt us or let us down. It doesn’t work that way. We humans minimize many of our own errors and maximize the errors of others. We like to keep our offender roasting awhile before we turn off the fire of our anger and indignation. Many of us would never think of refusing forgiveness, but we surely don’t mind making the offender uncomfortable first.
Then there are other issues. How do I know when I have forgiven? How am I supposed to feel after I have forgiven? Have I forgiven if I still remember the offence or still feel pain? What needs forgiving? It’s enough to confuse a philosopher, let alone simple people like us.
Now let’s add the family and close community to those points. We know each other well and we often repeat our mistakes. So, how often am I to forgive the same thing? Fifty times? One hundred? For many of us, one hundred isn’t even close to the number of times we have repeated some errors. I’m not talking about the little irritations like squeezing the tooth paste tube in the wrong way. In our ongoing attempts to love each other, we have repeatedly hurt each other.
Through our many years of marriage and ministry, we have developed some sound principles about forgiving. Lewis Smedes’ excellent book, The Art of Forgiving, has helped me focus and clarify those principles.
Forgiveness and Feelings
You can forgive before you feel like doing it, but not before you decide to do it. Many of us wait to forgive until the magical moment when our emotions are right. Sometimes that moment never comes. When an intimate friend hurts us, the pain can last a long time. But the moment we decide to forgive, the pain will start to decrease. Until we take that step, until we decide, we are like someone with an infected splinter. The infection spreads, becoming more dangerous, even deadly!
I remember a young man who attended school with our sons. I saw him in the school clinic one day with a knee swollen to the size of a grapefruit. He had pricked his knee on a thorn. It was a small thing, hardly noticeable . . . at first. Eventually, the doctor had to lance his knee with a scalpel and drain the infection. Once he did, pain decreased and healing began. Forgiveness is like that. Until we forgive infection intensifies, but when we forgive, healing begins.
Forgiving and Forgetting
What does it mean to forgive and forget? It means you no longer allow the offence to affect your life and relationship negatively. As an example, think about Paul’s words in Philippians, chapter three. In the first few verses of the chapter, he recalls, in detail, his life before Christ apprehended him and saved him. Then, in verse thirteen, he gives us his strategy for dealing with the offences of his past:
“ . . . forgetting the past and straining forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize, for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.” (Philippians 3:13, Today’s Living Bible)
Paul remembered his past life as a persecutor, and no doubt some of those memories still brought pain. Yet he also said that he forgot his past. We might say that because of the forgiveness Paul experienced, he could remember redemptively. He remembered, but he remembered as a man forgiven, not a man condemned. When we forgive or are forgiven, memories may remain, but the memories can have a positive effect on our present experience and our future expectations.
Wrongs and Sins
The Bible, in its characteristically honest way, recounts a very dark moment in King David’s life. David, king of Israel, sees Bathsheba, the wife of a loyal general, bathing. Her husband is away at war, so David invites her over for dinner. But it isn’t food David hungers for that night.
Things happen. In time, Bathsheba discovers she is pregnant. David, fearing the consequences, conceives a plan to get Uriah to think the child Bathsheba is carrying is his. When that doesn’t work, David, king of Israel, writer of many Psalms, arranges to have Uriah- fine, honest Uriah- murdered. I don’t know where you could find a more terrible crime.
David thinks that ends the matter. But one day Nathan the prophet visits. Nathan tells David that God knows the whole affair and will judge him. During this awful period of his life, David writes one of his most penetrating poems, Psalm 51. Notice these words from the fourth verse of that psalm: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”
David had committed horrible wrongs against Bathsheba and Uriah. Perhaps David asked Bathsheba to forgive him, but we don’t know. He could not have asked Uriah, because Uriah had died in the ambush David arranged. What we do know is that David, with a broken heart, pleaded with God for forgiveness because he had sinned against Him.
Here is the important issue: Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that person does not have to go to God for forgiveness. We forgive the wrongs done to us. Only God can forgive the sin.
If you have hurt anyone, you can ask forgiveness for the hurt, but you still need forgiveness from God for the sin. Take both steps and healing will begin.
Forgiveness and Liking
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to like the person. Shirley has a husband who treats her, on most days, like a dog, and on all days like a servant. Never has this man told her he loves her. Never does he value her, appreciate her, or encourage her. In public he talks of their marriage enthusiastically, but that talk is only for the audience. Shirley’s husband has insulted her, rejected her . . . even beaten her.
Because of her peculiar circumstances, leaving home isn’t possible for her. Neither can she throw him out. So Shirley works through her anger, her hurt, and her outrage. She forgives her husband, but she doesn’t like him. How could she? She loves him, at least in the way that we are to love our enemies, for surely this man treats his wife as though he is her enemy. She would love him as a friend and even as a lover, if only her husband would let her. God does not ask Shirley to like her husband, only to love him.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Forgiveness does not mean that we must reconcile with the offender. Shirley is willing to reconcile with her husband, but her husband doesn’t show any desire for reconciliation with her. Paul addresses this issue in Romans, chapter twelve: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18, NIV)
This could be the most difficult aspect of forgiveness to understand. Shirley consistently forgives her husband. But he never responds as she would hope. When the offender doesn’t give us grounds for reconciliation, we can still forgive even though the offender does not respond positively.
Forgiveness and Trust
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we have to trust the person. A young PW confided her fear of bandits to one of the older PWs. She thought she was talking to a trustworthy advisor. In a short while, she noticed little comments by others on the team to make sure she locks her door at night followed by some muffled chuckles. Her fear was exposed to ridicule. She forgives, but she does not have to trust this co-worker with any more confidences.
In American adventure movies you sometimes hear this warning: “Watch Your Back!” It means that there is danger all around and you must not let down your guard. Consider what Paul wrote to his dear friend Timothy: “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.” (II Timothy 4:14-15, NIV)
We may never know whether Paul had forgiven Alexander, but if he practiced what he preached, he did. Yet he knew that Alexander could not be trusted, so he warned Timothy to watch his back.
Forgiveness and Privileges
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we automatically restore all privileges that were forfeited through the offence. Suppose a woman’s husband is unfaithful to her. Wanting to do the Christian thing, she goes to her pastor for counsel. The pastor, a compassionate man, though perhaps too legalistic, tells her to forgive her husband. So far so good. Then she asks, “Does that mean I have to share my body with him, although he is still going to bed with the other woman?” The pastor, thinking he is doing the right thing, tells her she must allow her husband to have sex with her. That kind of counsel is quite common in the places where PWs live and work.
Many of us would disagree with that counsel. We would encourage this lady to forgive her husband, but to also insist on his faithfulness. He doesn’t get her sexual pleasures until hers are the only ones he gets. In this day of rampant, sexually transmitted diseases, there is even more reason to follow that path.
Forgiveness Leads to Restoration
This is important: Although forgiveness doesn’t mean liking, trusting, reconciling, or restoring; forgiveness opens the door to trusting, liking, reconciling, and restoring. If we truly forgive, we will be open to all positive possibilities.
Real Offenses or Imaginary
If we find ourselves constantly forgiving, we may be too easily offended, too touchy. You might be hypersensitive at certain times. If you are stretched tight, like a violin string, it doesn’t take much to get a squeal out of you. In times like that we need understanding, patience, and maybe a little extra help from our friends and family. We can also find out what we can do to lessen the pressure, if possible.
A senior PW lovingly rebuked my husband when we were in our first international posting. “Mike,” she said, “The people here love you, but you are too easily offended. Toughen up!” He did, and it helped.
“(Love) is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (I Corinthians 13:5, NIV) In every way, love is the opposite of selfishness.
Revenge or Forgiveness?
Revenge is never the best choice, because revenge is not redemptive. “My husband just invited the whole church to our home for an open house!” the young wife moaned. “I could kill him!” I don’t blame her for thinking about it, and I doubt a jury of women would convict her if she did.
I don’t think her husband needs to worry about waking up dead some morning, but there are more subtle forms of revenge. She could embarrass him in front of his friends, maybe burn his dinners for the foreseeable future. She could withhold sexual pleasures. And she could justify her revenge by saying, “He deserves it!”
If she is wise, our young friend won’t try to get even. Getting even does not help. Ever. Revenge can backfire. In Nigeria they have a saying: “You do me, I do you!” That describes the problem perfectly. Both parties try to make the last strike, the ultimate blow, and only injure each other more.
Accepting Forgiveness from God
We see much fuzzy, pseudo spiritual thinking these days. Some writers like to make a case for forgiving yourself. It’s good for you, they say. I would agree to a point. The problem is that they do not acknowledge God. I know that without God’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness of the offended party, I cannot experience freedom in my soul. I also know that I can beat myself up for a long time, even when my God and my friend have forgiven me.
C.S. Lewis said, “I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.” (Letters of C.S. Lewis, 19 April 1951)
Forgiving yourself means that you put the offensive, embarrassing behavior behind you. You can’t do that until you know God has forgiven you. Even so, to keep bashing yourself does not please God any more than your sin does. Let it go.
Life is a challenge. In our attempt to cope and to relate, we all cause pain and we all get hurt. Jesus gave us the key to healing in these words, “Stop judging others, and you will not be judged. Stop criticizing others, or it will all come back on you. If you forgive others, you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37, New Living Translation)
Forgive! It’s best for you and best for the offender. Forgiveness may not fix everything, but it’s the best preparation for further repair.