I, a broken person, live in a world full of broken people and we all bump up against other broken people with a predictable result: we get hurt. Life is like a trip to the dentist; you will experience pain. So, the questions come, what do I do with the pain? How do I forgive?
In my own story, forgiving my husband, when he made choices that hurt me and our children, seemed like a mountain I could never scale. Certainly without God's grace and strength, forgiveness would not have been possible. Sounds easy: God's grace and forgiveness. Done. That's it. Have a nice day. But, what does forgiveness look like?
I didn't want to be stuck. I didn't want to be a bitter woman. And yet I felt trapped and helpless to release myself. My prayers to God went something like this: "Father, I hate this. I don't want to be this angry and resentful person. I feel so stuck! Please help me to let go. Help me to forgive. Let me find freedom in giving freedom to my husband."
God's answer took some time and included several twists and turns along the way, but He was faithful to respond. Here are some practical things God taught me through His Word and through others.
1. Forgiveness is both a decision and a process. I need God's help in both. Sometimes it seems the decision wasn't real when the memories and hurts rise up unexpectedly; the emotions I feel seem to say, "You haven't forgiven!" But I have let go of the debt. I just haven't stopped feeling the cost of that debt. By God's grace I choose to release that pain again and remind myself that I have chosen to forgive. Sometimes this may happen multiple times in a day.
2. Feeling sad, angry, or shocked is not being unforgiving. It is facing the evil and taking it for what it is. Until I face the reality of the pain, I can't own it and release it. It's not only okay to feel, it is necessary. No feeling, no healing.
3. Forgiveness is not saying, "No big deal. That didn't hurt. Here's a free pass to sin." Forgiveness doesn't mean getting away with sin.
4. Forgiveness involves payment of a debt. There was a wrong. It is a big deal. And it does matter. There is a cost involved. Sin always has a cost and always impacts the one who sins and those around him.
5. Unforgiveness happens when I am trying to extract that cost from the one who sinned against me. This seems just, but the reality is that the one who hurt you doesn't have the means to pay. He is a penniless pauper. There is only One who could pay the cost.
6. Forgiveness means accepting that Jesus paid the debt not only for my sins, but also for the sins of those who hurt me. We sing, "The cross was enough," but am I demanding more than Jesus death to cover my offenders sins?
7. "Forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well." This Lewis Smedes quote gives me a way I can know whether I am walking in forgiveness.
8. Forgiveness often takes time and space for the broken. I often think of Joseph in the Old Testament and how God graciously took him far away from the brothers who hurt him. Joseph was given time to heal.
9. Forgiveness does not equal trust. While God gives me grace to help me forgive, He doesn't require that I trust someone who is untrustworthy. God wants me to be wise with my heart. Again, I think of Joseph and how, even after all those years, he wanted to see whether his brothers had changed. He tested them to see whether they would care only for their own skins. He had forgiven already, but he did not trust them yet. Forgiveness is a gift, but trust must be earned.
10. Forgiveness releases the one in my debt, but the greater release may be my own freedom. I no longer have to keep that account. The ledger is clear. I can let myself out of the prison of the past. I am able to move on and live in today.
"When we forgive evil we do not excuse it.... We have to look evil full in the face and call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it." Lewis Smedes