The Fight to Forgive
The Lord recently brought to my attention that I was harboring bitterness against someone I had claimed to have forgiven. Given the suffocating bitterness and anger I was experiencing, it should have been obvious, but I was so choked and twisted by emotion, I couldn't think straight. Through prayer, it became clear that I had not truly forgiven from the heart, but I honestly didn't know what to do. I wanted to forgive this person desperately, but I was still so angry, so disappointed, so devastated. Memories of the affront still carried with them such wounding power, and every time I remembered, which was almost daily, I relived the pain.
At a loss and deeply discouraged, I listened to sermons and read articles on forgiveness while praying for the Lord to help me to sincerely forgive. The sermons and articles I came across were mildly helpful but, I felt, incomplete and simplistic. Most seemed to suggest that forgiveness was a one time decision, which I think might work if you are a robot or amnesiac and never have any further emotion or memory about the wrong done to you (and if I have to hear one more time that not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, I'm going to lose my lunch). But how does a follower of Christ really deal with unforgiveness on a practical level when the pain is crippling and crushing, when thoughts of the betrayal or abuse or cruelty inflicted arise regularly, when you want to forgive but just can't seem to get past what happened? What the Lord has so graciously been helping me to see this past month has made a miraculous difference for me. The crux of His teaching has been this: unforgiveness is serious sin that grieves His heart, while forgiveness is an opportunity to fellowship in Christ's suffering, to submit to the Lord, and to live the crucified life that looks so different from the world around us.
Forgiveness is not easy. Anyone who says otherwise is either far more holy than I am or a liar. It is a day by day, moment by moment decision to love Jesus more than myself, more than my disappointed, heartbroken and reeling self. It is the opportunity to fellowship with Jesus as I suffer unjustly, as I bless those who curse me, as I pray for those who have mistreated me, as I pour out mercy instead of judgment. "Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 4:12)." And so, I must ask myself, does this actually matter to me? Does following my Lord and loving Him actually mean more to me than being right about this wrong and seeing the injustice done to me known and repaid? Forgiveness for deep, unforgivable hurts is a death march directly to the foot of the cross. My flesh will cry out for justice, for pity, for more time to sorrow and rage, to be seen and understood, to be held higher and more valued than obedience to and love for my Lord who said simply, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you," and,
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)
The truth is that the Lord has forgiven me, the ungrateful and the wicked, for far more than I am commanded to forgive anyone else, no matter how I have been wronged or mistreated. If I see my own sin clearly, if I perceive that log in my eye to be as gnarled and large as it truly is and appreciate as I should the forgiveness that has been extended to me, then I will have mercy on my fellow slave the same way that the Lord has had mercy on me (Matthew 18:21-35). If I do not forgive my fellow slaves who are trapped down here in the muck and the mire of this fallen world, if I do not have mercy but only judgment, legitimate and accurate as it may be, then how does Christ's Spirit dwell in me? Then how am I a child of the Most High, who at His very core is a God who forgives those who do not deserve it, who not only forgives but draws near to, loves, indwells, and is willing to enter into relationship with unworhty, undeserving man, knowing we will grieve His Holy heart again and again?
O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
If I believe that Jesus commands what is best for me, if I love Him and trust Him, then I will obey His commands (John 14:15). This is what the Lord compassionately asked me to face. My unforgiveness was disobedience, and it was sin. Jesus takes unforgiveness incredibly seriously, even going so far as to say that "if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:15). While focusing so intently on the sin committed against me, I justified my own rebellion and excused it. The Lord is a God who sees, and I can have complete faith that He sees and hates all sin. The sin I suffered, He also endured, and His punishment for it was His Son's crucifixion and a temporary shattering of the unity of the Trinity. That is how serious sin is to God, all sin and this specific one as well, so I do not need to fear that forgiveness means sweeping aside the affront's wrongness. It means leaving it in Jesus' hands, not taking up my cause and demanding what is mine, but dying to that desire and instead following my Lord on a far more excellent path. And so, of course, this is not something that I can do apart from Him.
At a certain point in my grief, I have to value and love Christ more than I value and love the rightness, self-indulgence and self-pity of my pain. I have to love Him so much that I'm willing to lay down my justifiable grievance and refuse to nurse the hurt. I have to fully submit and entrust myself to Him. I have to love Him so much that my sin of unforgiveness becomes alarming and damnable in my eyes. I have to love and treasure Him enough to want to obey Him at all costs. And so, I forgive, by His power and out of love for my Savior and my God, I forgive, because I know that His ways are always right and best. I bless the person who has crushed my spirit because the lover of my soul tells me to, and because, in Christ, He has extended such sweet, unfathomable forgiveness to me.
But what of the emotions? What of the plaguing, unwelcome thoughts that arise without warning? Forgiveness is an opportunity, and it is also a fight, a fight fought in the mind and by the power of the Holy Spirit. If I don't fight these thoughts and expose the lie behind them, then my forgiveness and generosity will erode and descend into bitterness. My flesh will cry out in self preservation, if not for justice and vengeance, at least for recognition for its suffering. It's going to want to hold onto the pain, to regularly declare the wrongness of what transpired, to highlight my innocent suffering and the other party's sinfulness again and again. It will deny God's goodness and sovereignty; it will deny His resurrection power; it will deny my blessedness; it will deny that there is any hope for restoration and healing; it will tell me I have every right to be angry and treat the offender poorly.
So when these sorts of thoughts arise, and they will, because we're neither sinless nor robots, and because we have an enemy who prowls around like a roaring, starving lion with a gasoline can and matches in his paw, they have to be treated like any other temptation that threatens to lure us into sin. "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthian 10:5).
So how do I take captive my angry, bitter thoughts and emotions to make them obedient to Christ? I don't indulge them. I don't walk down that destructive path. When I am tempted to enter into a pity party on my own behalf or to remember and dwell on what happened, I have to combat this temptation with the truth of God's word. I have to pray for the Lord to lead me to verses that apply to my situation and be armed with them beforehand, and I have to actually believe these verses and do them. I have to be honest with God about my emotions and not pretend that I am whole and happy when I am not. He is not only interested in the pleasant parts of me, and He is patient and compassionate--my Holy Father, not my Holy Step-Uncle twice removed. I have to confess my sin when I have entered into unforgiving, bitter thoughts and let them have mastery over me, and I have to trust God to enable me to forgive as He forgives. I have to recognize the enemy's efforts to throw me off track. I have to pray for a right view of my own sin and a right view of my Savior's sacrifice, and I have to think of that which is lovely, noble, and good when all my flesh wants to do is think on that which is painful, unfair, and miserable.
Most of all, I have to place a tremendously high value on being conformed to the image of Jesus. For years, I have tried to see the good that God will work out of this situation, thinking it might take on an external form--a ministry with those who have endured the same, perhaps? This may very well be the case one day, but this past month, the Lord showed me that the ultimate good He was working through this horrible experience was drawing me closer to Him and making me more like His Son. If I love what He loves and value what He values, then I'm not sure there is any greater gift that He could give.