It was Good Friday 2005. My husband and I sat in a dimly lit service listening to familiar words recounting Jesus’ final hours: his betrayal, denial, and desertion by close friends; his conviction and crucifixion by religious leaders and Roman soldiers. And then, as his ravaged body hung from the cross, we heard him say, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
They don’t know what they are doing? You’ve got to be kidding, right?
I’d never heard Jesus’ words as I did on that particular Good Friday. They fell upon me, upon us, in a way that felt horribly familiar. We’d recently gone through a heartbreaking event that involved betrayal by some friends and mistreatment by religious leaders—people whom I was convinced knew exactly what they were doing. For the first time in my life, I felt an unexpected kinship with Jesus in his suffering and, simultaneously, a provocation by his willingness to forgive.
Jesus had a great deal to say about forgiving those who cause us harm. Entire books have been written on the subject. Yet the topic is a sensitive one. The mere suggestion of the need to forgive can cause some to wince because the injury done to them has left a wound that has not healed. And offering simplistic suggestions on how to forgive could minimize the harm done and the reality of just how difficult it is to forgive.
What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t
Forgiveness, by definition, is the act of letting go of a demand for payment of a debt that is owed. Jesus told a parable to illustrate forgiveness using those very terms. He spoke of a king whose servant owed him a large debt he couldn’t repay. The king decided to sell the man and his family as slaves in order to reconcile the debt. The servant fell to his knees and begged the king to have mercy, to allow him time to repay what he owed. As the king listened, his heart was moved with compassion and forgave the servant’s debt in full (see Matthew 18:22–35).
In this parable, and in theory, the act of forgiveness sounds simple, doesn’t it? You let go of the debt a person owes you because of the hurt they’ve caused you, and that’s that. Yet in real life, it’s often much harder to forgive even small transgressions, let alone costly ones. Sometimes the reason forgiving is so difficult is that we hold distorted ideas of what it means to forgive.
Have you ever thought of forgiveness in one or more of these ways?
If I’ve truly forgiven someone, I will no longer feel hurt, anger, or mistrust.
Because I continue to think about the offense, I must not have forgiven.
Forgiveness is a one-time decision; I make a choice, say the words, and that’s that.
If I’ve truly forgiven someone, I should be able to have a relationship with them.
Each of these beliefs makes impossible demands on us as human beings. To suggest that if we have forgiven someone then we will forget the hurt they caused us, cease to feel the pain, and be restored in relationship to them is not only unrealistic—it’s dangerous.
We often confuse forgiveness with a single willful act rather than seeing it as an ongoing process that begins in the heart. We also often equate forgiveness with reconciliation—two connected but different movements of the heart. Forgiving another person is what happens in me, by God’s grace, as I let go of my demand to make the person who hurt me pay for it.
Reconciliation involves both of us coming together in humility to seek restoration. Unfortunately, reconciliation is not always possible. Some who have caused deep pain in our lives (such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse) cannot be trusted nor can we agree to relational engagement with them—at least not until there is evidence of real sorrow and repentance. If we make unrealistic demands of ourselves and the one who hurt us, we attempt what is humanly impossible and miss the heart of forgiveness altogether.
Forgiving from Your Heart
Forgiveness is, first and foremost, an orientation of heart. In the parable mentioned earlier, Jesus went on to describe how the servant who was forgiven by the king turned around and refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a debt. In response, the king was furious and sent the ungrateful servant to prison. Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart” (Matthew 18:35, emphasis added).
Unforgiveness is like a prison, a cell in which we are confined and held without bail. When we fail to do the heart-work of forgiving another the debt they owe us, we not only put them in debtor’s prison, but we also join them in a prison of our own making. Forgiveness, Jesus taught, is a heart orientation that begins with truly comprehending the unpayable debt for which we have been forgiven by God. It’s the recognition that we, along with the person who mistreated us, stand before God as equals, both deserving a life sentence and both being offered the grace to have our debts paid in full.
Humility is perhaps the best word to describe this posture of heart. The word humble literally means to be brought low. To be in a position to forgive, we must get off the elevated platform from where we “look down” at those who have wounded us and instead stand shoulder to shoulder with them before God, as fellow paupers in desperate need of grace. This posture of heart is the tipping point toward forgiving others.
Forgiving When It Feels Impossible
There are some wounds, however, that seem impossible to forgive. The damage done is so significant that recovery, in this lifetime, seems unimaginable. In other instances, it’s the accumulation of repeated offenses that makes the prospect of forgiveness grim.
Even when forgiving feels impossible, there are ways to soften our hearts toward forgiving our offenders. Here are a few that have been helpful to me as I’ve worked through the thorny process of forgiving those who hurt me.
Reflect on their story. One of the most effective places to begin softening our hearts toward those who have hurt us is by gaining insight into their story. When we reflect on what we know of their story, we can often understand why they acted the way they did. We aren’t always in a position to know the people who hurt us, but even knowing basic information that is common to all of us—like the fact that we all grew up in homes where we experienced the failure of human love—can remind us that most people, ourselves included, act carelessly out of our own wounds.
Reflect on your own story. Another source of compassion for our offenders is reflecting on our own story. If we look at what they did and ask the question, “Have I ever done anything like this to someone else?” chances are good that the answer will be yes. If we are honest with ourselves about our own sin patterns and the ways in which we act out of our own wounds, then we will more likely be able to engage in the critical work of forgiving from the heart.
Pray for those you need to forgive. One of the difficult repercussions of being harmed by another is the fact that it creates a breach in the relationship. As a result, we can be tasked with forgiving them apart from a relationship with them. Asking God to bless them, help them, and heal them can begin to nurture love in our hearts toward them. And it’s love that is capable of covering a multitude of sins, as Peter tells us: “Therefore, be earnest and disciplined in your prayers. Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:7–8).
A Price to Pay
Forgiving others is costly. Like the king in the parable, we give up exacting payment from those who have caused our sorrows. We suffer the loss because what they’ve done can’t be undone. But not forgiving is also costly. It keeps us locked up in the prison of our hurt, bitterness, and blame. If you’re struggling to forgive someone who’s hurt you deeply, be gracious and patient with the process of forgiving from the heart. You can collaborate with the Spirit in the process through two practices.
First, although forgiveness takes work on our part, it is truly the work of God’s grace that enables us to forgive. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you want to forgive; ask the Spirit to heal your heart and enable you to let go of the debt owed you.
Second, rather than asking, “Have I forgiven this person?” ask, “Have I forgiven them today?” Whenever strong emotions are triggered and you begin to relive the hurt that happened, ask Jesus to help you let go; picture the person in your mind and say from your heart, “I forgive you.”
As Jesus’ ravaged body hung from the cross, he was, remarkably, able to look upon his perpetrators—those who mocked him, spit in his face, and drove nails into his flesh—and see their wounded human condition. He perceived their blindness to the real evil they were acting out, and from a heart full of compassion he forgave them. As you engage in the process of forgiving, learn from and lean hard on Jesus for the compassion and forgiveness you need to offer your perpetrators.
Beth Booram is the cofounder and director of Sustainable Faith Indy, an urban retreat center in Indianapolis. She designs and facilitates contemplative retreats and speaks around the country on spiritual formation and Christian leadership. She has written several books, including Starting Something New, Awaken Your Senses, and Picturing the Face of Jesus. Learn more at BethBooram.org.
Copyright © 2016 by the author and Today’s Christian Woman