I was reading recently about a group of neighborhood children who were playing baseball when someone hit one across the street, smashing through sweet old Mrs. Jones’ picture window. Instead of doing what I did as a kid—running away—the children went to Mrs. Jones’ front door and confessed, “We’re sorry, we were playing baseball and broke your window.”
Sweet old Mrs. Jones looked at them and said, “That’s all-right kids. I know you didn’t mean it.” (The kids thought to themselves, “yes, we’re off the hook!”)
However, Mrs. Jones continued, “But the window is still broken, and you will have to pay for it.” The children decided to pool together their money, and they paid Mrs. Jones for her new picture window.
That story brings two thoughts to my mind: One . . . those kids are a whole lot nicer than the gang I ran with. And two . . . in this story, we gain some insight into a subject often fraught with confusion, guilt, and pain.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says one of the most difficult things most of us will ever hear from Him: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you.”
The longer you live the more chances you’ll have to develop/practice the skill of forgiveness. As any good athlete knows, if you practice a particular skill in an incorrect way, no matter how much you practice, you still won’t get it right. When it comes to practicing forgiveness, a significant amount of confusion exists, and combined with the guilt/pain typically associated with it, you have fertile soil for not getting it right.
In today’s somewhat lengthy post, I’d like to unpack three parts of forgiveness:
- Requesting forgiveness from
- Extending forgiveness to
- Extending forgiveness to
And then I’ll wrap up the post with four principles that help us understand the truth about forgiveness.
Part 1: Requesting forgiveness From others
Every message I’ve heard on forgiveness had to do with either receiving forgiveness from the Lord or extending forgiveness to others. I don’t recall ever being instructed on how to request forgiveness from people we’ve hurt. So here we go . . .
- Focus on behavioral change rather than asking for forgiveness
The idea here is changing the way we behave, rather than asking for something from someone we’ve just got done wounding. David Augsburger writes: “I go to the one I’ve injured and say ‘I have wronged you. I recognize that. I deeply regret what I have done and will now live in a different way. I hope that someday forgiveness may be possible between us.” Notice no attempt to blame or excuse exists in this model. There is no argument over the facts surrounding the wound. Rather there is agreement the wound occurred. This approach is better because:
- It rejects the temptation to minimize the damage we’ve inflicted and allows the injured person time to walk through the process of forgiveness.
- This approach understands that the injured party may still be in shock over the injury and not in touch with how angry they are, and consequently, requesting for forgiveness may be premature. It is difficult to determine how many people have been wounded further by the “let get this over quickly and forgive” mentality.
- If we’re not careful, Jesus’ words about forgiveness in the gospel of Matthew become a crowbar used to coerce each other into forgiving. I don’t think Jesus’ intent was for us to be coercive . . . ever!
When we request forgiveness, let’s concentrate on changing our behavior as opposed to asking for forgiveness right away.
Part 2: Extending Forgiveness to Others
Forgiveness can be instantaneous or not
For example, getting cut off on the freeway can be processed and forgiven much faster than being betrayed by a trusted friend. If the injury was accidental and not intentional, forgiveness should come easier. But there is another kind of wound that cuts deeper, and it is a mistake to grant forgiveness prematurely.
In Psalm 55:12-14 King David wrote: “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God.” In these types of deep-wound situations, where the injury is intentional, prior to extending forgiveness, it’s essential to:
- Be honest about the injury: Real forgiveness is not possible without truth as its bedrock, without acknowledging the anger you feel about the wound.
- Be committed to the process and its result: The depth of the wound often determines the amount of time required to work through the forgiveness process.
- David Augsburger – “If we forgive prematurely out of a sense of external duty/pressure, then we have closed our hearts to the possibility of genuine forgiveness.”
- Be patient in the process: You may have extended forgiveness a while back, but from time-to-time something triggers the memory of the wound, and feelings of anger may resurface. Don’t despair—it doesn’t mean your forgiving a while back wasn’t valid—it just means there is more forgiving to do. You may wonder, “When do I know I’m done forgiving?” When you no longer wish the person who wounded you a slow, painful death! All joking aside, Lewis Smedes offers three ways we can know we’re making progress:
- When you can see the humanness of the person who hurt you.
- When you surrender the “right” to get even
- When you ask God to bless them . . . in other words, when you can genuinely wish them well.
No treatment of forgiveness is adequate without at least mentioning:
Extending Forgiveness to Yourself
When I cause God pain by sinning, it’s wrong to take vengeance on myself. To exact some sort of religious penance.
R.T. Kendal states this idea powerfully: “If we feel guilty, blame ourselves, and find we cannot function normally—even though we have confessed our sins to God—it indicates we haven’t yet totally forgiven ourselves.1 John 1:9 either is true or it isn’t: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Listen: The blood of Jesus washes away our sin so completely —it’s as though our sin had never existed! There really is power in His shed blood! When we sin, we are to confess it honestly, without excuse or blaming—then receive His cleansing and move forward!
If you’ve read this far into the post today, congrats for hanging in there. Let me wrap up by quickly sharing four things we need to know to get this forgiveness things right.
- Forgiveness doesn’t equal trust
Forgiving the person who injured you doesn’t mean trust is, or even should be, reestablished. If I loan you $20 and you don’t pay me back, I’ll forgive you. But I’m not loaning you another $20. Forgiveness is what we work toward, while simultaneously avoiding the mistake of setting ourselves up to get hurt again.
- Forgiveness doesn’t equal reconciliation
While reconciliation may not always be possible or wise, extending forgiveness is always possible and wise if done thoughtfully and biblically. Forgiveness takes one person. Reconciliation takes two.
- Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting
After the healing of forgiveness comes, we still remember the injury occurred, but in remembering, the painful emotions connected to the event don’t overwhelm us anymore. The injury is truly left in the past. We don’t hold it against the person who hurt us any longer.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean compromising our self-respect
Biblical forgiveness doesn’t discount your feelings, nor require you to pretend they don’t exist. True forgiveness includes honoring your feelings as important and legitimate.
In Matthew 18:21-34 we read the story of the man who was forgiven a debt of millions of dollars, only to turn around and put someone in prison who owed him two bucks. Both guys ended up in jail. When we refuse to forgive—we’re held hostage to the wounds of our past. That’s the bad news!
Here’s the good news!
Forgiveness releases you and me to fully experience God’s ability to take the painful events of our past and turn them into something beautiful, fruitful, and life giving!
Forgiveness releases God’s creative genius into our pain!
I suspect that some of us reading this today may need to start down the forgiveness path right now. It begins with making a commitment that goes something like this: “Lord I don’t know how long the process will take, nor how difficult it will be, but today I’m committing to arrive at the place where I’m ready to forgive.”
If you’re struggling with your wounds, seek out a trusted friend, or your pastor, or a coach, or a godly counselor who can walk alongside you as you process your pain.
Rooting and praying for you to get and stay free,