I’ve spent a good potion of this last year trying to will forgiveness into existence in the tightly twisted ravines of my heart. As much as I labored and strained trying to summon that phantom forgiveness, I couldn’t find a way to make it be. There were even points along the way when I questioned the necessity of the act, defiantly thinking, “Why should I?” Why should this enormous burden be on me to forgive them? (cue indignation) After all, wasn’t I the person who was hurt here? Wasn’t I the one who been wronged? (indignation upon indignation ) I kept hoping that time was the answer; that as more and more of it passed, forgiveness would simply seep down deep into the soil of my heart and create some room for me to breathe. But left unattended, unforgiveness always grows, it blossoms and blooms, becoming prolific. Given enough room, unforgiveness sprouts and evolves into it’s very own thing – connected to, but somehow totally separate from the people and things that need to be forgiven. So at a certain point – I couldn’t tell you exactly where – it stopped being about what this person had done to me and it became about what I couldn’t do for them.
I couldn’t forgive them.
Of course, this wasn’t all that apparent to me. I had tried to move on. Done my best to forget. Convinced myself that I was pretty much over it. Someone had to point blank say it right to my face before I even realized it myself: “You haven’t forgiven them.” That truth hurt when it hit. It struck hard and knocked my breath clear out. But it took that kind of brut force for me to finally recognize the situation for what it was – I hadn’t forgiven them.
And that gave me some pause. Because I know too well what the Bible teaches about forgiveness. Forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Not a mere suggestion, but a Gospel-hinging command. Not just a verse I read, but a truth I live because I know exactly how much I have been forgiven.
Jesus taught forgiveness by way of word and action throughout his ministry on earth. He even went so far as to tie our forgiveness of others to God’s forgiveness of us.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:14-15
Those are red-letter words, spoken from Jesus’ very own mouth. I don’t want to confuse such a foundational Biblical principal as forgiveness, so please hear this – the only condition for salvation is a belief and confession of Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9-13, Acts 16:31). That verse in Matthew and others like it (see Luke 6:37, Mark 11:25) point us not to a salvific forgiveness of our sins, but to a relational forgiveness that allows for a closer fellowship with the Father. In short, harboring unforgiveness stifles our worship and stunts our spiritual growth. When we withhold forgiveness from others it creates a relational rift between ourselves and God. Why? Because when it comes down to it, you cannot withhold forgiveness while living in light of the fact that you’ve been forgiven. Through my unforgiveness, it’s as if I had backed away from God. Why would I choose to stand far away from a God who gave so much so that I could come near?
Following Jesus always requires that we step right over our self defenses. That we bypass our right to be right; turn away from our right to be offended; that we neglect our right to harbor ill-will, anger and residual hurt so that we may choose to offer grace instead. From a Biblical perspective, forgiveness is always a matter of grace because there’s nothing we can do to earn the forgiveness God has granted us. The same grace that God offers us through his son should filter down into the relationships we have with others. That means we give grace based not on a person’s merit to receive it, but based solely on our belief in what God has done for us. Forgiveness is an act of faith, of trust, of obedience – not a pursuit of pure will.
So it didn’t really matter that I didn’t necessarily feel “ready” to forgive. It didn’t really matter that my wounds hadn’t sufficiently healed. God wanted me to forgive right in the middle of that mess – where forgiveness would still be a sacrifice. He desired that I forgive believing that healing would proceed from obedience, not the other way around. We forgive in these hard places for the sake of His name, His glory and His renown; by doing so, we bear witness to who God is and what He does. The entire Christian faith rests upon this kind of grace-driven forgiveness. It’s where our journey with God begins, and as we walk this road with Him it’s the home we keep coming back to. Grace.
Having received it so lavishly myself, why could I not now extend it to others?
I rolled this question around in my mind for days until the answer finally became clear; it was because I hadn’t set my heart on it. Truth be told, I had grown complacent in the place of unforgiveness. It had offered me a shelter where I could hold my position, nurse my wounds, and re-build my defenses. I had been hurt badly. Maybe this person didn’t mean to hurt me, maybe their actions weren’t malicious in nature, maybe they had hoped things would go down differently…but the end did not justify the means and I got caught in the crossfire.
After all this, forgiveness wasn’t going to simply appear after a few half-hearted prayers. In order to begin the process of forgiveness and see it straight through, I had to intently set my sights on it. I had to dig my hands down deep into God’s word to give that forgiveness a foothold. Enduring forgiveness is a disciplined pursuit and an intentional putting away of all that keeps us from it – all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander and hypocrisy, of which I had plenty (Ephesians 4:31, 1 Peter 1:22). Forgiveness like this has to be chased after hard, and then once we grab hold of it, we have to beg the Lord to help us keep our grip.
Do you have someone you’re struggling to forgive? Chase after it hard, my friend, and may you and I both be ever mindful that we are a people who have been forgiven.
Here are some of the verses I used in my pursuit of forgiveness – down them here.
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me,and lead me in the way everlasting! Psalm 139:23-24
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