Imagine a process of forgiveness so powerful that we rejoice the next time we are hurt by someone we love! How could this be possible?
Over the years I’ve come to learn some powerful things about forgiveness. It started years ago, identifying what forgiveness is not:
Forgiveness is not “letting go”: Forgiveness is not about “letting go” of offense and hurt when wronged. Pretending we can “just get over it” and move on ignores truths about the human heart. Moving on without addressing the hurt at the heart level is very harmful to future relationships. I’ll give one example of a young man named James. James was hurt by a leader that he trusted deeply. He knew that the “right” thing to do, according to Jesus, was to forgive the one that betrayed his trust. However, he assumed that forgiveness meant burying his feelings on the matter and moving on from the pain. The problem came later: it was very difficult for James to trust other leaders. The hurts of his past caused his heart to lock up around new leaders in his life. An bigger problem was that too much time had passed, and James was unable to connect his broken behavior with the past wound.
Forgiveness is not “releasing it to God”: “Releasing our offense to God” is the spiritual language version of “getting over it”. Spiritual language that isn’t derived from scripture and biblical ideas has no power to help us. Also, concepts that sound spiritual but are not grounded in the word of God have no real, practical connect points to help our heart find its way out of real trouble. We live in a wild world filled with choppy waters. We often have no control over what other people do to hurt us. However, once they do hurt us, the right response is in our hands, not theirs. As we saw in James’ story, “letting go” feels helpful in the short-term but leaves a damaged heart uncared for long-term.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation: Forgiveness and reconciliation are really two separate issues. Not every point of conflict and hurt demands confrontation. Grant was a student of mine who, like many, confused forgiveness with absolution and confession. Grant felt wronged by a female leader, and so he went to her and unloaded his hurt as a means of “forgiving her”. While he felt better getting his offense off of his chest, the woman he spoke to was left shaken and wrestled for many days with shame and condemnation. Though Grant found satisfaction as the offended party, he gave no thought or consideration towards the frame of the leader he confronted. Forgiveness was only about him, and there was no examination of the facts to see if the leader had in fact done anything wrong (she had not).
Forgiveness is much more than “therapeutic”: There are emotional and relational benefits to forgiving others, but forgiveness is much more than that. There are emotional benefits because forgiveness is about more than the benefits of the action itself. The attitude and life of the heart is a part of what forgiveness involves. However, we must commit to something more than personal benefit. We must commit to the health of our relationship with Christ and to healthy, loving relationships with others around us. This includes those who have wounded or wronged us.
As I’ve navigated forgiveness both personally and pastorally over the years, I’ve come to realize a few things about what forgiveness is:
Forgiveness is a work of grace: True forgiveness does not come easily or naturally to a wounded heart. There is real pain, bitterness, and anger that fester within the wound. As James learned, that wound does not heal on its own. It does not matter how often we replay the truth in our minds or tell the truths of scripture to others; if we do not involve God in the process of forgiveness, our heart will always go its own way in a relational conflict. Forgiveness is not an isolated act of the human will, but the fruit of the grace of God in our lives as the result of an active dialogue with the Holy Spirit.
Forgiveness is a spiritual exchange: Forgiveness is the fruit of an active reach to connect with God by His Holy Spirit. As we wrestle through the pain and the hurt, we do so with God. We must set aside time to talk with Him and wait for His response. In seeking to forgive those who have hurt us, we are not trying to “feel better”. We must connect with the God that so generously forgave us when we wronged Him. As we connect in prayer, we receive something from Him that aids the process significantly: a spirit of wisdom and revelation (Ephesians 1:17) that gives us clearer perspective on what happened to us and why.
As we reach to love God in the pain, we will also experience His love, affection, and tenderness towards us. As we experience this – even a bit – love begins to “abound, still more and more” (Philippians 1:9). The love of Christ has power for the heart and soul of a man in a way that is different from any other force in heaven or on the earth. More than what we feel when the love of Christ touches our heart, what we think, believe, and even what we like begins to change. This is what Paul meant when he prayed that love would abound “in knowledge and all discernment, that we would approve the things that are excellent…” (Philippians 1:10)
The grace of God and the love of Christ are the only way to escape the snare of bitterness, cynicism, and anger that follows a wounded heart. In connecting with Him, we exchange our opinions on what happened to us for His wisdom, power, and emotions. Forgiveness is not really about what we “release to God” but what we receive from God out of prayer and fellowship with His Spirit.
Forgiveness is an encounter with the heart of God: When we are touched by the love and power of God, we aren’t simply healed. We are changed. Our wounded heart becomes an opportunity to reach for God in ways that we never would have otherwise. We can find Him in the deepest pain. When we find Him, we have an invitation to encounter His presence and power. Encountering the presence and power of Jesus always leads to becoming a little more like the person of Jesus. We may have been grievously wronged. We may have been deeply wounded. However, as we fellowship with One who suffered great wrongs and deep wounds, we can encounter His tender heart. If we do, we will never be the same again.
Forgiveness is agreement with the heart of God: How do we know when we have entered into the process of biblical forgiveness? The fruit of engaging in the process with God, so far: increased perspective from the Holy Spirit and more tenderness towards God and those who wounded us. We come to the other side of forgiveness when we are able to enter into agreement with the heart of Jesus towards those who have wronged us. We begin to see those who hurt us through the eyes of Jesus. We begin to feel what He feels towards them. Best of all, we can begin to pray for them as He prays for them (Hebrews 7:25).
Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies and bless them with our words. We can do this during the entire process of forgiving them for what they have done. As we do, we will find that we finish the process of forgiveness a very different person than we were when we began it. At the end of the process, when we see the fruit of true, Spirit-filled forgiveness in our heart we can actually enter into what Paul wrote about in Romans 5:3 –
And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance…
This is how we learn to rejoice, even in pain and hurt. Over time, we learn about the great joy and reward that is on the other side of pain. This reward is ours when we choose to deeply involve God in the process of restoring our wounded heart.