“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
One of the underlying themes in the Bible is forgiveness. God forgives us. We’re supposed to forgive others. It sounds simple enough, but not always so easy to do.
In the ten years I have been conducting Bible studies at a nearby Federal Correctional Institution, one of the topics that comes up on a regular basis is forgiveness. Most of the men and women I have worked with have multiple people in their history who have treated them in hateful and harmful ways. Sometimes it’s a best friend who betrayed them. Sometimes they were abused emotionally or physically by family members. Sometimes an enemy has maliciously harmed them or destroyed their reputation.
The list goes on, but you get the idea.
Invariably they will ask me how to forgive these people. One woman told me recently that she had been trying to forgive someone for years but just couldn’t do it. She had been hurt too deeply. She knew she was supposed to forgive, but hadn’t been able to.
Why is it so hard to forgive someone?
Has there ever been someone you did not want to forgive because it seems like you’d be condoning their bad behavior? I think we’ve all felt that way at times. I know I have.
Sometimes we have been hurt so badly that it seems impossible to forgive, especially if the person has not apologized. It is certainly easier to forgive someone if they come to you and admit they treated you poorly and ask for forgiveness. This does not always happen.
But when the person who hurts you, whether on purpose or not, refuses to admit their mistake, it’s all too easy to want to retaliate. If there’s nothing you can do to get even, at least you can hate and resent them and vow never to forgive them.
I do not recommend this attitude, because it only chains a leaden weight to your heart and makes you a slave to your own hate.
Why is forgiveness important?
When you don’t forgive someone (or yourself), you carry around that ball and chain, and it literally and figuratively weighs you down. Forgiveness is the key that unlocks you from this prison of not forgiving.
Some people take delight in the enmity they feel toward someone they haven’t forgiven. That approach may seem to give temporary pleasure to relieve an aching heart. But in the end, it only makes the problem worse and the ball and chain thicker and heavier.
When you forgive someone, you are not condoning their bad behavior. It’s more about taking care of what is in your own heart. When you don’t forgive, you’re only hurting yourself. When you do forgive, it frees your heart to love more and to be able to receive more love.
If your hands are tightly clenched, you cannot accept a gift from someone. If your heart is tightly clenched, you cannot feel or accept God’s love and forgiveness. It’s even hard to accept anyone’s love when you are so tied up with resentment toward someone you haven’t forgiven. In fact, Jesus said, “If ye forgive men not their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:15 KJV) God’s forgiveness is always available. We just can’t receive it if we are holding on so tightly to resentment
Forgive your enemies
It’s one thing to forgive your friends and family who have hurt you, but Jesus said we should forgive everyone who has sinned against us. Oh yeah, remember the line from Lord’s Prayer quoted above? Do you really mean that when your say those words?
Jesus set the bar pretty high when he said from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 KJV) Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the Romans and the Pharisees did not exactly come and ask Jesus to forgive them for crucifying him. In fact, it was just the opposite. They reviled him. They spit on him. They mocked him. The Jewish perpetrators took great pleasure among themselves that Jesus had been disposed of.
As hateful as it was, however, it didn’t prevent Jesus from forgiving them.
And Jesus expects us to follow his example. He trusts us to do this. He knows we can. He helps us.
Have you ever wondered how on earth (or heaven) Jesus could forgive the very ones who crucified him right in the midst of it all? It’s one thing to forgive someone later after you’ve had time to think and pray about it. How often do you forgive someone right in the middle of them hurting you? Again, that’s a tall order. We’re not Jesus, we say in our defense. Nevertheless, he does expect us to follow his example. How do we do that?
Yes, Jesus was Jesus. He was the Son of God. But his human-ness struggled just as ours does. He didn’t just wave off the betrayal and treachery of those who brought him to the cross. It was no little thing to forgive. I think one reason he was able to forgive so freely, even in the midst of the agony, was because he saw the bigger picture of what was going on. He had decided not to run away from his prophesied death on the cross. He knew what would follow: the resurrection.
Jesus could forgive from the cross because he saw that God was in charge, not the people who crucified him, even though they thought they were. They truly didn’t know what they were doing. They had no clue they were fulfilling the Scriptures, which they claimed to love. They had no inkling of the implications of their deeds and the far-reaching consequences for the salvation of the whole world. No, they didn’t know what they were doing.
And so here we are, trying to learn from Jesus and follow his example of forgiveness.
They know not what they do
Let’s take these words of wisdom from Jesus and apply them to our own lives. When someone does you harm, even if on purpose, they really don’t know what they are doing. They may think they are trying to hurt you, and they may think they know why. But they really don’t have a clue. When people are angry or have been hurt, or think they have been hurt, they lose their clarity of thought.
I have a friend whose uncle was a practical joker. Many years ago in the era of cassette tapes, he would record various sounds and play them at opportune moments. Once he was on a cruise in the middle of the ocean, when he heard a couple in the state room next to his having a very loud argument. He went to his little black case, pulled out his cassette player and popped in a recording of a train coming into the train station with the brakes screeching and the whistle blasting. He played this as loud as he could for a minute or so. Then he turned it off and ran to the wall to listen how the arguing couple would respond. The woman screamed in rage, “And to top it all off Harry, you had to pick a state room next to the train station.”
Her anger made her forget she was surrounded by water. There was not a train in sight. But that didn’t stop her from reacting in a non-rational way when she was angry. She grabbed at whatever was handy to accuse her husband of more evil. We do the same thing. So do those who hurt you. Because we are hurt, we grab at whatever is handy and lash out at someone else who may have had nothing to do with the problem in the first place.
In other words, “They know not what they do.” Understanding this has helped me forgive people who have harmed me. And, like Jesus, I can start to see a bigger picture. If I blame someone else for ruining my life and refuse to forgive them, I have given them power over me. When I see that God is the one in charge of my life, I can see, bit by bit, that what someone did to me does not have any permanent effect on me. When I refuse to forgive, I submit to that person having power over me. When I realize that God governs me and that someone’s behavior does not control me, I can forgive. When you don’t forgive someone, you have basically agreed to be under their power instead of God’s.
Jesus couldn’t take that sort of baggage with him on the cross. He knew God was in control and not the Pharisees or Romans. And so he forgave.
How do you forgive someone?
It doesn’t always come in one fell swoop, although that’s possible. Usually it’s a step by step process. We forgive someone over and over until the hurt is gone and we are free. Have you ever gotten your hands so dirty that you couldn’t get them clean with one washing? You had to scrub them several times, and still there was dirt under your fingernails that wouldn’t come out right away. Oh well! You just keep at it. It’s the same with forgiveness. Sometimes it’s quicker than others, but just keep at it until your heart is completely free.
What does it mean to forgive? For me, it means to see beneath the surface of the person and the problem and what they did to you and why. It means seeing the bigger picture and looking at things from a more spiritual perspective and realizing that no one has power over you unless you acquiesce it to them. But I think we have to go pretty deep spiritually to really forgive.
A good friend of mine, Jim, had a terrible relationship with his father, for reasons that I won’t go into. My friend felt totally justified with the anger and resentment toward his dad and had no intention of forgiving him, even though he was in failing health and had been put in a nursing home. Jim said over and over, “I can’t forgive him for what he did to me.” I knew if his dad died and there was no forgiveness, Jim would be even more tormented because he was still giving his dad power over him.
Jim’s dad had had a miserable childhood and never gotten the love any child deserves. Jim could see this was perhaps why his father had not been a better parent, but it didn’t help his heart to forgive him.
I told Jim to imagine his dad as a little baby, innocent and pure, before he was messed up by his parents, and that he was holding him in his arms and he was smiling up at him. “Can you love him that way?” Jim said he could. That was the first step in forgiving his father. He learned to love him, to see beneath the crusty exterior of how the world shaped and defined his dad, to the way God had originally created him in His image and likeness.
Jim was able to forgive his dad. He was able to tell him he loved him before his death. He did not condone his father’s behavior, but he saw through the outward hurt to the inner child of God. He has thanked me many times for encouraging him to love and forgive.
Who do you need to forgive?
Now it’s your turn. Think of someone in your life you have not forgiven. It might even be yourself. And forgive them. Imagine holding them as an innocent little baby in your arms smiling up at you. See the bigger picture that they do not have control of your life. Whatever they did to harm you, God can turn into a blessing.
You can do this. Jesus knew you could or he wouldn’t have asked you to.
If you have found this helpful, please leave a comment below and share it with a friend that might find it encouraging. If you have any questions, just let me know how I can be supportive.