I’ve just finished a book entitled The Forgiveness Project. It was written by one of the counselors at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. They have a program dedicated totally to helping patients learn how to forgive and to let go of the negative emotions they have from people who have treated them wrongly over their lifetime. It seems that research is showing that unresolved anger, bitterness, resentment, and hatred drain your immune system and can either make you more susceptible to cancer or hinder your immune system from fighting it as it should.
That was one of the ironic lessons I took from this book. We don’t forgive people as a favor to them. We forgive people, because Jesus commanded us to from the heart, and ultimately for ourselves. Forgiving is for our own benefit. The people who have hurt us, that we hold grudges against, either have no idea that we’re struggling with negative emotions toward them or, if they aren’t making efforts on their end, they don’t care.
So we forgive for our own sakes. Carrying around anger, resentment, bitterness, and hatred your entire life can make you life miserable.
A realization I came to reading this book too was that it isn’t enough to simply forgive those from the past which you haven’t. We have to learn the skill of forgiveness and make it our instinctive reaction to the trespasses of others. People are going to hurt us, and treat us wrong our entire lives. Without the skill to forgive, we will forever default back to anger and resentment which lead to hatred and, according to scripture, murder either in our hearts or literally. So forgiveness has to become our natural response to hurt and injustice, not a onetime cleaning of the slate.
Unforgiveness is like any other sin as well. It takes commitment and dedication, not to mention prayer and maybe even fasting, to master. And I suppose the ease or difficulty of mastering forgiveness is different according to the individual. We all have the things with which we struggle. Some people struggle more with pride, others with honesty, others with temperance. Some, like me, struggle to forgive.
Mastering forgiveness isn’t about “steps”. It isn’t a paint by number set. Mastering forgiveness is about gaining insights and changing the heart and the perspective. Here are some of those insights in no particular order.
1 Corinthians 14:20
20 Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.
One of the stories in the book was about a woman whose husband was kidnapped and tortured for months in Mexico and her struggles to forgive the kidnappers for what they did to him. Wow! And we think people have hurt us!
Anyway, what gave her peace and enabled her to forgive the kidnappers was that she finally empathized with them. She began to imagine each one of them as little Mexican boys, growing up dirt poor and possibly abused. She finally began to empathize with them because she began to understand what might have turned those little boys into the monsters they grew into.
Her hurt was greater than what most of us have ever faced so we certainly should be able to apply the same principle. The people you need to forgive and the things they did to you…have you ever thought about their childhood or what could it be that makes them tick? Have you tried to put yourself in their shoes and realized that if you’d walked the road of life they have you’d likely be the same way or, at least share many similarities?
2 to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men.
Our pride and arrogance are huge stumbling blocks to forgiveness. We think we’re always right. Our opinion is the only one with any credence. Our adversaries are 100% wrong. No they’re not. And neither are we always 100% right. But we don’t want to hear the other side. We don’t want to share other perspectives.
Think of the people in your life that you’d consider humble. I bet your assumption is that they are also quick to forgive. The two go hand in hand it seems.
3. Expectations of Justice or Fairness:
33 In His humiliation His justice was taken away,
And who will declare His generation?
For His life is taken from the earth.”
This has been a big one for me personally and, even though I knew it, reading it in the book has made me see how unrealistic it is.
Somebody has wronged you. Treated you badly, disparaged you to others…you name it. It wasn’t fair was it? Well, life isn’t fair. Nowhere is that taught in scripture. It’s so easy to get stuck in a never ending cycle of wanting things to be made fair but you have to let it go. Life isn’t fair. It wasn’t fair to Jesus. It wasn’t fair to the apostles and it won’t be fair to you.
Justice though, there will be justice eventually. But God says that it’s His to get, not yours. Our task is to forgive and give it over to Him.
An irony I see though is that, when we forgive from our heart, we stop wanting justice for the other person and we begin wanting mercy for them. Our hope becomes that they repent and get their own hearts right before God.
4. Overcoming Self-righteousness:
13 The fear of the LORD is to hate evil;
Pride and arrogance and the evil way
And the perverse mouth I hate.
Closely associated with lacking humility is being self-righteous. In fact, we will never be able to forgive until we overcome our self-righteousness.
When we’re self-righteous we tend to demonize our adversaries and categorize them as people too vile to forgive. We are unable to see ourselves as simply fallen, fallible human beings in need of forgiveness too. We think we’re better than that, better than “them”. Therefore we can’t see the people we need to forgive as anything other than terrible, vile people unworthy of our forgiveness.
We have to grasp our humanity and realize that anything which someone has done to me, I’m totally capable of doing to someone else given the right set of circumstances.
We also have to grasp how much we’ve been forgiven as well. Jesus said that he who has been forgiven much loves much but he who has been forgiven little loves little. Self-righteousness goes hand in hand with unforgiveness and lacking love the same as humility goes hand in hand with love, mercy, and forgiving.
There were a couple of other things which weren’t necessarily insights but helpful tools.
One was to give yourself permission to forgive. It sounds a little silly but sometimes, for whatever reason, our subconscious won’t let us forgive. We feel the other person doesn’t deserve it, and maybe they don’t. Or we feel like they have to ask for it, for reconciliation maybe so, but not to forgive.
This is where we have to remind ourselves that we aren’t doing it for them. We’re doing it to obey God and for ourselves.
Another helpful tool is to sometimes try and detach from the emotional aspects of the incident. Make it less personal. See it as a detached individual looking on and think to yourself “What happened, happened…now move on. It is what it is.”
A final really good tool is to write a letter to the person(s) you need to forgive. Put it all out on paper and say everything that needs to be said. Don’t send it to them though. Read over it and pray over it as much as you need to. The book describes forgiveness as a time when, in your heart, you can think of the person, wish them well, pray good prayers for them but feel a peaceful indifference to them instead of the anger you had been feeling. When you feel this about the individual you can burn the letter, rip it up, or throw it in the river. It’s over.
Sometimes we believe that forgiving means renewing a negative relationship or reconciling with a negative person but it doesn’t. We can forgive without becoming buddies again. We shouldn’t allow a perception that we have to be chummy again keep us from forgiving.
Reconciliation is something I believe God earnestly desires, this is obviously true among believers, but sometimes it isn’t to be. Forgiveness is possible without reconciliation but reconciliation is [nearly] impossible without forgiveness. With Christians though, I have to question the sincerity of forgiveness when there is an absence of desire or effort to reconcile on any level by one or both parties.
So there it is; forgiveness and some insights and tools to help us offer it from the heart; peaceful indifference to those who formerly created anxiety, and anger, and bitterness in our hearts. Jesus warns us that He won’t do it for us if we don’t do it for others so we better get this one on straight.