A Difficult Discipline
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. ~Matthew 18:21-22
Perhaps one of the hardest realities to deal with in our world is that no one is perfect. Because of this fact, being hurt by other people, both intentionally and not, is a fact of life. Additionally, we will mess up and hurt someone else at some point. Even Jesus, the only perfect person to ever live a full life in this world, was not exempt from this reality. He was hurt by the sinfulness of his fellow man and, while always being lovingly truthful, sometimes he hurt others by refusing to ignore their sin or just go along with the status quo.
Hurt is a harsh experience we all deal with to some degree in our lives. I bet each person reading this can think of a time when they have been hurt by another person. Perhaps it was the words someone did or did not say. Perhaps it was the physical actions of another person towards you. Perhaps it has been easy to forgive and move forward in relationship with that person or perhaps it hasn’t been.
Giving a 3 step how-to guide on forgiveness isn’t, in my opinion, a super helpful approach to the topic. There are just too many variables to consider. What is deeply hurtful to me likely doesn’t bother many other people. Each person has their own personality and is on their own journey of faith meaning each person has a different experience and understanding of forgiveness. What I can easily let go of may take you days, weeks, months, or even years to let go of in your life. All of these variables make forgiveness simultaneously both a super basic and a super complicated concept.
Let’s start by taking a moment to consider what forgiveness is not. It is not pretending that what happened to cause the hurt doesn’t really matter. You were hurt by whatever it was so it does matter to you. To say it doesn’t matter is lying to both yourself and the person who hurt you. Forgiveness isn’t simply the hurt going away. Just because someone stops hitting you, thus removing the pain of being hit, doesn’t mean forgiveness has happened. One can become numb to hurt when it happens repeatedly over a long period of time. The source of hurt can be removed from your life. Just because you are no longer experiencing hurt doesn’t mean you have forgiven the person causing the hurt.
Forgiveness is also not forgetting. We have all heard the saying: “Forgive and Forget.” Our brains are not computers where we can choose random files to delete and so have no record of being hurt. When we are hurt, a memory remains. In forgiving, we aren’t called to forget but we are all called to give up our “right” for vindication. Finally, forgiveness does not mean we are to pretend that nothing happened and strive to go back to the same relationship we had with that person before they hurt us. The hurt did happen. It will change the relationship. By God’s grace and mercy, forgiveness has the potential to make the relationship deeper and stronger but it will never be the same as it was before you were hurt.
Richard Foster makes an interesting observation about the need to embrace the practice of forgiveness:
“Human beings are such that “life together” always involves them in hurting one another in some way. Most people feel that somehow this is unusual, but it is simply true. To avoid this fact of life people will remain superficial with everyone, run to another church at the first signal of pain, or clam up into a tight little shell that doesn’t know how to cry…or laugh. Churches will never progress until we move beyond the fear of being hurt.”
It's easy to think of the people we have been hurt by and need to forgive. But to really dig deeply into forgiveness we also have to consider who we might have hurt and how to seek forgiveness from them. The last church I was a member at experienced a significant shake up in leadership during my last two years. As a key volunteer in the youth ministry department, much of the youth ministry program fell to my shoulders to keep going while the church searched for a new senior pastor. It was a big job that required a lot of juggling to keep parents informed, kids engaged, and other volunteers committed.
I did the best I could but in my imperfection at least one hurting student largely fell through the cracks. A couple of years ago I got a text message from her one evening. As we texted back and forth she expressed how deeply she had been hurt by little things I had done or said in that time but that she was determined to forgive me because she was tired of being angry with me. I apologized and honestly told her that while I knew that time of transition had been hard for her, I had no idea just how hard it had been. I also wept a bit inside because the conversation revealed just how easy it is to hurt someone when you are doing your very best to help them.
Ultimately, forgiveness is about what is happening in our hearts. And that is a tricky reality because it is a choice based on knowledge and truth, not something which relies on us feeling like we are able to forgive or should forgive. Forgiveness is about letting our hearts be softened towards someone who has hurt or wronged us in some way. It is an antidote to the infection carrying resentment in our hearts creates and should be practiced before that resentment becomes bitterness. It is vital to our faith because our faith would not be possible with the forgiveness we receive from Christ Jesus.
One final thought on forgiveness. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. It is the first step in the process of reconciliation. In a perfect world, when we forgive someone we would also be able to reconciled to them but there are times where that hope, that goal is simply unwise. The reality is that you can only control what is happening in your heart. You can forgive someone for hurting you but if they are unrepentant, or even unwilling to acknowledge the hurt they caused you, reconciliation with them is likely not possible right at the moment, and perhaps not ever. That’s OK. Your forgiveness of them is about what is happening in your heart, in your relationship with Christ. Let God work in their heart in His timing.
Check out our video for this week as we continue on our Lenten Journey:
Consider who has hurt you in some way. Is there anger, bitterness, and resentment in your heart towards them? If so, ask God to help you do the hard work of daily forgiving them and letting go of those feelings. If not you have likely learned what it means to forgive that person. Was it something gradual or can you point to a more specific time when you were able to forgive them?
Even when we have the best intentions we will inadvertently hurt other people. Ask God to show you when you may have unintentionally hurt someone. Is there a way you can apologize and make amends that would be helpful for both you and the person you hurt?