If you're like many people, you may want to be free of past offenses, but you still carry bitter memories of or hard feelings toward those who have wronged you. Take comfort: Forgiving even the worst offenses against you is not impossible. You can find freedom from the past and peace that comes from God by learning to really forgive from the heart.
Forgiveness is easier to grasp when broken into a five-step process.
Offenses always cause pain; our pride makes us deny it. Some take an attitude, "Who cares? You're insignificant in my life. You can't hurt me!" This insulates us from the acute pain of the moment, but it allows the infectious agent of resentment, like toxic bacteria, to enter our soul where it festers, creating a spiritual disease of bitterness. Such a condition gradually estranges us from others and even from God.
Denying pain keeps us from starting on the path to forgiveness. But the degree of pain required in this exercise is bearable. Honestly experiencing it long enough to understand the exact nature of the offense is actually the beginning of healing.
When an offense has occurred, we often need to clearly and carefully sort out responsibilities in a particular incident. As children, we believe the world revolves around us. Although this tendency is strongest in our formative years, it also persists somewhat into adulthood. When traumatic events occur, kids believe it's mostly their fault. ("If I hadn't made Dad angry, he wouldn't have had a heart attack and died.")
As adults we need to develop firm ground within ourselves — to set boundaries and defend them when limits are violated.
Once we're clear as to who's responsible for what, the next step is to discover why the offender hurt us. This keeps us from dwelling single-mindedly on how we were hurt or how we wish to see the other person punished. If appropriate, we may need to ask friends or family members for information. Or we can use our imagination and place ourselves in the offender's position.
What we're not doing is looking for an excuse. No reasoning can excuse, for example, crimes against humanity such as torture, rape, extortion, blackmail, murder and the like. But gathering information is important.
Consider Rita's experience. Her husband had an affair with an emotionally disturbed woman. He eventually broke off the relationship and tried to repair the damage he'd done to Rita, whom he still loved. But Rita couldn't forgive her husband or the other woman. It was bad enough he'd had an affair — but to choose such a wretchedly unhappy and abused woman added insult to injury.
Inadvertently, Rita learned a bit about the other woman's history. As a little girl, she'd often been made to bend naked over the bathtub while her father beat her with a belt until blood ran down her legs. As Rita heard this story, she found tears running down her cheeks. Any child raised by such a criminally abusive father might wind up seducing men in a desperate search for love. This information also lent credibility to her husband's story that he'd first befriended the woman because he felt sorry for her; he then felt affectionate toward this "hurting soul." ... Eventually, the lines between affection and sexual involvement blurred. Further searching unearthed events in her husband's life that explained his vulnerability to such a strange relationship.
It didn't happen overnight, but the more Rita understood the facts, the more she was able to relinquish her anger and pain. She could truly forgive and sincerely pray for the woman. Understanding was not condoning the affair. And much work had to be done to heal her husband's past to prevent further offenses.
But for Rita, the restoration process took a step forward when the truth was known.
Once the facts are clear, we might imagine that forgiveness occurs automatically. Too often, however, our humanity gets in the way. Our self-protective and vengeful impulses can pitch us into rounds of self-pity, bitterness and anger.
It takes heroic effort to move beyond our own pain to understand what prevents us from saying, "I forgive you."
In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom describes the most extreme abuses imaginable perpetrated on her and the other inmates of a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Months after the war was over, Corrie was traveling through Germany speaking in churches about God's love and forgiveness. Inwardly, though, she knew her words had a hollow sound.
After speaking in a church in Munich, she was approached by a man she recognized as one of her former guards, a particularly cruel one. He now reflected a semblance of humanity and smiled brightly as he talked about his newfound faith in God. Looking Corrie in the eye, he held out his hand. "Fraülein, if you can forgive me, then I'll know what you say is true — that God forgives me."
Gripped by a terrible conflict, Corrie wanted either to turn her back on this man or do violence to him. In her mind's eye she could see her father and sister, who were both killed by the Nazis; she'd wanted to forgive those who were responsible. And this moment brought insight as to why she'd been unable to do more than speak hollowly about forgiveness. She was daily reliving the horror of the camp.
Corrie also realized that she would continue to be haunted by old feelings and memories if she did not move beyond them. This was her chance. But could she do it?
Her arm remained frozen at her side, while the man's remained outstretched. As he stared at her, Corrie prayed for strength she could not find in herself. Giving her will over to God, unable to change it on her own, coldly she stuck out her hand and clasped the palm of her former enemy.
"In that moment," she later wrote, "something miraculous happened. A current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me."
Forgiveness is a gift of God's grace. What Corrie described — the healing of one heart, the freeing of another — is a true miracle. The wonder of it is that God gives us insight into our own heart and involves us with Him in the freeing of another.
It was, interestingly, in a psychiatry class that I (Grace) learned relinquishment.
The class was discussing how to let go of past tragedies and trauma that hurt and scar. One man, Lou, had been weeping copiously, obviously reliving some pain of his own.
"Lou," the professor said, "I want you to wrap up that handkerchief and hold it tightly in your hand." After a long silence, he said, "Now, let it fall." The bunched handkerchief landed on the floor.
In a few moments, Lou reached down to pick up his handkerchief. But another student observed him and suggested that this was the way we all tried to "pick up our old burdens again." With a smile now, Lou left the handkerchief there.
We all saw that it's our choice — an act of our will — that sets us free from burdens of the past.
It seems that human beings have always had trouble with the idea of forgiving someone who has wronged them. It's just not natural to us. But Jesus Christ, the master of forgiveness came to show us a new way, a supernatural way, to live. He teaches us how to adopt new attitudes of the heart that help us live "above" our natural impulses.
You, too, can be healed and set free as you learn to walk the path of forgiveness. The gifts of personal wholeness in Jesus Christ can be yours, even when you think forgiveness is impossible. The question is, are you willing to begin?