Perhaps no issue more quickly assesses the true state of our spiritual formation in Christ than how we respond to being sinned against. Forgiveness becomes concrete when we talk about how we deal with anger. How do you deal with your anger? Maybe a rude driver on the road cuts you off, Someone steals your credit card, A friend criticizes you, A family member continually mistreats you.
Most of us know that as Christians we should forgive in these cases. However, we may need to clear up some misconceptions so that our forgiveness will be genuine and result in healing for us and release for our offenders.
“Forgive and forget,” some say, but forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about not being resentful, but you can remember and not hold onto anger. It’s important that we remember our experiences in life so that we can learn from them.
“Just let it go to God and move on,” is a common approach. This advice may work for minor offenses, but to attempt to overlook deep wounds and repeated violations is denial. If forgiveness is to be real then it has to be honest about the violation against you that needs to be forgiven. Forgiveness in these cases is a process of working through hurt, anger, and other feelings. “You can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there” (Jeremiah 6:14, LB).
“I’ll forgive when…” It’s easy to think that until your offender apologizes or stops mistreating you that you don’t need to forgive. It doesn’t work that way; forgiveness is a gift of mercy. No one deserves to be forgiven! The only way to forgive is to “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). By appreciating how fortunate you are that God has forgiven you of your sins then you are helped to share that forgiveness with the one who has sinned against you. “I can’t forgive,” some believe, “it’s not a safe relationship for me.” But this thinking confuses forgiveness and reconciliation. If you’ve been abused and are vulnerable to be re-injured then indeed you need boundaries to protect yourself. At the same time, you can learn to release your offender to God’s justice, refusing to hold onto a posture of angry judgment.
I’ve found that the acid test for whether or not I’ve forgiven someone is if instead of holding onto anger at those who sin against me I can pray for and sincerely desire God’s blessings on that person. Jesus taught us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27-28). We can’t do this by gritting our teeth and forcing it!
How do we learn to forgive and bless the one who curses us? “Train yourselves to be godly” Paul answers (1 Timothy 4:7). We each need to grow in grace to become the kind of person who, like God, forgives. We need to be formed in God’s forgiveness through a heart connection to God’s favor in which we’re thankful that God has blessed us though we don’t deserve it and his blessings are flowing through us to others. Then we can offer the gift of his mercy to those who sin against us, even if in some cases it takes some time to pray our way to that point.