When Forgiveness is Hard
(This is a continuation of point #10 in "Getting through the 'broken' times.")
Going through painful trials often gives us tunnel-vision. All we see is how everyone else is treating us wrong and how life is being unfair. And we make the pain worse by dwelling on all the ways we’ve been cheated in life. We catalog our hurts, the ways people let us down, the ways they treated us poorly, the ways God let us down, etc. And we grow bitter and more discouraged and more closed-off.
Bitterness is a poison. And it will slowly destroy our relationship with others, our faith, our emotional health, and our physical well-being. Good never comes from carrying around giant chains of unforgiveness and bitterness. It only weighs us down, making our futures as pathetic as we think our pasts were. And it deprives us of the joy, contentment, and the kind of relationship with God that we were meant to have.
If you catch yourself dwelling on all the ways life has been unfair, pray and ask God to reveal if there is any heart attitude that you need to deal with and ask forgiveness for. Is there anyone you need to forgive? Any grudge you need to let go of? Any wrong that you need to place in the Lord’s hands, for Him to deal with? Any heartbreak you haven’t dealt with yet? Anything you are beating yourself up about, where you need to accept God's forgiveness and forgive yourself?
Sometimes, the best way to heal and to deal with pain is to forgive, to let go of bitterness, to ask forgiveness, to make the first move, to forgive ourselves, to accept God’s forgiveness and “go and sin no more.”
Mark 11:25: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Basically, if you won’t forgive others then you don’t really understand the nature of forgiveness and God’s forgiveness toward you. If you don’t really understand what forgiveness is and you haven’t learned who you really are before Him then you won’t be able to grasp God’s grace or share it with others. You can’t give to others what you yourself never really got.
If we need to forgive others but can’t, we should ask for God’s help in doing it. He will help us do what we cannot do on our own. But be prepared that it might mean that God has to hold a mirror up to us first so that we can get a good, long, accurate view of who we are before Him. And then when we understand who we are and what He has done for us – His grace, love, and forgiveness despite our sinfulness and brokenness – we will be able to extend it to others.
Somewhere along the path to a whole, humble, genuine, trusting relationship with Him, all serious God-seekers will be forced to face and struggle with the issues that we hold deep in our hearts – the fears, the resentments, the bitterness, etc. And we will have a decision to make: Continue to hold onto the fears, resentments and bitterness ... or place them fully into God’s hands and grab onto Him instead.
He will not allow us to hold onto both. We cannot hold on to fear, resentment, selfish desires, bitterness, etc., and yet still hold onto Him, too.
And these “decision times” are usually incredibly hard and painful because they often hit upon the scars and wounds and broken parts of our hearts and souls that we have tried to keep wrapped up, hidden, and safe for so long. They hit upon the self-righteousness that we have built up by holding grudges against others, by tearing them down, by punishing them in the ways we see fit and necessary.
Choosing to forgive, to let go of bitterness, often involves being vulnerable all over again. It often means letting go of the control that we hold onto tightly to prevent ourselves from being hurt again. And that is scary.
But God is after complete healing and growth and wholeness for us, and so He eventually asks us (“forces us”) to examine our unforgiving hearts. To work through the pain, to choose between bitterness and forgiveness, and to allow Him to be God.
Not too long ago, I was bothered for days because someone was sharing something about me with others that was a misrepresentation, and they were delighting in this misrepresentation. But they would not listen to me when I tried to correct them. Well, I was really bothered by this, but I had no recourse. So I complained in my head about it for days. And it was eating me up inside, making me bitter and miserable.
But what finally put a stop to it is when I realized that, in God’s eyes, my thoughts and critical attitude were probably “more” sinful than what this person was guilty of. And I found myself saying, “Yes, Lord, what they did wasn’t right, but I am guilty of pride, unforgiveness, and a harsh, critical attitude. And this is a sin against You. Forgive me!”
It helps us keep a soft, forgiving, repentant heart when we look at ourselves instead of at others.
Of course, it is a great thing when we move from saying, “Look at the wrongs they have done to me” to saying, “Lord, forgive them for they don’t know what they’ve been doing.”
But it is an equally great thing to move from “Lord, forgive them for they don’t know what they’ve been doing” to “Lord, forgive me for I don’t know what I have been doing.”
God will deal with the sins of others. He is the one who will avenge wrongs. We just need to be concerned with the plank in our eye and with our sins. And all sins, whether they are actions or thoughts or attitudes, are really sins against God. He alone really has the right to avenge them. And He will right all wrongs in the end. If we keep this in mind, it will help us to put bitterness, criticalness, and indignation aside. (These things just kill us slowly on the inside anyway.)
Not only do we have the responsibility to forgive others and to seek forgiveness from God, but we are to ask for forgiveness from others for any offenses we have made against them.
Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Being reconciled to others is so important to God that we are not even supposed to offer our gifts at the altar until we do. But how many of us sing God’s praises at church while we have unfinished business in a relationship with someone else? How many of us won’t seek reconciliation because we don’t think that we should have to? “We didn’t do anything wrong; it was all them . . . right!?! Besides, it’s history now!” And how many of us harbor bitterness towards others for some offense? How many can’t let it go because it seems so justified? “They deserve it, right?”
Forgiveness is not so much about the other person; it’s about our relationship with God.
Unforgiveness is a sin that will block God from hearing our prayers (Psalm 66:18: “. . . If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened”). And even worse, unforgiveness (or any resistance to confessing any sin in our lives, for that matter) shows hard-heartedness, which is diametrically opposed to a healthy, open relationship with God. And we will further block ourselves off from being sensitive to the Holy Spirit. And the longer we refuse to forgive or to ask forgiveness, the more we will entrench ourselves behind the wall that we have put up between us and the Lord. And the more numb and desensitized - and self-justified - we will feel.
It’s all about our heart and if we humble ourselves before a holy God.
There is another aspect to forgiveness that we might struggle with. And that is forgiving ourselves and “forgiving” God. Sometimes it is easier to forgive others than it is to forgive ourselves for the wrongs we have done. Some of us live our whole lives punishing ourselves or keeping our distance from God and others because we feel too guilty for things we have done. We do not feel we deserve to be forgiven, and so we do not accept the forgiveness that God is so ready to give us. Like knowing and accepting that His love is a free gift, we have a hard time knowing and accepting His free gift of forgiveness. And for some people, His free gift of salvation.
Maybe we have never experienced true mercy and grace from other people in our lives? Maybe we have never been given anything and we are used to earning everything we have? But we cannot earn forgiveness and grace and mercy. The only way to truly be forgiven is to accept it with a grateful, humble heart. And when this happens, we find God’s love and His healing. And we begin to want to live a life that honors Him, out of thankfulness for the unearnable gifts that He gives us. If we are still trying to earn anything from God then we don’t have a correct understanding of Him.
I want to look for a moment at the woman caught in adultery in John 8. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. (I wonder how they knew it would be happening at that exact time? When Jesus was there? And why did they not bring the man who was just as guilty? Sounds like a set-up to me. Just speculating.)
They are trying to trap Jesus, “in order to have a basis for accusing him.” And instead of answering their question about if she should be stoned, Jesus writes on the ground. We don’t know what He wrote, but we do know that it is enough to make them all leave after he says, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (Verse 7) (I think it’s interesting to note that the older ones left first. I think as we age, we lose some of that dogmatic, self-righteousness that we might have had when we were young, and we begin to see that we are just as human as the next person.)
What I want to specifically note here are two things.
1. Jesus was more disturbed by the unforgiving, self-righteous attitudes of the “spiritual elite” than He was by the humiliated, shamed, guilty woman. And this should be sobering to those of us who are more bothered by what everyone else is doing wrong than by what we are doing wrong. And those of us who are so eager to accept forgiveness that we don’t deserve but who are unwilling to give it to others.
2. And Jesus wasn’t nearly as concerned with where the woman was coming from. He was much more concerned with where she was going. “‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’” (John 8:11)
I point this out because I think too many people do not realize how ready and willing God is to forgive them. They hold onto their guilt as a sort of punishment, too full of shame to accept God’s forgiveness and love and healing. But God is much more concerned with where you are going than where you’ve been. Accept His forgiveness, let it make you free. And forgive yourself and “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
And as I said, some of us might struggle with forgiving God. Maybe our own sins and shortcomings don’t bother us, but God’s “shortcomings” or the ways He lets us down bother us immensely. This is a whole different kind of heart attitude. This is one where we feel like life should be the way we expect it to be, and it really upsets us when God doesn’t make it so.
Some of us have lost health, loved ones, jobs, homes, etc. And we struggle with wondering how a good, loving God could allow this to happen to us. And we become unforgiving toward Him, living as though He failed us or owes us some explanation. But at some point, we have to decide if we will still trust God even when things don’t go the way we want ... or if we will harden our hearts toward Him because He isn’t the kind of God we thought He should be.
If this is where we are at in life right now, I believe that we need to look at our expectations of God. Because I’m going to guess that we do not truly see Him the way that He is, the way the Bible says He is. When we try to smoosh Him up into a little box that we made or to define Him according to our faulty or unreasonable expectations, it is easy to lose hope and faith and trust when things go wrong. He isn’t the God we thought He was.
But it isn’t God who is failing us; it is our own ideas of God and life that are the problems to begin with. And we need to sort these out if we are going to be able to see the situation clearly, to “forgive” Him, and to humbly trust Him and seek His comfort when things go wrong. Life is hard enough without holding grudges against God. Or against others or ourselves, too.
Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”