You’ve tried over and over, but that one injury seems impossible to forgive. How can you let go of it?
You are stupid and you’ll never make it!” My father’s biting words tore at my heart. At nineteen, I was attempting to make some difficult decisions about my future. I had been studying chemistry in college for three years and had done poorly. In fact, I was about to be expelled for academic reasons.
That failure in itself was hard enough for me. But my father’s reaction when I told him I’d decided to change my major to psychology was the ultimate defeat. I felt like a zero.
Several years ago I related this incident to a Sunday school class as I was teaching about the effects our words can have on others. It suddenly hit me as I was telling my story: Not only had my dad judged me stupid and hopeless at nineteen, but he had been subtly infusing me with that message over my entire lifetime.
That realization nearly knocked me over! Angry thoughts flooded my mind. How could a father do that to his son? Aren’t families supposed to be supportive of their children? As new waves of pain surfaced, I had difficulty making it through the rest of my teaching that morning.
WHEN FORGIVENESS COMES HARD
In the years since my father’s rejection hit me full force, I’ve done a lot of thinking about Christ’s words: “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” (Mt. 6:14–15).
What a tough statement! The last thing I felt able to do when I felt the most hurt was to forgive. Yet it was required of me!
I’ve talked with dozens of other injured people who have also felt frustrated in their attempts to successfully forgive those who hurt them. They’ve felt defeated, depressed, bitter, angry, insecure, and alienated from God.
I’ve felt those things, too. I’ve also been discouraged by the lack of effective teaching on forgiveness. I read books, listened to speakers, and attended seminars, only to feel defeated because everyone seemed to make forgiveness sound easy, guilty because I could not forgive the way Christ had forgiven me, and discouraged because no one seemed able to give me the key I needed to unlock my heart from the bitterness that held it captive.
Perhaps you can relate to my struggle. You may be unsuccessfully attempting to forgive a parent who wouldn’t let you go to college because you were “just a girl.” You may be reeling from a crushing blow like a spouse’s unfaithfulness or a friend’s betrayal. You may have been offended by a pastor or leader in your church, or maybe you have suffered for years from words spoken by someone no longer living. Whatever the issue, I’d like to challenge you to examine yourself and determine where you may lack the kind of forgiveness to which Christ calls us.
Are you harboring a resentment? Let me suggest the following test. Think of a time when you were hurt by another person. Does that memory stir up any anger or pain you thought you’d left behind? Do you find yourself having a hard time being close to that person or to others who remind you of him or her? Do you still feel personally threatened by that person’s offense? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may need to look at the way you forgive.
Jeremiah 31:34 describes the way God forgives: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” God did not develop divine amnesia in order to forgive our offenses, but He chose to place them out of His memory so we could stand in right relationship with Him. He is not threatened by our sin, nor is His personal well-being dependent on our response to Him.
As human beings we are not so. Our self-worth is fragile. We deeply long to be loved and valued, and we are threatened by the possibility of rejection. Because of this, we cannot have the instantaneous “forgive and forget” response to those who’ve offended us that God has to us. Before we can forgive one another as in Christ God forgave us (Eph. 4:32), we must travel through a process that removes our self-centeredness and puts us in touch with the Holy Spirit’s power to forgive with divine integrity.
IN THE WAKE OF AN INJURY
Between the violating event and its eventual result in our life, I believe there are generally four stages we move through that determine whether we will forgive or bear a grudge. The first stage is reaction. When my father condemned me at age nineteen, my initial emotional reaction was despair. I was crushed. I reacted as I would if my hand had touched the burner on a stove. I pulled away in pain.
The second stage is evaluation. We reflect on what has happened to us and attach some kind of interpretation, or value judgment, to it. I asked the question, How could he have done that to his son? I interpreted my father’s rejection as a judgment against my value as his child and as a person. My self-esteem was threatened, and the pain and anger I felt were more specific than they had been in the reaction stage.
I wasn’t sure how to deal with my negative feelings once I identified them, so when I entered the decision stage, I made the wrong choice. I assumed that to truly forgive, I had to completely forget the offense and put aside whatever pain it had caused me. The only way I found to do this was to deny that anything significant had happened. (I call this kind of denial “blind forgiveness.”)
In making this decision, I was really making three statements. One, that I could not handle the full reality of what had happened. Two, that the Lord did not have adequate resources to help me handle it. And three, that I needed to help God out by attempting to push the pain out of my mind.
I took action to accomplish this: I kept busy with all kinds of “spiritual” activities to give me a sense of worth, I leaned heavily on other significant relationships for my security, and I placed myself in a position of Christian leadership whenever possible so I could feel I had an impact.
As I discovered over time that this strategy was ineffective in moving me toward true forgiveness, the anger I still felt deep inside turned to bitterness. My intense emotion eventually surfaced as I taught that Sunday school class years later. And I had to face that the years of living by this “blind forgiveness” had a very negative result. I had lived my life on the surface with both God and others. I looked good on the outside, but I felt bitter in my heart and lacked power in my life and witness.
Not everyone chooses the route of blind forgiveness as I did. Some choose not to forgive at all, but to punish and manipulate. They see the injury as so severe that their only option is to get back in some way at the person who hurt them. They distance themselves from their offender to avoid pain, and they become bitter and self-protective. Unfortunately, in order to avoid potential pain or disappointment, they usually distance themselves from most everyone else as well, including God. No one is allowed inside their inner sanctum.
Another alternative to true forgiveness is “expectant forgiveness.” Brenda came to me to talk about the way her husband, Sam, had treated her during her recovery from a severe knee injury that left her in a full leg cast for almost six months.
While she wore the cast, she was able to drive her husband’s car comfortably, but she found that driving her van was quite painful. During a particularly difficult time of her recovery, Brenda asked Sam if they could trade vehicles for a couple of months in order to help her drive more comfortably. Sam was indignant. “No way!” he said, and that was that. He made her drive her van, which added to her pain. No matter how much she asked, he refused.
A year passed and her leg was totally healed. But Brenda told me her relationship with Sam was miserable. She was so bitter toward him that no matter how good he was to her now, she found that she despised him. The sting of his actions were never far from her mind. She spent hours trying to find some way to get him to understand how what he did hurt her deeply. She would have gladly accepted a genuine apology, but none came. She could hardly tolerate him and felt her only recourse was to pull completely away from him.
As Brenda and I talked, she realized that Sam was going merrily on with his life while she was stuck in bitterness, waiting for him to apologize or to realize the impact of his actions. She came to see that her forgiveness of and relationship with her husband were completely dependent on whether or not he met her expectations. These expectations actually prevented her from obeying Christ’s command to forgive.
Brenda wanted Sam to understand and respond to her, but the desire to get on with her life was more pressing. She knew she needed to learn what true forgiveness was all about.
THE MARK OF TRUE FORGIVENESS
Peter asks Jesus in Mt. 18:21–22, “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Some individuals may think, I’ve forgiven him at least 490 times But Christ’s instruction had nothing to do with actual numbers; He was telling us that we need to forgive infinitely, totally, the same way Joseph forgave his brothers and Esau forgave Jacob.
True forgiveness means that we no longer expect or demand that the offender change as a prerequisite for our pardon. When we stop demanding that others change before we can move forward, we begin to see them as individuals who have made mistakes that have hurt us deeply. Rather than waiting for them to correct these mistakes, we acknowledge our disappointment in their failure, and our anger is slowly replaced with sadness. This sadness over the inevitable—that no human relationship can meet all our deepest longings— eventually produces a more complete dependence on God for fulfillment at those deep levels. And this dependence produces a joy in the midst of our pain as we experience God’s comfort.
But how can we forgive like this?
When Debbie discovered that her husband had molested her daughter, she felt deep hurt and rage. After an extended time, she began to struggle with her need to forgive her husband for his offense. She tried to forgive him but found no joy in it. She felt despair as she saw how little her husband and her attitude toward him were changing.
She decided again to forgive him, this time acknowledging that if she expected anything from her husband, she would be depending on him, not the Lord, for the power to forgive. Debbie’s valid longings for a rich and dependable relationship were deeply disappointed by her husband’s actions. But as she admitted her pain and her inability to control the satisfaction of her needs, she was able to get back in touch with the fact that God alone could bring her ultimate fulfillment. She was able to forgive her husband, no strings attached, and experience God’s presence and comfort in the midst of her pain.
THE PATH TO FORGIVENESS
We may understand what true forgiveness is, but how do we actually forgive that person who has hurt us so deeply? The first step, I believe, is becoming fully aware of how someone’s offense has threatened us.
When I began the forgiveness process for my father’s criticism, I asked myself several questions to deter nine why I was, so angry. First, how did his response to me threaten my self-esteem? My security? My relationship with him? Those questions weren’t hard to answer. I felt justified in my wrath; He had violated me!
But then I went on to determine what part I was playing in keeping my resentment alive. Where was I being dishonest, self-seeking, fearful? I expected Dad to know—just because he was Dad—exactly what my needs were and how he should meet them. I never expressed my hurt or disappointment; I just withdrew in order to protect myself. I was not honestly facing the conflicts in our relationship. I had been self-seeking in my expectation that my dad provide for my needs in the first place.
Parents are supposed to build up their children, not tear them down. But as an adult, why was I still holding on to resentment? Because even now, I insisted that Dad come through for me. My expectations gave him complete control over my self-esteem and my ability to forgive.
Once I discovered the reasons for my resentment and had experienced the feelings associated with it all over again, I was able to see my expectations of fair treatment as a block to my ability to forgive. It wasn’t all Dad’s fault that I was hurting. I, too, carried responsibility for my own pain as well as its results. I was, the only one who could free myself from the prison of resentment and walk on in forgiveness.
In order to have that freedom, I had to face the wrong strategies I had devised to deal with the pain in my heart. I felt convicted of my failure to depend on Christ for my sense of value and self-esteem. I believe that unless we are able to acknowledge our feelings of resentment, expectations of others, and the threat to our self-esteem, we will not repent, experience Christ’s forgiveness, and thus be able to forgive those who have hurt us deeply.
Developing a heart of forgiveness takes time. It’s a process to deter nine our own shortcomings and allow divine forgiveness to supplant our very inadequate human forgiveness.
Where are you with that person you just can’t forgive? Can you begin to see the keys you need to unlock your prison doors? It takes courage, integrity, and faith to walk in forgiveness. But it’s the only road to freedom, and to the love we’re called to have for our neighbor.
You’ve been reading from issue 46 of the Discipleship Journal. The author, David W. Brewer, is the founder of Brewer Counseling Associates in West Palm Beach, Florida.