A little over a year ago my Momma passed away. I experienced powerful emotions during this time. Grief can be overwhelming, and it can heighten other emotions. I found myself dealing with extreme bitterness towards people who had mistreated my Momma. I felt that their mistreatment had been so stressful to my Momma that it had contributed to her death.
It felt like my life was spinning out of control, and that I couldn’t make sense of it anymore. When you feel like you have been wronged, your feelings often intensify as you dwell on the situation. The more you think about it, the angrier you become. If you can’t get your feelings in check, bitterness can consume you. That was the mindset that I found myself in. The more I thought about the people who had wronged my family, the more enraged I became. My grief and my anger were consuming my life and making it difficult for me to cope.
I knew that I had to get my life under control somehow. I had to rein in my emotions to be able to get on with my life. The pat answers that Christians give to those who are suffering from grief didn’t make any sense to me. I had used those same tired clichés when I had talked to people who were experiencing grief. In the back of my mind, I knew the answer was to let go and let God handle it. That’s an easy thing to say and a very difficult thing to do.
One of my favorite songs kept running through my mind. “I cast all my cares upon You. I lay all of my burdens down at Your feet. And any time I don't know just what to do, I will cast all my cares upon You.” I didn’t seem to be able to let go of my cares. It was almost like I was clinging on to them. I know my Bible, and I knew the promises it contained. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” Psalms 34:18 (NLT) “He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” Psalms 147:3 (NLT) “God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4 (NLT) When would these promises be fulfilled in my life. I was brokenhearted, I was mourning, and my spirit had been crushed. I wanted to say with Job, “I am weary of my life; I will complain without restraint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.” Job 10:1 (NET)
As he did with Job, God let me stew in my pity and anger for a few days. But then my mind was drawn to a set of sermons that my cousin had given me a few months before. It was a series of sermons that she had preached at a camp meeting. She had titled the series, Grace Lived Out. The very first sermon in the series was Grace That Leads to Forgiving Others. I knew that I needed to forgive, but all I could think of was the terrible things that had been done to my Momma and my family.
Just like I knew the promises that the Bible held out to me in my grief, I knew what it said about forgiveness. “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” Matthew 6:14 (NLT) I knew that to move on I had to forgive, but how could I forgive such abominable behavior? Something in my cousin's sermon struck home with me. She said, “You get to choose the size of the measuring device that is used on you. You get to choose how much forgiveness you get. You can have a lot, or you can have a little. Or none at all. You can choose how you will be measured and judged; with mercy or with harshness. It is up to you how many blessings you receive.
I wanted blessings. I wanted to claim those Bible promises, but I knew that I had a part to play in receiving them. “Surely it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but you have held back my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.” Isaiah 38:17 (NRSV) My cousin's sermons helped me get a balanced perception of what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.
I knew that I needed to forgive, but was my forgiving them for them, or was it for me? If I forgive them because I see the enormity of my own sins, and because I realize that I am capable of doing whatever they did to me, are any of those reasons about them? Forgiving them is a choice I make, for me.
But if I think forgiveness is for them, the conclusions are very different. If my forgiveness is for their benefit, then it seems that if I withhold forgiveness, it will hurt them somehow. I want them to hurt as I do. If I forgive them, it lets them off the hook. It tells them what they did was ok. It was not ok!
Too often we perceive forgiveness as condoning the behavior. But does forgiveness eliminate accountability or the need for restitution? If I have forgiven, can I still hold the person accountable for their actions? Some Christians teach that forgiveness and accountability are mutually exclusive. That holding someone accountable means that I haven’t forgiven them. But that is not the message of the Bible. Even when God forgives us there are still consequences. He still expects us to make things right as best we can.
Forgiveness does not eliminate accountability and restitution. Let’s say, for example, that you get angry and smash my windshield. I see you do it. What do you owe me? You owe me a new windshield. Now let’s say that you repent, and I accept your apology. Now you don't have to pay for the windshield! Is that what it means? No, the windshield is still broken.
Let’s say you don’t pay and you don’t even repent. Can I still forgive you? I have heard people say “I won’t forgive because they didn’t apologize.” Or they didn’t apologize in the right way. How can I forgive if you are not even sorry?
Here is the key. Forgiveness is a choice. I do it for me, not you. I do it because I realize that what I owe to God is much bigger and because I have a hammer in my trunk and know I am capable of smashing windshields, given the right circumstances.
If you don't repent and pay for my windshield, will I want to hang out with you? Probably not. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation or trust. Restitution must take place for reconciliation to occur.
There is a big difference between forgiveness and trust. Forgiveness does not mean the instant restoration of trust. Forgiveness is instant. Trust must be rebuilt over time. Forgiveness is based on grace and transparency. Trust is built on works and authenticity. Forgiveness is given. Trust must be earned and rebuilt by the one who damaged the relationship.
Sometimes we are reluctant to forgive because we think when we forgive people, we’ve automatically got to trust them again. But that’s a whole different issue. Let me say it again: Forgiving a person does not mean you have to trust them. It means you give the other person a chance to earn the trust back. Will you forgive me? Yes. Can we go back to the way it was? No. It does not work that way.
Most of us want to forgive. We don’t want to hold a grudge. We don’t want to be bitter. We don’t want our lives to be consumed with resentment. But more than wanting to forgive, we don’t want to be hurt again. There is this natural belief that if we forgive, then we are not only saying what that person did was okay, we are vulnerable enough to allow them to hurt us again. Resentment becomes our only defense mechanism to protect our heart. I think many of us live with resentment and bitterness not because we want to, but because we’ve confused forgiveness with trust.
Forgiveness, according to the Bible, should be offered unconditionally. If there are conditions, then it isn’t forgiveness. But trust has to be earned. If you have been hurt; betrayed; abused; cheated on; lied to then it is easy to confuse these two things. Many people feel like they haven’t fully forgiven because their trust hasn’t been restored. As we forgive, we free ourselves from bitterness. As we trust, we experience the process of restoration.
Forgiveness does not mean the instant restoration of trust. Forgiveness is instant. Trust must be rebuilt over time. Forgiveness is based on grace. Trust is built on works. You earn trust. You don't earn forgiveness. One reason we resist forgiving is that we don't understand what forgiveness is or how it works. We think we do, but we don't.
Most of us assume that if we forgive our offenders, that we let them off the hook and they get to go about their merry ways while we unfairly suffer from their actions. We may also think that we have to be friendly with them again or go back to the old relationship. While God commands us to forgive others, he never told us to keep trusting those who violated our trust or even to like being around those who hurt us.
The first step to understanding forgiveness is learning what it is and isn't. The next step is giving yourself permission to forgive and forget, letting go of the bitterness while remembering very clearly your rights to healthy boundaries.
Forgiveness is not letting the offender off the hook. We can and should still hold others accountable for their actions or lack of actions. Forgiveness is not letting the offense recur again and again. We don't have to tolerate, nor should we keep ourselves open to, lack of respect or any form of abuse.
Forgiveness does not mean we have to revert to being the victim. Forgiving is not saying, "What you did was okay, so go ahead and walk all over me." Nor is it playing the martyr, enjoying the performance of forgiving people because it perpetuates our victim role.
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciling. We can forgive someone even if we never can get along with that person again. Forgiveness is a process, not an event. It might take some time to work through our emotional problems before we can truly forgive. As soon as we can, we should decide to forgive, but it probably is not going to happen immediately. That's okay.
We have to forgive every time. If we find ourselves constantly forgiving, though, we might need to take a look at the dance we are doing with the other person that sets us up to be continually hurt, attacked, or abused.
Forgiveness does not mean denying reality or ignoring repeated offenses. Some people are obnoxious, mean-spirited, apathetic, or unreliable. They never will change. We need to change the way we respond to them and quit expecting them to be different.
Forgiveness is not based on others' actions but our attitude. People will continue to hurt us through life. If they don't repent, we still have to forgive. Even if they never ask, we need to forgive. We should memorize and repeat over and over: Forgiveness is about our attitude, not their action.
Withholding forgiveness is a refusal to let go of perceived power. We can feel powerful when the offender needs forgiveness and only we can give it. We may fear going back to being powerless if we forgive.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It's normal for memories to be triggered in the future. When thoughts of past hurts occur, it's what we do with them that counts. When we find ourselves focusing on a past offense, we can learn to say, "Thank you, God, for this reminder of how important forgiveness is."
Forgiveness starts with a mental decision. The emotional part of forgiveness is letting go of the resentment. Emotional healing may or may not quickly follow after we forgive.
We forgive because God tells us to. We forgive because we want to let the poison go. We forgive because we want to be free of the past and move on to the future. We forgive, even if the other person isn’t sorry. We forgive, even if they keep doing the same thing over and over and over. Forgiveness is free. We received it freely, and we give it freely. But, trust is earned. We trust when, and only when, the other person is trustworthy. When the other person hurts me or disrespects me or ignores my boundaries, they are not trustworthy. Therefore, I should not trust them.
A Christian counselor who deals with abuse cases told me, “to love everyone is Christian. To trust everyone is stupid. You are not morally obligated to trust anybody, especially someone who had demonstrated untrustworthiness.”
When we fail to understand the distinction between forgiveness and trust, we can end up like poor old Charlie Brown. How many times did Lucy talk Charlie Brown into kicking the football, only to pull the ball away at the last minute? Like Charlie Brown, we try to be nice, hoping for the best, and get ourselves into the same mess over and over again. Being nice is OK. Being hopeful is good. And it’s great to forgive. But until Lucy figures out how to be trustworthy, let’s find somebody else to hold the football.
Forgiveness does not mean you are to ignore that a wrong was done or that you deny that a sin was committed. Forgiveness does not mean that you close your eyes to moral atrocity and pretend that it didn’t hurt or that it doesn’t matter whether or not the offending person is called to account for the offense. Neither are you being asked to diminish the gravity of the offense, or to tell others, “Oh, think nothing of it; it wasn’t that big of a deal after all.” Forgiveness means that you determine in your heart to let God be the avenger. He is the judge, not you.
Often we refuse to forgive others because we mistakenly think that to do so is to minimize their sin. “And that’s not fair! He hurt me. If I forgive, who’s going to care for me and take up my cause and nurse my wounds?” God is. We must never buy into the lie that to forgive means that sin is being whitewashed or ignored or that the perpetrator is not being held accountable for their actions. It simply means we consciously choose to let God be the one who determines the appropriate course of action in dealing justly with the offending person.
Forgiveness does not mean you are to make it easy for the offender to hurt you again. They may hurt you again. That is their decision. But you must set boundaries in your relationship with them. The fact that you establish rules to govern how and to what extent you interact with this person in the future does not mean you have failed to sincerely and truly forgive them. True love never aids and abets the sin of another. Forgiveness does not mean you become a helpless and passive doormat for their continual sin.
Have you ever been involved in a relationship conflict of some sort that can’t be fixed? I have had a few of them. Sometimes I have to figuratively put them away in a folder labeled “Can’t Be Fixed,” and then leave it with God.
Let’s Look at the story of Abraham and Lot found in Genesis 13. “Lot, who was traveling with Abram, had also become very wealthy with flocks of sheep and goats, herds of cattle, and many tents. But the land could not support both Abram and Lot with all their flocks and herds living so close together. So disputes broke out between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot.
Finally Abram said to Lot, ‘Let’s not allow this conflict to come between us or our herdsmen. After all, we are close relatives! The whole countryside is open to you. Take your choice of any section of the land you want, and we will separate. If you want the land to the left, then I’ll take the land on the right. If you prefer the land on the right, then I’ll go to the left.’
Lot took a long look at the fertile plains of the Jordan Valley in the direction of Zoar. The whole area was well watered everywhere, like the garden of the Lord or the beautiful land of Egypt. Lot chose for himself the whole Jordan Valley to the east of them. He went there with his flocks and servants and parted company with his uncle Abram. So Abram settled in the land of Canaan, and Lot moved his tents to a place near Sodom and settled among the cities of the plain.” Genesis 13:5-12 (NLT)
What did Abraham do? He didn’t say “you need to keep your herdsmen under better control. I intend to make sure that you do it.” Instead, he said, “We need some distance between us. You take your sheep and goats and camels and servants and go one way; I will take my sheep and goats and camels and servants and go the other.” They set up “boundaries” between them.
Often we spend time trying to fix or change things we have no control over, like what people think of us, or our grown children’s choices. Consider how hard it is to change yourself, and you will understand what little chance you have trying to change others.
You have personal God-given property lines--a boundary. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which I am responsible. I am responsible for my life and my actions. It is very easy to focus on what the other guy is doing wrong. But what do we accomplish when we focus on the other guy?
It is hard to give up focusing on the other person! Why? Because it takes away any responsibility on our part. Abraham said, “We are the responsible parties. Let’s fix our property line, so this pattern doesn’t keep happening.” He offered a solution that worked for both. He was generous. He gave Lot first choice! But most importantly, he established boundaries.
Some see boundaries as mean and selfish. But Abraham had boundaries. He was not accusing. He was proactive. He was gracious. He was even unselfish. But he had boundaries. So how do I apply the Abraham principle of boundaries to my life? Let’s say that someone does something I don’t like or that hurts me. How do I sort out who is responsible? Their actions are whose responsibility? Theirs. My reactions are whose responsibility? “He made me angry!” They are not responsible for your reaction. You are.
When it is a situation that happens over and over we need to ask, what can I do to build a fence? How can I set a boundary? How do I interrupt the pattern? You can choose to put boundaries in place, so it does not happen again. You have the right to set boundaries and remove yourself from abusive behavior.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re obligated to stay in a relationship with someone who has destroyed the foundation of everything you’ve built. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you keep a close friendship with the person who betrayed you. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you continue to engage with people who have proven their disloyalty, time and time again.
Forgiveness means you accept what wrongs have been done to you, you let go of those wrongs, you calm your heart with God’s love and patience, and you begin again—with or without that person, it’s up to you. You are not any less of a person for knowing when you need distance from people who have broken you. You are not spiteful, hateful, bad, or evil for taking time to heal and removing yourself from a toxic relationship. You are not wrong for forgiving, but setting boundaries and leaving that person in your past.
And one final thought. The most important person to forgive is yourself. Stop beating yourself up about things that you did or didn’t do in the past. God has given you forgiveness, and he has given you grace. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9 (NKJV)