When pastors/teachers begin to talk about forgiveness, a lot of people cringe. I know I do — and I’m a pastor. It’s no wonder — we’ve all withheld forgiveness for whatever reason.
We read Scriptures such as Matthew (6: 14-15), Matthew (18: 21-25), Luke (17: 3-4) and Ephesians (4: 31-32), all talking about how we as Christians have to forgive. And too often we cover over offenses so we don’t have to deal with them. How authentic is that? When we cover over offenses without dealing with them properly, the emotional fallout is devastating. There are myriads of broken relationships inside the church. People leaving because of unresolved, unforgiven offenses. Why would anyone be attracted to that?
Maybe it’s because we don’t understand what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. To forgive someone of an offense doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, that it doesn’t hurt, that the other person wasn’t wrong. It doesn’t mean that a few words of apology wipes out the hurt. It is not excusing what has happened; it is not forgetting, though it involves forgetting. It doesn’t mean it’s a superficial event in which your anger or pain is minimized or denied; it’s not something the other person deserves; it’s not pretending nothing happened and trying to be nice.
What forgiveness means is this: it’s an act of obedience to God; it is a gift of healing you’re giving yourself, (Doing this frees you from the festering anger anchored inside your spirit causing hatred and bitterness to ooze from the wounds you carry.) It is a gift in acknowledgment of a wrong done to you and a willingness to pronounce pardon to the offender. It cancels the debt of “you owe me,” or, “I’m going to make you pay,” setting them free from our revenge to “set it right.” It’s a canceling of the debt the offender “owes” you for the wrong committed.
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Armed with this understanding we can begin the process — a process which takes time. You need to acknowledge you’ve been violated, taken advantage of or deceived, and not begin to minimize it or accept the offender’s blame shifting. You want to feel the indignation and anger, go through the grieving process because of the loss you sustained (betrayal of a friend, relative, spouse; loss of trust, loss of a friend, loss of the relationship). All of this gets you in the position to forgive. Of course, that makes us vulnerable to the offender who may not care, doesn’t “get it,” or doesn’t ask for forgiveness. But the reward is greater than vulnerability, as forgiveness brings freedom.
To close, forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation. There are some offenses that would preclude reconciliation — rape, child abuse, physical and/or emotional abuse, to name a few. For other “lesser” offenses, how much future involvement you may have with any offender depends on their demonstrated repentance over time. We’re talking months, not days or a few weeks. Genuine change does not happen overnight.
The Rev. Norm Hooven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.