"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you."
Several years ago we had an ongoing situation in our neighborhood that was hurtful for my children. I tried to intervene, but nothing changed. So, I asked for prayer for the situation in an adult Sunday School class. After class, a man I had never met came up to me and said, "Have you ever heard of a thing called forgiveness?" His scolding words stirred the deep well of shame residing in my heart at the time. I left church that morning discouraged. I longed for someone to acknowledge the pain my family was experiencing and the discouragement I felt at not being able to resolve it. I longed for kindness in the face of the unkindness we were experiencing. I longed to have someone pray with me, asking God to give me the wisdom I needed to help my children navigate the situation. I wanted someone to pray for God to heal their hearts. Sadly, after that I seldom asked for prayer in church and for the first time in my life I began to feel unsafe in church and withdrew from adult activities. My shame ran deep and I found it hard to talk to God about the situation, losing out on the opportunity to develop intimacy with Him through the experience. Because the man did not know me, he did not know I believed at a core level I was a "bad" Christian and the stronghold of toxic shame was putting down deeper roots by the day because I couldn't work out the situation like I believed "good Christians would." I was also feeling anger, hurt, frustration, and anxiety--emotions I mistakenly thought "believers" didn't feel.
I know our situation was minor compared to what some experience. I've heard many stories and am shocked at what some people have been called by God to forgive. There are those who've lost loved ones killed by drunk drivers, leaving them to grieve not just their present loss, but all of the things they would miss out on--not having a loved one at a wedding, not hearing their voice or laughter again, not having them at the births of their children, at Christmas or Thanksgiving. Some have faced infidelity through affairs and pornography. Some have faced rejection and/or abandonment by parent's who were incapable or unwilling to love them. Some have experienced tremendous abuse and neglect. Some have endured mistreatment by bosses who wield power in ways that harm. Some have lost loved ones in mass shootings or have had their loved ones forever changed by witnessing shootings. Some have lost friends, jobs, or a reputations due to slander and gossip. Some have been betrayed when their confidence was broken. Some have faced physical, emotional, spiritual, or sexual abuses and were sacrificed by parents who didn't help them because the reputation of the family, the perpetrator, or church was more important than the victim.
I sought counseling for some unresolved issues from my past, which eventually brought me back to the topic of forgiveness. I remember early on sitting in the counselor's office, staring at the floor as I poured out the story of my abuse to her. When I finished, I was looking at the floor, waiting to hear, "You just need to forgive!" I waited in silence for what felt like an eternity, but the words never came. I finally looked up and saw tears streaming down her face. No one had ever shown a willingness to enter the mess of emotions I had buried deep. Over time, we examined the wounding I'd experienced and uncovered core beliefs I'd developed as a result of the abuse. We had honest conversations about defense mechanisms with which I protected myself. We discussed how to over come them so I could love others better. We examined the distorted lenses I had used to view God, myself, and others and figured out the truth behind those distortions. We uncovered so many lies that kept me from living life as the loved person I was. And yes, we eventually began to discuss what it means to love enemies, what forgiveness is and isn't, and what forgiveness might look like as it played out in my life.
From the counseling experience, I learned the tendency to rush people to forgiveness without hearing the heart causes more wounding. It also shuts down hurting hearts while intensifying pain that is trapped inside. That is a false forgiveness. It is offered without even acknowledging the sin, the consequences of it, or the hurt. That robs us of the opportunity to see God as a Healer and experience Him as we learn to forgive from the heart. We also usually fail to invite another back to the light.
I've often wonder why we tend to rush forgiveness. Maybe we do it because hearing painful stories triggers our own unresolved pain. Maybe we don't even know where our pain comes from when it is buried deep, but if we don't want to feel it we give a hurting soul the old church brush off by callously telling them to forgive. Maybe we do it because we have not experienced the same kind of pain or may have a different temperament that makes us more resilient to pain. If so, we tell them to forgive, thinking it will help them be more resilient. Maybe we do it because we have experienced something we consider more traumatizing, or maybe we experienced something similar for a longer period of time and find it hard to be sensitive to someone who is sharing about something we believe is small in comparison. Maybe we do it because we don't like confrontation or conflict. So, we tell another to forgive, hoping they will take the passive route which seems less dramatic and more spiritual. Maybe we fear deep pain in others, because it renders us helpless. We can't fix it and we don't realize God never intended us to. Maybe we do it because their pain stirs up uncomfortable questions about God's sovereignty, love, and suffering with which we don't feel comfortable wrestling. We want a safe God, but the truth is a life committed to the God of the Scriptures isn't safe.
I want to introduce the topic of forgiveness by discussing a bigger topic--that of loving our enemies. Then in part two we will discuss what forgiveness is, what it isn't, and what it looks like. Then in part three we will discuss the role that praying plays in forgiveness.
Most of us have misconceptions about loving our enemies. The first misconception is that love and anger can't co-exist, but they do. In fact, the more we care, the more anger we may experience. When someone does something hurtful and we don't experience hurt we don't care about them or are avoiding feelings. The more like Jesus we become, the more passionately we feel. The more like Jesus we become, the angrier we will feel towards sin and this anger is a reflection of Him. As we grow, we will love things God loves passionately and we will hate things He hates passionately. We will experience anger when we see another abused and experience it when the sin is perpetrated against us. The anger is not sin unless misused. A godly use for anger is to use its energy to expose sin and offer a person the opportunity to repent and live in the light. God never said in His Word that minimizing another's sin is loving. He never said that love is forgetting the past harm someone has done. The more we minimize and put hurt out of our minds, the more the past begins to control us. Paul called people out by name for their wrongs! Jesus did it as well.
In his book, The Wounded Heart, Dan Allender defines loving our enemies as "a movement of grace to embrace those who've sinned against us and to offer restoration to those who've done us harm." Sometimes we confuse godly love with warm fuzzy feelings we enjoy. But love is something much deeper than that. Love is given to us by the Creator to only enhance life and destroy evil. We often think extending grace is about overlooking sin, minimizing its impact on us, and pretending sinful behavior doesn't hurt. What if grace is not passivity, but calling someone out of the darkness they are living when sinning against us? What if God allowed their sin to be perpetrated against us so He could use us in His redemptive plan? God calls us to love enemies and loving an enemy doesn't mean we "feel good about them." It means we love them and in the pain confront and impose boundaries that prevent abusers from continuing to abuse without bearing consequences. It means there may be times we confront an abuser and expose the sin further by asking another person to confront with us. If it is a fellow believer, we may even at some point take it before the church to be obedient, but a church has to be willing to deal with sin.
Loving our enemies and forgiveness aren't easy. They are sacrificial acts of courage that require a deep faith in God and a willingness to trust His sovereignty over our lives and the lives of those who wound us. Courageous acts because when we quit numbing and denying pain, we feel it and grieve the loss of fantasy families, churches, or friends we wish we had. Courageous acts because we may have to step out of victim mode and take our power back to confront and set boundaries. For many setting boundaries feels "wrong" and unloving and it goes against the things we were taught. It takes courage because we may lose unhealthy, hurtful relationships, temporarily or permanently, and at some level we believe painful relationships are better than losing them. Courageous because some people will challenge boundaries and confrontations, claiming both are graceless, unloving acts because those individuals care more about a false peace and the reputation of a person, a family, or a church more than individuals being wounded. Courageous acts because acknowledging hurt makes us vulnerable to others who may either help or do more harm. Courageous acts to speak aloud the things buried deep, removing a denial system used to protect hearts. Courageous acts that let go of what we want to see happen to others who do harm and trust God's justice and His grace are perfect and will be right, good, and always enough. Courageous acts that let go of anger we've used to protect our tender hearts from more pain. Courageous acts because to let go of the past means we have to face the uncertainty of the present. Courageous acts because some people don't ever repent and loving means we live in a state of longing for them to be drawn to the light for a life time like Jesus does?
I can't help but wonder if one of the reasons God was so adamant about loving our enemies is because He knows the real enemy isn't the person with whom we struggle. It is the deceiver, the predator of our souls. It is the one who stirs up strife. It is the one who seeks to devour and destroy humans that God created, humans that God loves. Because we are all preyed upon by the enemy, we really have more in common with those we perceive as enemies than we thought we did.
The times we are most like Him is when we love our enemies. For me, loving my enemies was one of the hardest things to process. But Romans 5:10 says,"For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life." One of the ways we can be like Christ is to do what He did for us, trusting Him to give us the desire, the strength, and the wisdom to love those who have been enemies, not allowing them to continue to perpetrate harm. Its an opportunity to repay evil with goodness. Its an opportunity to repay hatred with love, not just our love, but His.