"Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered."
The more I researched the topic of forgiveness, the more I realize how complicated a subject it is. It's complicated because of the way we define forgiveness and the way we take verses out of context without considering the whole counsel of the Word of God as we formulate our views on forgiveness. Some material says we forgive only if a person repents, apologizes, or changes their behavior. Some material says we have to forgive for God to forgive us.
Some of the confusion comes from intimately lacing restoration and reconciliation with forgiveness. Some of the confusion comes from emphasizing the need to forgive without emphasizing the need to do work to rebuild trust and a healthy relationships after betrayal occurs. Some relationship shouldn't be restored because restoration prevents a person from experiencing painful consequences that may lead him or her to repentance. Sometimes restoration without repentance places us or loved ones in danger and that is never okay. Some of the confusion comes from seeing forgiveness as the sole "fix" for our wounded hearts. Forgiveness doesn't release us from pain, just from the compulsive replaying of offenses and the seeking of revenge. Some confusion may even come from the church using forgiveness as a way of avoiding confrontation and the living with the consequences of sinful choices.
I recently attended a marriage conference with several workshops and plenary speakers, many of which touched on forgiveness. As I listened, I realized that forgiveness alone doesn't take away our pain. Forgiveness requires humility and a relinquishing of our desire to get even, to hurt another as much as we have been hurt, and to see justice done our way in our timing. Forgiveness doesn't automatically grant restoration and reconciliation. Repentance and a willingness to do what ever it takes to take responsibility for one's actions is required for that. Forgiveness doesn't erase the past, it gives us a way to live with it without letting it control our present or our future. Forgiveness isn't saying what happened doesn't matter, it saying I trust God with this person and with my pain. Forgiveness isn't easy, it requires great faith and a work of God's Spirit in us.
So, the question we often find ourselves wrestling with is, "How do I reach the place I can forgive, when it feels impossible?" In a nut shell, the answer is prayer. I know, it sounds like a religious platitude, but please bear with me as I explain what I mean by it.
Because God wants us to be radically honest with Him, I believe we need to be honest with Him where we are at in regard to pain and forgiveness, trusting that He will meet us there. If we don't want to forgive, we can begin by asking Him to give us the willingness to forgive. If we are willing, but don't know if we are capable of forgiving a particular offense, we can ask Him how we can get to that point. If we are willing and believe we have reached a place of forgiveness, we can then ask Him what does forgiveness look like in that relationship and if He wants us to confront or to consider reconciliation or restoration or simply to release the person and get out of the way so God can do His work.
So, what do we do with all of the messy feelings that get in the way of our choosing to forgive? There are two types of prayers that help us work through our feelings and enable forgiveness. The first is to talk to God about the person. Be like a child and tattletale to God to your hearts content. David did this type of thing in many of the psalms. Tell God what happened, how it impacted your life, your heart, and your relationship with the person. Tell God what you had needed and wanted from the relationship. Try to be emotionally honest with God, naming the emotions you are experiencing, the why's you have on the tip of your tongue, and how you are feeling about God's call to forgive.
Don't be tricked by the tempter to stay at the anger stage. Look under the anger and identify hurt, disappointment, sadness, and frustration. Write out lies you believe and vows you may have made to protect your heart from more pain and come back to the truth of who you are in Christ and to the truth that the offender, is a broken image bearer.
Check for distortions in thinking--are you embracing all or nothing thinking? Are you employing catastrophic thinking? Is a past hurt being triggered by the present hurt? Are you personalizing things that aren't really about you? Then ask God to show you the truth of the situation and His work in it. I did a lot of this kind of work with a Christian therapist. I wrote out the process letters and read them and processed them and prayed over them in her office. It was a freeing work because I was encouraged to be radically honest and as a result realized God didn't zap people because they were angry or hurt. It was also freeing to me to have someone hear the garbage in my heart and head and display God's grace to me in the midst of anger and frustration and sadness. This helped me see that the ugly parts, the weak parts, and the wounded parts could be seen and heard and treated with dignity, kindness, respect, and grace. I think God must hate the pretense of pretending everything is fine when it isn't...yet so often we require that of other and of ourselves. What if the way out of the pain and anger is a process that frees us to let go and embrace our humanness and the humanness of others who bear the image of our Creator?.
Secondly, as your emotions began to heal, we can love the person we consider to be our enemy by praying for the person. I often use Scripture so that I am not just praying my judgments of the person. If the person is a nonbeliever, I pray for their salvation and God's mercy to be fulfilled in them. If the person hasn't repented I pray for that, so that they can be set free form the bondage of their sin. If a person is a believer, I pray through Scriptures like the ones found in Paul's letters that outline the characteristics God wants for them. For example, if I were wounded by gossip, I might pray that God will help the person speak words that build up the hearer. If I were robbed, I might pray that God would help the person become a giver. I would maybe even write their initials in a prayer journal with the reference for the verse. I also pray any other verses that come to light as God's Spirit prompts me. After praying for a person who had harmed me, I felt God's Spirit impress on my heart that no one had ever prayed for the person before. What a privilege to be the one who did!
In closing, I know some of you are probably thinking if she only knew my story. I know life is painful and that we live in a sin-filled world and that the Enemy would do anything he could to convince God's people that the wrong they have suffered is beyond forgivable. I have even cried out to God for precious friends who have had to forgive what in my mind and my heart seemed unforgiveable and then be privileged to watch them work through the issues that needed forgiving. It wasn't easy and it wasn't fun, but it was so freeing for them and they were filled with love and joy that most people never ever possess because they were obedient and willing to see God work. When we accept that boundaries are okay for safety and repentance can be required for restoration, we can let go of fear and began to seek God in order to heal and to forgive. When we don't short change the process of forgiveness by excluding the work of confrontation and the work of building godly relationships, we allow God to turn ugly situations in to beauty. When we let God meet us in our pain, we will recognize the works of grace and forgiveness are actually opportunities in disguise to pour love into others' messy lives in the same way that God, Himself, has poured into our. Maybe, just maybe, our ability to forgive is intimately tied with how big our faith is...and God is in the faith-growing business.
See Beth Moore's book, Praying God's Word for more help on forgiving!