faith · family

the truth about forgiving

Forgiving is hard. Don’t let anything else I write fool you. I have a really hard time forgiving some things. Betrayal. Outright lies and slander. People who are arrogant and refuse to hear anything that contradicts their point of view. These things are hard to overlook and doubly hard to truly forgive. I write the words I’ve written because I’m partly reminding myself of what must be done, first in my own heart, and in the hearts of those I love and who have ears to hear it.

Forgiving can be like a rescue effort. It can be hard work, treacherous, and seem impossible. The question, though, is this: who is being rescued? More often than not, the one who needs forgiveness is not in as dangerous a place as the one who is refusing to forgive. Next time I am struggling to forgive someone, I want to picture myself on the side of a cliff hanging by a limb. Because that’s where we are when we refuse to forgive someone, pushing ourselves over the edge, like cliffs of bitterness and foolishness. We MUST forgive, knowing full well that we have been in need of that same forgiveness over and over.

Easier said than done, though, right? Here are some questions that help me make the choice to forgive when I carefully consider them all.

5. Do I give the benefit of the doubt?

There’s that saying. If there are two ways to take something I said, and one of them hurts or offends you, I meant the other way. It would be funnier if it weren’t so painfully true some times. Some words are said carelessly – or written, ie social media these days – and once they are out there, they can be like annoying gnats flying at your eyes. Even when you apologize and are forgiven, what you’ve said lingers in your head and in the heads of those you’ve hurt.

I wonder, though, how many people take the moment or two to reflect on the situation before concluding the worst. It could be that the person who hurt you doesn’t know, or would be so saddened to hear that you were upset. Maybe it just never occurred to them. This has happened to me with a dear friend. I am so grateful that this person sent me an email to say how I hurt this person with a careless remark, instead of doing what’s easy and just being upset with me, maybe thinking less of me, even while being nice to my face. This person chose to give me the benefit of the doubt because I’m not thought of as a vindictive person and we had a good friendship that was worth a little awkwardness.

I was able to apologize and be forgiven, as well as being made aware of something I should be more careful about, and I was given the opportunity to mature or to be stubborn and remain immature. This is conflict management at its best, when we see conflict as opportunity to strengthen a relationship and to view ourselves through someone else’s eyes. We also get to recognize that we all have different stories and see things different ways. Which brings me to how well you know the person…

4. Do I know the back story?

I really appreciate the effort being made in storytelling in, say, the past two decades in movies. Well, at least superhero movies. Suddenly the villain isn’t so one-sided. The villains have history. The villains have their own set of wounds that have left scars so deep and distressing that they have turned to the dark side to try to inflict equal scars on their enemies, or on somebody in their way.

I’m not excusing villains. I am saying that we have this notion in our country’s justice system, that every deed has a story. We go to great lengths to take into account everything that has happened in someone’s past to understand more than just the facts – he did it equals he’s guilty. We want to understand why. We recognize that there is a difference between an impulsive action and a cold, calculated one. We also know that human development is complex and that things learned at a young age are so terribly difficult to overcome.

I’m still not excusing any villains, but I am reminding us that when someone wrongs us, deliberately or otherwise, there’s a back story. There’s always more to the story than we may realize, even when we think we know someone well. When we take the time to talk, to understand – even ourselves – we begin to unfold the complex systems that make up who we are, what we do, and all the underlying whys.

I have had the opportunity to exercise this particular area many times over the past five years. As the wife of a divorced man and a new stepmom, I walked into a situation in mid-story. So very much has happened before I arrived on scene. It’s been years of patterns and history that I could have just avoided and been stubbornly refusing to enter into. But I know better. I know that history is so very important. I know that what we see today is a direct and indirect result of so much water under the bridge, but the kind that we need to watch and consider before it causes more damage. And when you know someone’s story, often times, it’s easier to be the kind of forgiver they desperately needed all along.

3. Am I too content with forgive and forget… even when it’s not really either at all?

The old sayings are sometimes the worst sayings. “Forgive and forget” sounds good in theory, but let’s be honest, again, with each other and recognize that when we say we’re doing that, we’re really doing anything BUT that. Like in my family, I could easily just pretend that bad things didn’t happen, that hurtful things aren’t said or done, and just “love” like crazy. That’s ok, isn’t it?

I’ve come to realize that ignoring a problem isn’t the same as forgetting it exists. I think most of us are terrible at forgetting the things we need to forget. And just forgetting deep hurts allows them to become infected and a bigger problem than they started out as. Something has to happen to treat the problem and that has to be true forgiveness.

I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is an actual exchange in currency, so to speak, a transaction that has to take place. It isn’t so easily bypassed. Like a surgery to bypass a major organ, it’s tricky and costly, and trying to sweep deep wounds and hurts under the rug is dangerous to the soul. Sometimes the bypass doesn’t hold. From what I understand, it doesn’t hold indefinitely, and eventually the body looks for other ways to work. Eventually, the body will always break down when left untreated.

Imagine that this is how God treated our transgressions. Imagine the world that would exist if God just let bygones be bygones. It’s horrific, isn’t it? There are some people who truly believe that this is God, that He – or whatever entity “It” is – set the world in motion at first and just let it go, ignoring all the wrongs and pain and suffering of the people in His creation. When we attempt the forgive and forget bypass, we deny the opportunity to let Grace strut its stuff. We deny the opportunity to let Grace abound. We deny ourselves the opportunity to see the beauty of redemption and restoration. My husband likes to say, “Redemption is far more beautiful than perfection.” Truth is perfection was given up a long, long time ago in my life and in yours. The only way to get to beauty is to redeem.

2. Have I done what Jesus told me to do?

For those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we know exactly what we’re supposed to do. Matthew 18 lays it out. If someone sins against me, I’m supposed to go to that person – alone, not in public or in front of anyone else – and tell her. If she refuses to admit anything or if there is no effort on her part to restore the relationship or accept my forgiveness, I am to go and get a witness or two to come with me and talk to her together.

It’s easier said than done, of course. Conflict is hard. It’s hard to do well, at any rate. Sometimes we just confront but confrontation without a goal in mind is damaging. Our goal, our aim, in conflict must always be restoration and reconciliation. It may not ever be the same. It may mean putting healthy boundaries somewhere. But it is, if you are both believers, mandatory, and if only you are a believer, an imperative. It is, after all, the opportunity to display the gospel at work: showing others what it means to be forgiven, given a chance to be redeemed, fully known and fully loved/forgiven in this case. What better way to prove grace than to show it? What better way to let the love of Christ shine?

1. Could it be me?

After all of these, maybe this is the biggest question. Maybe this is where we need to start. Maybe we don’t even know our defense mechanisms. So maybe it’s time to start there. Maybe it’s time to know ourselves – really openly and honestly – start with me, my own heart and mind, and discover what’s really making me tick. Maybe we need to start giving other people the benefit of the doubt that we have been giving ourselves so generously for so long.

My husband reminded me recently of the passage in the Gospel accounts of the last supper when Jesus told his followers that someone there would betray him. It must have been horrifying. The idea that someone sitting there, someone who had been with them all along, someone who claimed to love Jesus and follow him, was even then plotting to hand him over to those who wanted to kill him.

What happened next is so telling. Some of the disciples asked him, “Is it I?” It wasn’t, “It’s him, right, Jesus? He is sketchy.” It wasn’t a finger pointing session. It was a soul searching session. It’s a question of what’s going on in MY heart, because that’s all I’m going to be held accountable for, in the end. And because my heart is a deceitful place, an idol factory as theologian Calvin put it, I know that I am often deferring my emotions by blaming others, just so I don’t have to deal with my own sin. If I am holding onto a grudge, I don’t have to pick up the responsibilities *I* have in any given conflict. My hands are full. My heart is full. And I can walk away feeling disgruntled and form an argument that leaves me with little to no fault, at least in my mind, and maybe in the minds of those who take my side.

But the mature person takes stock of their conflicts and recognizes that the fault cannot always lie with everyone else. Is it I? Am I the one with the sin? Am I the one with the plank in my eye? Do I need to see myself as the cause, the problem, the instigator? Is this something I need to repent of and turn from? Is it the Spirit of God telling me that not only do I let this go, I must recognize – even out loud verbally – my sin in this situation? Do not ignore this prodding from God. His voice is clear. ALL have fallen short. Even if, and that’s a pretty big if, Bob, you were completely in the right for a particular situation, with absolutely no fault even in your mind and soul, your next move is to choose to forgive. Doing anything else becomes your fault and you miss out on the opportunity to make something beautiful. Be part of the rescue effort for you!

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