What it Is, What it Isn’t
In the sermon, the pastor spoke of Maria, who had come to him for counsel and prayer several years ago. “Maria came to me seeking help in dealing with the abuse she had suffered as a teenager,” the pastor said. “If that wasn’t enough, a team of doctors had concluded her physical condition was untreatable, terminal. She was looking death in the eye. I was her last resort.
“I listened as Maria spilled out her story of years of emotional and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. The level of abuse was monstrous; the wounding to Maria’s spirit had been severe. Because I know our hope – our only hope – is in Christ, I spoke to her about salvation, read John chapter 3 to her, explained it. Maria said yes, she understood. She wanted Jesus. She wept as we prayed for her salvation and for her healing. To my surprise and joy, this was one of those meetings where God unexpectedly shows up and answers prayer right then and there.
“There was no doubt that something quite inexplicable happened there in my office, something miraculous. Maria said she felt wonderful and I could see the change was more than physical; there was had a brightness about her, a newness. She was hopeful. On her way out the door, she laughed and joked with me. Maria was happy. I had no doubt God’s hand had blessed this woman, and that we had witnessed a miracle of healing.
“That Sunday, I expected to see Maria in church. I was disappointed when she didn’t show. Wanting to find out how Maria was doing, I called her home on Monday. Her sister answered. When I asked to speak to Maria, she said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, Pastor, but Maria died Saturday night.”
“I asked what happened. She said, ‘The evening after Maria saw you, her father called.
He told her, ‘Maria, I am so very sorry. I can’t stand this separation anymore. After all these years, please, will you forgive me?”
“Maria hollered ‘No!’ and slammed the phone down. The next morning, I found her in her bed. The coroner said her heart just gave up.’
“I was shocked. Of course, I offered my condolences, asked if there was anything I could do. But to have seen God’s hand on this woman only a few days earlier and now, to find that she had died? Lord, I prayed, help me to understand.
“Later, in prayer, a single word came back to me again and again: unforgiveness. Could it be that unforgiveness contributed to Maria’s death?
In the book of Proverbs, I found some clues: … keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity … do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil – this will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.[i]
From the gospels, Jesus filled in the blanks: forgive other people (even, or especially) your family) when they sin against you … forgive and it will be forgiven … even if they sin against you seven-seven times ... even if they fail to acknowledge that what they’re doing is sinful[ii] …
In other words, regardless of depth of the sin, the degree of abuse, there are no limits to granting forgiveness.
Long before ‘Just do it’ became a slogan, Jesus said the same thing about forgiveness. It’s good for you. More explicitly, he said, If you have anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive you of your sins.[iii]
Forgiveness is peculiar stuff. A lot of misunderstandings surround it, misbeliefs about what it is, what it does.
The same is true of how a Judas kiss of disrespect, neglect, and contempt wounds God’s beloved children; about how people are damaged and soul-murdered by intentional emotional and physical and sexual and spiritual abuse.
The damage can be deep. It can last a lifetime. It can effect the way you think and feel and behave. It can perpetuate the lie that you don’t matter, that you’re not worthy to be loved. Abuse can do that. Abuse of any kind is evil. It is a sin.
When Jesus says, ‘Forgive them’ is a command. It is direct, succinct. Jesus offers for no qualifications, no room for hedging. There are no parentheses here carving out room for quibbling or justifying or making excuses. Jesus says, ‘This is how I want you to clean up your act. Just do it.’
Forgive. Just forgive.
Really? After what he did to me? How she hurt me? “Easy to say, Jesus, but forgiveness, that’s just too hard to do, too much to ask … thanks anyway, but I’ll pass,”
Don’t think your cardboard excuse cuts you any slack – it doesn’t. Heart-felt self-justifications don’t lessen your disobedience [dangerous territory, that; just ask the Israelites who spent forty years wandering in the desert about how disobedience showed them the difference between blessing and curse].[iv]
Some who struggle with the whole idea of forgiving someone who abused and wounded their body and mind and spirit will cry, “You don’t know how badly she treated me!” Others will holler, “You don’t know the abuse I suffered from him!”
True. No one does. But how or why or when someone sinned against you isn’t the issue. Holding on to unforgiveness in your tight fist is because forgiveness is a gift.
What? A gift? I’m supposed to give a gift to my abuser?
No. That’s not it. Forgiveness is a gift Jesus gives to you. Think of it as a key that unlocks the door of your self-made prison. Finally, you can relinquish your defensiveness, anxiety, doubt, fear and all the clutter that comes with; finally, you can shed your burden and make some real progress toward healing.
God knows everything about your history, your wounds, your triumphs, your failures. He knows everything about you.[v] Like the song says, No, no, no hidin’ place down here.[vi] He knows your wounds better than you do … he offers a better way to freedom from the prison of hurt and abuse than unforgiveness.
Forgive them … that’s his better way. The one that works. The one that heals.
Has there ever been anyone who knows more of what insult and disrespect, what betrayal and persecution and injustice feel like, than Jesus? Yet he was able to say of those who sinned against him – Judas, the Jews, the Roman executioners – “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.”[vii]
Speaking the Truth in Love to Yourself. When you say, “I can’t forgive you,” aren’t you actually saying, “Because I don’t trust you not to hurt me again, I’ll defend myself with a shield unforgiveness? More, I’ll focus all my resentment and enmity and anger and hate at you every chance I get!”
But that’s falling for the lie.[viii] Just look at what unforgiveness does to you. By wielding your unforgiveness like a shield, a buffer against ever being hurt again by the one who hurt you, you entrap yourself in the misbelief that it works.
Because unforgiveness is an artifice, an illusion, it has no real power to protect. Think: smoke and mirrors.
Seriously, is this sham protection even part of the equation?
Unforgiveness is its own prison. Jesus hands you the key. You can unlock the door whenever you want. Just take that ‘ol forgiveness key … put it in the lock … give it a turn … click …
Honest to God. The honest question, the real issue is this: who does my unforgiveness have the greatest effect on? Me … or the one who sinned against me?
Consider these truths: if you forgive the person who hurt you, it does not mean you say:
- What was done was really okay, no big deal … it wasn’t okay and it is a big deal.
- I’ll just shut down what he did to me, stuff it … nice try, but it’s still there.
- I’ll just pretend nothing happened … really? How’s that working for you?
- It never really happened … denial is another word for ‘lie.’
- I can manage the hurt – I’ll get over it … but it did happen. It hurt then, bad. It hurts now.
- It really was my fault – if I hadn’t done what I did, said what I said, she wouldn’t have responded that way … but she did do what she did, you didn’t make her do that, and what she did hurt.
- Ah, no biggie, it doesn’t matter … but it does matter – and the hurt is still there.
- All things considered, it’s not important enough to bother with (secret thought: because I’m not important) … but it was important then – very important – and it is important now … and as one of God’s precious and beloved kids, you’re important to Him.
- I quit being appalled and horrified and offended at what happened a long time ago … but it was appalling and horrific and the physical, emotional and spiritual memory persists in spite of your claim … in fact, you have every right to be offended.
- I forgot what happened … uh, uh, not possible.
- Really, it wasn’t all that painful … but it was.
- I don’t feel the pain any more … your denial notwithstanding, the pain to your wounded spirit is still there.
- What he did to me, well, I can live with the consequences … revenge and justice are overrated … but that persistent tickle for revenge and retribution and vindication is still there … and justice seems to have gone on vacation.
- I’m okay with what happened because God is okay with it, too … surely, he is not and surely, you are not.
- I can’t justify staying angry and upset about it … but you still feel the anger and hurt all over again, every time you think of it.
- I don’t really need to get in my abuser’s face and tell him how angry I am about how he hurt me (someday, maybe) … but it is a big deal and after all this time it still hurts!
- I have to stay in relationship with my abuser – she’s family! … whoops, not true! As painful as that kind of divorce is, you really don’t.
- I have to make myself feel better about what happened … nope, you don’t … and you probably won’t.
- Before I can even think about forgiveness, I have to confront my abuser and tell him how I feel … well, that’s not a necessary part of forgiveness … and realistically, what are the odds it will happen?
- Well, I just don’t feel hurt or feel the pain any more … tell the truth, now … yes, you do. You do.
- I am obliged to trust my abuser and continue in relationship with her … nope, nope, nope, you really aren’t.
- After I’ve forgiven my abuser, I won’t feel the pain anymore … sorry, you will. Even though you wish that was true, it isn’t.
So … after all that stuff about forgiveness, so what?
Forgiveness releases you from your self-imposed bondage. You can deal with your abuse with safe, helpful people and prayer and Scripture and the Holy Spirit himself. The journey of forgiveness is about restoration of trust, trust that goes not to your abuser, but to God.
He’s the one who has the power to restore. To heal. To make things right.
Forgiveness & Relationship. Before and after trust is restored, you have the right to choose to what your part of the relationship with your abuser will be like – what form it will take, what flavor, what focus. You have the right to choose if there will even be a relationship. And yes, you can choose to have no relationship.
By choosing to grant forgiveness of your abuser, the one who hurt you, the one who offended you, here’s what actually happens:
- You honor and obey and respond to God’s command, Forgive one another, just as
the Lord has forgiven you.[ix]
- You experience the weight of unforgiveness being lifted from your spirit.[x]
- You realize your own need for forgiveness.[xi]
- You acknowledge your own sinfulness, understanding that the degree to which
you can recognize your own sinfulness may well be the degree to which you can forgive.[xii]
- You express gratitude for your own forgiveness in words and behavior.[xiii]
- You accept your own forgiveness in and through the work of the cross, and
your blessing to have been forgiven and redeemed by Jesus Christ.[xiv]
- You release your need for hate, resentment, bitterness, and desire for
- You relinquish your desire to rehearse the hurt over and again, which only
bears bitter fruit.[xvi]
- You acknowledge that unforgiveness might open a way for an adverse
spiritual influence if you continue to harbor anger, hatred, resentment, bitterness, vengefulness or lies.[xvii]
- You understand that vengeance belongs exclusively to God and relinquish your
own wrath toward the other person.[xviii]
- You accept responsibility to live in this day – not in the past, or in the future.[xix]
- You focus on the Lord and his faithfulness through your own daily sacrifice of
praise and thanksgiving.[xx]
- You release of every one of your hurts, wounds and violations to the healing
power of Jesus Christ.[xxi]
- You understand that you have obeyed God by doing what he has asked you to
Do, and are blessed.[xxii]
- You relinquish your self-condemnation, self-judgment, self-blame, and
destructive comparisons to the Lord.[xxiii]
- You cease sustaining the hurt as a shield against being wounded again.[xxiv]
- You relinquish the idea that by sustaining the hurt, it somehow serves as a
weapon against the one who hurt you.[xxv]
- You take the initiative to begin to rebuild trust, if it is appropriate. [xxvi]
- You give thanks that you can live with the awareness of God’s protection and
- You entrust the outcome to God.[xxviii]
The Flip Side. But what if you are the person who caused the hurt? What if you’re the person who sinned?
And when do you obey God’s command, Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you?[xxix]
Consider how God’s grace calls you to:
- Admit that what you said or did was sinful, hurtful and wrong; in short, it was a
- Repent; turn from what you did, and to stop justifying it.[xxxi]
- Apologize, not as a sign of weakness but of repentance and respect for another
beloved child of God.[xxxii]
- Change your attitude and behavior in relationship with that person so as to avoid
hurting them again.[xxxiii]
- Ask for their forgiveness, and by doing so, let them know that your relationship
with them is of greater value to you than your need to be right or in control.[xxxiv]
- Do these things because of the gospel, so that you may share in the blessings of the
- Confess your sins and pray together so that your relationship may be healed.[xxxvi]
And finally, whether you are the abused or the abuser, above all else, Rejoice, for God has made you alive together with Him, having forgiven you all your sins![xxxvii]
[i] Proverbs 3:7-8
[ii] Matthew 6:14; 18:35; 18:22; Luke 17:4
[iii] Mark 11:25 (NIV)
[iv] Deuteronomy 11:26-27
[v] Psalm 139:13-17
[vi] No Hiding Place, Dorothy Love Coates
[vii] Luke 23:34
[viii] 2 Thessalonians 2:10-11
[ix] Colossians 3:13
[x] Matthew 11:29-30
[xi] Genesis 6:5; Proverbs 20:9; Jeremiah 13:23; Matthew 14-15; Romans 3:9-18; 5:12; Galatians 3:22; 1 John 1:8-9
[xii] John 20:23
[xiii] James 5:16
[xiv] Hebrews 1:3; 9:14; 10:19-22; 1 John 1:7
[xv] Luke 6:37; 1Peter 2:1
[xvi] Nehemiah 9:28; Ecclesiastes 1:9
[xvii] Luke 11:24-26; 16:15; Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 6:9; Ephesians 2:1-5
[xviii] Romans 12:19-21
[xix] Matthew 6:34
[xx] Ephesians 1:6; Philippians 4:4-5
[xxi] James 5:16; 1 Peter 2:24
[xxii] Matthew 22:37-40; 28:20; Luke 11:28; John 14:23
[xxiii] Ezekiel 11:19; Matthew 5:8; 11:29; Mark 7:20; Luke 12:34; 1 Corinthians 5:17
[xxiv] Psalm 3:3; 18:35; Proverbs 2:7; Ephesians 6:16
[xxv] Romans 12:18-19
[xxvi] Psalm 9:10; Proverbs 3:5; Isaiah 12:2; Romans 15:13
[xxvii] Psalm 17:8; 57:1; John 17:11, 15-19; 2 Thessalonians 3:3
[xxviii] Romans 8:28
[xxix] Ephesians 4:32
[xxx] Leviticus 5:5; Psalm 41:4; Romans 3:23; 7:15-25; 1 John 1:10
[xxxi] Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38; 3:19
[xxxii] Matthew 5:23-26; Luke 1:77; 24:46-47; Acts 26:15-18
[xxxiii] 2 Corinthians 5:17
[xxxiv] Matthew 5:23-26; 20:25; Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25
[xxxv] 1 Corinthians 9:23
[xxxvi] James 5:16
[xxxvii] Colossians 2:13b