With a clammy palm, I held tightly to my husband’s steady hand. We entered the local restaurant to share our concerns with a church leader and his wife. At one time, I would’ve said they had been some of our best friends/mentors, but a couple of bridges had been burned in the course of our friendship.
By this time in my own life, I had forgiven the unforgivable more times than I could remember. My counselor’s mantra had become mine. “Forgive everyone… for everything… every day, all the time.”
Over the course of the eight years prior, I had sat in my counselor’s chair rocking, weeping, and with balled up fists, wanting to cuss (but good girls don’t do that). Sometimes, I had envisioned throwing things around the room or huddling in a fetal position in the corner. I would finally come to the place where, inevitably, Jesus would ask me to release the pain to Him and forgive these people who had so shattered my life in childhood. Layers upon layers of pain, hate, fear, judgment, vows, and brokenness had been removed by Jesus. When He took it, peace would come, at least until the next layer would surface.
So, as I slid in the booth that day and faced our brother and sister in Christ, my heart was heavy. We weren’t angry at them but could see an enemy trying to tear our church family apart. A pleasant conversation ensued and our meals came. As lunch continued, the leader began to open up and share a little more of his side of the story.
We listened, not offering our opinion until he was done. Then, I leaned into the table with newfound courage and said, “You see the other board member as the enemy. But the real enemy is standing behind the board member, so he sticks his head out. Instead of shooting the enemy, you are shooting the board member. Then, he is returning the fire.”
The leader acknowledged what we had to say to be true, but in the months that followed, our church family ripped apart, leaving wounded, shell-shocked members because both sides had to be “right” and the other “wrong.” No one was willing to lay down their “right” to be “right” in order to “love.” Years later, I dare say these same people would not be in the same room together comfortably.
For the first twenty-five years of my life, I had been taught about forgiveness. I thought I had done a pretty good job of forgiving the things I knew. I didn’t know I had pockets of seething lava buried deep in my heart. I’ve heard many people say that you don’t have a need to go back into the past because if you just say a blanket prayer of forgiveness, everything is all good. That’s kind of like having appendicitis and medicating the scratch on the arm. Something will burst sooner or later and may kill you in the process.
So what is forgiveness anyway? Is it ignoring wrongs done and simply brushing them under the rug? Is it being passive and letting people abuse you? Or is it something else altogether?
From what I understand now, forgiveness is releasing the right to demand retribution or payment back from the person who has offended you. It is transferring the debt that person owes you over to a higher authority, God, and trusting Him to judge or make right the case.
Until forgiveness happens, you are bound to that person who has offended you because they still owe you something; maybe it’s an apology, money, or whatever. When you forgive them, you release the legal contract between you two and basically hand that contract over to God who can truly see the whole situation and judge it much more justly than we can.
Whether He chooses to do that here or at the “Judgement Seat” one day, that becomes His responsibility. It frees me, not the person. They are still responsible for their behavior but not to me—to God. I don’t have to be the one to demand it be made right.
If I don’t choose to forgive, then I become like the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 who has had all my debt paid for by the King’s son Jesus but then tries to around and refuse to be merciful to someone else who owes me far less than I was forgiven of. The Word says that if I treat someone that way, then I go into prison and then am tortured until I pay all the debt I owe. Ouch!
I think those who realize how much they have been forgiven tend to be much more forgiving like the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair. She loved much because she had been forgiven much. It’s when I believe I have a right to be right that I forget the extent of the price Jesus paid for my debt and demand the other person to pay me in full for the wrongs they have done to me.
Even Jesus and the first martyr Stephen modeled this. Jesus, completely sinless, who had every right to be right, cried to the righteous Judge as He was being executed in the worst way possible, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Later, as Stephen is breathing his last breath from the pounding of rocks being thrown at him, he follows his savior’s lead. “Father, don’t hold this to their account. Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
Now, I understand this messes with our sense of justice. I get it. Believe me. But remember, I didn’t say offenders and abusers are not held accountable. I said I don’t demand the debt to be paid on my account. I also don’t hang around allowing myself to be used and abused either. There are very clear directives for us when we are in contact with those who would treat us poorly.
For one thing, we are supposed to separate ourselves from them, especially when they are believers who claim to know Christ but are hurting and abusing others with no remorse. We are to report offenders to the authorities. God placed civil authority there for that reason: to hold people accountable to the moral law. We may even have to testify against an offender or stand with someone who has been abused and testify for them. Please hear me say, I believe in people being held accountable for their actions.
There is a time for justice that is right and should be carried out. Psalms 101:4 says, “Every perverse and crooked way I have put away from my heart, for I will have nothing to do with the deed of darkness” (TPT). In the New Testament, Titus 3:10, Eph. 5:3, 2 Tim 3:5, and many other Scriptures talk about not having anything to do with those who refuse to stop doing what’s wrong.
It is an attitude of my heart, though. I can turn someone into the authorities and still be walking in love.
Recently, our van was vandalized and my purse was stolen. We reported the crime and we would hold them accountable in court if they were arrested. But I think the officer thought I wasn’t taking it seriously because I was at peace. I wasn’t angry or afraid.
They have gotten some fervent prayers over the past couple of weeks, but I released my right to be angry at them to God the moment I saw the shattered glass. Have I felt violated, insecure, and even righteously angry? Of course, I have. All those emotions are normal and right. I don’t stuff them away, but I also don’t hold onto them.
Paul said in Eph. 4:26- 27, “When angry, do not sin; do not ever let your wrath last until the sun goes down. Leave no room or foothold for the devil” (AMPC). He didn’t say, “Don’t get angry,” but when we do, we forgive quickly.
Here’s one more last example. A while ago, we again sat in the office of a friend. This time, the tables had been turned against me. Instead of being heard, I was being silenced. I had done something that my friend perceived to be against him. My heart had been to help him. When I tried to offer an explanation of my actions, I was told he would never listen to what I had to say about that situation. That I was wrong and my actions were wrong. Maybe I was. Maybe there was some hidden agenda on my heart that I couldn’t see, but the way I was treated made me feel completely powerless and laid all the blame at my feet.
So I did something I don’t think was expected. Instead of defending myself, which wasn’t working out anyway, I decided to do what Jesus did. I took the beating, though I hadn’t done anything wrong. I asked forgiveness for how I had made the person feel. I never said what I had done was wrong, but I asked forgiveness for the way it had affected the person because obviously, it had caused pain. I gave up my right to be right for the sake of loving this person.
There are some who may think I just let him walk all over me, that I should have defended myself. Honestly, I didn’t want to react the way I did, but in the situation, it is what I felt the Holy Spirit asked me to do. What I wanted to do was throw up my defenses and blast him. It hurt deeply to be falsely accused and not given the opportunity to defend myself, and when I got home, I thought I was going to throw up.
This man wasn’t the enemy. The enemy is the enemy. My fight was not against this man.
Sometimes, you can’t fix things. Sometimes, others want to hold onto their right to be right. I shake my head at that in frustration because I know how much I’ve had to forgive, but I can get broadsided with the same thing if I’m not careful.
I remember sitting in the movie The Shack when the main character who portrayed God walked through the woods to retrieve the body of the man’s daughter. Weeping and shaking, I heard the Holy Spirit whisper in my ear, “Will you forgive them a thousand times?” The very next words out of the mouth of the actor playing God were, “Sometimes, you have to forgive them a thousand times.”
Forgiveness is probably the biggest key for living a life of freedom. Until I turn the key and unlock the other person from me, I remain the prisoner. We can’t choose someone else’s actions, but we can choose ours. Choose to live free. I never said it was easy, but the alternative is far harder and more costly in the end. When you release others into the freedom of your forgiveness, you will walk away free.
Featured Image by Wesley Tingey