Lately the word forgive has been heavy on my mind. I have had many opportunities to harbor anger, resentments, and even hurt in my life. I’ve had some opportunities to cause them too. There was a time in my life when I didn’t think I could ever forgive and even if I could I didn’t want to. My heart felt cold and I wanted to be angry. I felt justified in my anger. My anger was justifiable. Because I was justified I felt I couldn’t forgive until the person apologized. I never received an apology. I felt hurt and I was angry about those hurts. I felt frustrated that no one knew the whole story. It seemed unfair that a person could purposely hurt another and seemingly get away with it. I couldn’t prove at the time what was happening because things were done in ways that were manipulative. This person would twist a circumstance around in a way that made it difficult for me at first to realize what was happening. I felt discouraged and I couldn’t explain it to others. Eventually I began to recognize the behavior and I became angry. My anger fed the fire and helped to damage an already broken relationship.
It was many years before I was able to look at the circumstance through a different perspective. It took many more years before I was able to come to a place of forgiveness. The reason it took so long is because I didn’t know how to forgive, or why it was so important. Forgiving proved more difficult than just speaking words. No matter how many times I said it, I didn’t FEEL it in my heart.
I battled with the remnants of the relationship and dynamics that intruded into my daily life. I couldn’t remove the hurt from my life and neither could I remove the person. Because I wanted to be angry I also couldn’t let it go.
Years later my husband and I lead a teen recovery support program. During a lesson on forgiveness we used an illustration. The teens were instructed to take an ice cube and hold it tightly in their hand until they felt like putting it down. Some kids held their ice cube for a short time, some held on longer, and some kids chose to hold on so long the ice cube completely melted. After the activity we discussed how forgiveness is like holding onto that ice cube. At any point we have the power to release it. We have the power to put it down and stop the discomfort. Instead, some of us hold onto it for so long that the circumstance dissolves but the residual effects stay just as painful as a cold ice cube clenched tightly in our hand. Eventually we become numb and forget we’re still carrying it around. It’s still there though and it acts only as a reminder of the wrong that’s been done. Until we learn to let it go we’ll never truly heal.
Holding on was my way of holding the person accountable, since it seemed no one else would. I couldn’t forgive and I certainly wouldn’t forget.
When I finally recognized that it was hurting me more to hold onto it than it was hurting them, I knew I had to forgive. I got serious about forgiveness. I began to research exactly how to do it. Over and over I read about why I should. Articles proving scientific evidence of the benefits of forgiveness litter the Internet. One article from John Hopkins Medicine read, “Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.” The articles based on scientific evidence of health benefits from forgiveness were for me, compelling. According to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America dwelling on hurtful events may lead to resentment, hostility, bitterness, a sense of injustice, and a desire for vengeance. “Holding a grudge affects our cardiovascular and nervous systems. Researchers found that people had increases in their heart rates, blood pressure and muscle tension when they thought about being wronged. They also felt less in control. Forgiveness can reverse the effects of holding a grudge” (Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Forgiveness Infograph).
While the reasons for WHY we should forgive are irrefutable, I still didn’t FEEL like forgiving. I wanted to, I knew I should and now I even knew why I should. But forgiving felt like I was somehow saying, the offenses weren’t as bad as I had made them out to be. Forgiving felt like I was letting the person off the hook. Forgiving made me feel like I was suffering the injustice all over again. Forgiveness felt like I was allowing myself to be vulnerable again.
As I continued to research I began to realize that forgiveness does not mean pretending the offenses/actions never happened, or saying, “That’s okay”, when it’s not ok. Forgiveness is not letting someone off the hook, and it’s not trusting them again. Forgiveness is not allowing yourself to be in the same circumstance over and over, allowing for opportunities to be hurt again. Most importantly forgiveness is not a feeling. It doesn’t wash over us like an ocean wave relieving us of the summer heat. Forgiveness is a decision. It’s a choice we make. Unfortunately feeling forgiveness usually comes later. Eventually.
As I continued to search for a way to forgive I began watching videos of others who had learned to forgive. I heard stories about hate, lost childhoods, and self-destructed lives all because of un-forgiveness. I also heard stories of triumph, and transformed lives because of making a conscious decision to forgive. For each person the decision was personal and was more like a journey than a momentary decision.
One story impacted me more than the others. A woman talked about her bitterness, her desire to hate and want revenge although she didn’t personally seek it. She wanted to hear that the person was suffering and living a life of ill-luck. However, when she heard of them, the opposite proved true. This infuriated her and caused her more misery. Her thoughts were consumed by anger. Although she was Christian and knew she should forgive, she felt she just couldn’t. She felt God impress upon her one day that she needed to forgive. She refused. As time wore on God continued to impart a need to forgive. Weighing heavy on her heart and mind she finally resolved to do it Gods way. She found herself in a sleepy little church where the pastors sermon that Sunday was, you guessed it, Forgiveness. The Pastor spoke a word that transformed her life. It also began a transformation in mine. He said, “Some actions are unforgivable. The people who have committed them are atrociously aloof. We cannot forgive them. We may never forget their atrocities. But God can. He commands us to forgive so we also may be forgiven. It is not an option, it is a necessity. It is not only a choice to forgive, it is a choice to be obedient to God.”
For whatever reason that statement resonated with me. Recognizing that I’m making a choice to obey God made the decision easier. I no longer felt the burden to feel compassion or forgiveness. I just had to keep obedient in my decisions to follow Christ. This was no longer about them and what they had done. This was now between God and I. This was personal. This I could do.
Since I have followed that decision I have seen Christ work in ways I would not have imagined. Although it’s been years, my past circumstance has since been validated and for me that has been the greatest justice of all. I no longer feel angry or have any ill feelings toward that person. I’ve learned when these episodes do occur, to place the person in Gods hands and I know in time he will be my defender. I stand in faith on Romans 8:28, And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
Moving forward when I feel angry about a wrong that has been done to me, I may get angry, but I don’t stay stuck there. If I never hear an apology or see validation I trust that God is handling it in his way and his time. When forgiveness isn’t my first choice, obedience is.
Mark 11:25 “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”