A few days ago I received an email with just one question on it. “How can I forgive?” It was a great question to be asked and I have written a lengthy response in this post which I hope will benefit those who may struggle with the same challenge — forgiving those who have wounded us.More than any other relationship I have, marriage has been the context for some of my greatest forgiveness “challenges.” I suppose this is because I am most vulnerable to Edric. I love him so much that I hurt worst when he makes choices or speaks in ways that are unloving. He has said the same about me. Both of us are prone to selfishness and pride. Sometimes it isn’t big offenses but the little ones, piled up together over time that are injurious — the ones that need to be forgiven over and over again.
(Early years of marriage. We look like kids!)
Last month was a particularly rough time for us. Edric was very busy and caught up with work and responsibilities. He was easily irritated with me when I didn’t meet his “standards” for wifely duties or running our home. Normally, he is gracious and looks past my inefficiencies, choosing to highlight the positive. But since his spirit was unsettled by concerns over our finances and business decisions, he was easily jostled by things I would say and do that inconvenienced him.
My problem was I put up my own version of selfishness. When he was abrasive towards me, I retaliated with my magic force field, the one that placed a safe, emotional distance between us so I would not get hurt. My methods were things like curt, unaffectionate replies, silence, retreating to my hobbies and the children, and communicating disinterest in physical intimacy.
Edric recognized my methods as feminine forms of hostility and he felt like I wasn’t supportive of him. In fact he expressed this by saying, “It’s like you only love me when I am okay, when I am lovable. But you won’t cut me slack for my reactions when you know that I am struggling with an issue.” I have paraphrased what he said but that was the essence.
His statements were justifiable. Of course, I do love him. But the reality is I intended my responses to manipulate and pressure him. I forced upon him the expectation that he should ALWAYS be a spiritual leader, that he should be better than this, that he should pull himself together. I bailed out on him emotionally when I should have applied extra grace to attend to him, minister to him, and encourage him.
One of the things I appreciate about Edric is he won’t let us spiral downward. He will take action and drop every activity to make sure our marriage is where it ought to be — with Jesus Christ at its center. And that’s exactly what happened. First, he spent time in God’s Word to renew his spirit, and then he approached me, requesting that we discuss the state of our marriage and how to improve it.
Naturally, forgiveness was part of this interchange. I was blessed by Edric’s humility as he asked for my forgiveness. It convicted me to do the same. And then we made proposals on how to avoid falling into the same predicament.
This scene has been repeated many times in our marriage. We often come to a point where we must give forgiveness and receive it. There’s no way to move forward in our marriage if we don’t do so.
In John Piper’s book, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence, he writes “Before a man and woman can live out the unique roles of headship and submission in a biblical and gracious way, they must experience what it means to build their lives on the vertical experience of God’s forgiveness and justification and promised help, and then bend it out horizontally to their spouse.” (Pg.44)
I like how he puts it. In marriage, we need to vertically experience God’s forgiveness, justification and help before we can bend these out horizontally towards our spouse. This actually makes the shape of a cross!
This past month I was tired of trying to be a “good wife.” I wanted a break. My focus was on myself and my capacities. However I was reminded that looking at myself can never be the answer. Apart from Christ, I am definitely NOT a good wife. “As it is written, ‘THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.'” (Romans 3:10-12 NASB)
Whether in the context of marriage or outside of it, the answer to the question how we can forgive is this: we can forgive because God first forgave us. Forgiveness is not a response to the degree of the offense so much as it is an acknowledgement of God’s forgiveness and mercy to us, then flowing that forgiveness and mercy outward, to others. Until we understand this it’s hard to forgive, especially when the offenses are serious and deeply painful. (A few years after the rape)
Many of you who have followed this blog already know that I was once upon a time a victim of rape. Unlike a marriage where two people are of the same mind to repair it and right the wrongs suffered in it, there are forgiveness situations in life that do not involve the offending party apologizing for their sins against us. Instead we are left at a junction where we must make the choice to forgive regardless of whether the other person is sorry or not.
I knew that my rapists and abusers would not offer me their repentance. It is the same way for many of us who are betrayed, taken advantage of, deceived, or physically harmed by others. The likelihood of these persons returning to us in order to ask for an apology is slim to nil. To bank on this happening as the prerequisite to extending forgiveness only makes us a slave to a timetable of uncertainty.
Can we hope and pray that they will one day apologize, expressing deep remorse? Sure. But what are we going to do in the meantime? What is within our control?
What helped me make the choice to forgive was recognizing that I too was guilty, not of the same crimes committed against me, but of the same sinful disposition before God. Yet, God sent His Son to die for me. The Bible tells us “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”(Romans 5:8 NIV)
It also says, “In Him (Christ) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us…” (Ephesians 1:7-8 NASB)
If God forgave me by giving his own Son to die for me, who was I not to forgive the hurt done against me? In Ephesians 4:32 it says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Therefore, I could take the same forgiveness bestowed upon me through Christ and turn it into the kindness and compassion needed to bestow the same forgiveness towards my offenders.
It’s hard to explain without sounding like a deranged person but my heart felt a miraculous compassion for my offenders when I realized that I was no better than they were before God. Anything that was righteous in me was due to Jesus Christ. However way I esteemed myself as better than they were wasn’t due to my own goodness. So I couldn’t elevate myself and think I was holier for not being a rapist, a murderer, a thief, an adulterer, etc.
I could understand the darkness that was in their hearts and how it held them captive to do what was wicked and ungodly. So this compassion I am referring to was about wanting them to come to know Jesus Christ. Why? So their lives could be transformed. So they would stop hurting others the way they hurt me. Just like them, I was once lost and dead in my sins until Jesus Christ saved me.
Ephesians 2:3-5 explains this very clearly. “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…”
We can punish people for the bad things they do to us by imposing external consequences like withholding forgiveness as a form of revenge, but this is a superficial fix to the real problem. First, people need Jesus Christ. Second, our unforgiveness is not the best form of justice if that is what we seek.
What do we hope to accomplish by clinging to unforgiveness? Is it to satisfy our sense of fairness? “You hurt me so I am not going to let you off that easily.” Or, “I want you to feel what it is like to be me.” Or, “I want you to pay for your sins before I forgive you.” We can require emotional or physical payment for the offenses done against us. But what if the persons we impose these upon are never reformed and never truly sorry for their crimes and wrong choices? Who is to know what the truthful condition of their hearts is in regards to repentance? The answer is we can’t guarantee either. This falls under the scope of God’s power and omniscience.
We need to consider, “Does UNforgiveness cause an offender to wake up to the reality of his or her wrong?” “Does UNforgiveness inspire them to pursue lasting change?” While our outcry for justice may demand penitence, might I suggest that we consider the ONE who has the power to effect change in the heart of a sinner and the capacity to execute real justice if the same sinner remains unrepentant.
“…Vindicate me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me. O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous; For the righteous God tries the hearts and minds. My shield is with God, Who saves the upright in heart. God is a righteous judge, And a God who has indignation every day. If a man does not repent, He will sharpen His sword; He has bent His bow and made it ready…” (Psalms 7:8-12 NASB)
When several of my rapists were caught and put in jail, that was a good thing. Criminals need to be jailed to protect others from being victimized. But long before this happened, I chose to forgive them for what they did to me. I did my part to meet with the police and identify the gang members as best as I could, but if they were not caught, I believed God would deal with them. As for me, I didn’t want to remain a victim twice over — first as one who lost her innocence and virginity to cruel men, and second, as one who was defiled by her own bitterness.
Bitterness is so carcinogenic to the soul. “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (Hebrews 12:15 NIV)
I recall attending a woman’s conference where the speaker talked about the characteristics of bitter people. They are like a cup of perpetually hot coffee, filled to the brim. Any circumstance, even the smallest ones cause a spill that hurts! No one likes to be around people like this! I’ve caught myself on several occasions “spilling” over with irritation towards my children when Edric and I have unresolved conflicts. My frustration and anger get channeled towards my kids. So the sooner I address what’s going on inside and arrest the anger, the quicker I can halt the defiling overspill.
When the root is bitterness, imagine what the fruit might be. Woodrow Kroll
I am not trying to make pain simplistic. Some of us have been through major trauma due to people’s betrayal, physical injury, thievery, immorality, etc. But I have also seen two sides of the same coin. I have been around people who refuse to forgive and observed how it aged them, turned them ugly, and paralyzed them from true healing. And I have been around people who have chosen to forgive the most hateful persons, people who deserved no less than total unforgiveness for their crimes and sins. Yet, the forgiveness extended transformed the hurting person into someone more beautiful inside and out. Furthermore, the choice to forgive advanced them towards healing. In the process of surrendering their anger, their hearts were opened up to love others. In certain instances, God allowed this grace-extended to cause repentance and change in the life of the offender, too (although this isn’t always the case).
Bitterness and love cannot be neighbors in our hearts. They cannot co-exist without fighting for occupancy of the entire space. We either let love win or bitterness will take over. To say we can reserve a spot of anger for certain people or circumstances and still define ourselves as loving persons is to misunderstand the deceptiveness of anger. Sooner or later anger will conquer more ground and ease love out. Forgiveness, however, extracts the bitterness and makes room for love. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 gives a definition of love, which includes a part that says, “love does not take into account a wrong suffered.”
What if an offense is repeated over and over again? Whenever Edric and I resolve our disputes, choosing to forgive one another and release the anger, we always hope that the same situations won’t happen again. But we don’t extend forgiveness by coupling it with an ultimatum that says, “You better not repeat the same mistake!”
After all, who can really make this demand without setting themselves up for greater hurt? We can’t control people’s mistakes, past, present, or future. We can’t control how remorseful they should be either. These are demands that make us more vulnerable to disappointment when we put conditions on forgiveness.
On the one hand, forgiveness is a decision “not to count one’s trespasses against us” as 1 Corinthians 13 puts it. It is extended in reference to a known offense. On the other hand, it is a state of being that extends forward, too. I have forgiven you and I will forgive you. It’s not saying I condone your sin or approve of your wrong choices. This isn’t about giving someone the license to keep hurting us either. (If a person is being battered or abused, they need to find a way to physically remove themselves from that situation and go somewhere safe or get help from someone who can effectively intervene.)
However, we can keep on forgiving because God continues to do so for us.
“For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.” (Psalms 86:5 NASB)
- Forgiveness is possible because of what God has done for us. It is not contingent upon the degree of the offense done towards us or whether the offender asks for our forgiveness.
- The kindness and compassion to forgive comes when we recognize that ALL people, including ourselves, are lost in the darkness of sin apart from Jesus Christ.
- The option to withhold forgiveness does not accomplish the heart transformation of the offender or the justice we seek. Only God can cause a person to repent wholeheartedly and deal with someone who is unrepentant.
- Forgiveness liberates us from the bitterness which defiles us and those around us. We cannot say we are loving if we harbor resentment and anger – there is no room for both in our hearts.
- We can keep on forgiving just as God continues to offer his forgiveness to us.
In closing, let me end with a passage of Scripture that puts everything into perspective, and it centers around the personhood of Jesus Christ – what He went through for our sakes, His response to offenses done against him, how He surrendered Himself to God the Father, and what His death and resurrection accomplished for us.
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (1 Peter 2:21-24 NASB)
NOTE: If you are one who needs to ask for forgiveness, consider reading The Five Languages of Apology by authors Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas which explains that apologizing involves five aspects: expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, genuinely repenting, and requesting forgiveness.