Our ability to love others who have sinned against us flows out of our real experience of Jesus forgiving our own sins. If we find it impossible to love one who has hurt or wronged us, it is probably because we refuse to forgive that person.
It shouldn’t surprise us, but Jesus had it right all along. Throughout his brief tenure of public ministry, Jesus demonstrated and emphasized the power and necessity of forgiveness. In John 7, as a woman with a sinful reputation wept unashamedly at his feet, he declared to the scandalized guests at the party, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (John 7:47). With his very next breath, Jesus reiterated that given the extravagant and selfless extent of her love for him, her sins had indeed been forgiven.
Have you ever considered how much our ability to love someone else is often tied directly to our ability to forgive that person? The essence of what Jesus is saying, I believe, is twofold. First, our ability to love others who have sinned against us flows out of our real experience of Jesus forgiving our own sins. Second, if we find it impossible to love one who has hurt or wronged us, it is probably because we refuse to forgive that person.
Notice I said “we refuse to forgive that person” rather than “we are unable to forgive that person.” No doubt, there are extreme cases, but as a matter of fact, most people possess the power to forgive nearly any trespass. So the failure to forgive is because we typically lack the desire or motivation, not because we lack the ability.
“Why should I forgive my father? His addiction destroyed my mother and ruined our home life.” “Why should I forgive the person who raped me?” “Why should I forgive my pastor? He or she violated my trust.” “Why should I forgive those people when they declared war against innocent people?” “Why should I forgive my spouse for cheating on me?” “Why should I forgive my parents for divorcing each other?” “How can I forgive myself for being the one who broke the trust, who violated another human being, who victimized others, or who was simply too weak or too imperfect?”
There clearly is a theological reason for choosing to forgive: since Jesus died to forgive us our sins, who are we to refuse to forgive the sins of others? That should be all the motivation we need, right? However, even though we know what the Bible teaches about this, we still choose not to forgive. And in failing to forgive, oftentimes for years and years, we unknowingly poison our own souls and sabotage our own happiness.
As author and seminary professor emeritus Lewis Smedes reflected on the gospel, it jumped out at him that “forgiving fellow human beings for wrongs done to them was close to the quintessence of Christian experience” (Forgive and Forget, HarperSanFrancisco). Even more, he concluded that the refusal to forgive other people was a cause of added misery to the one who was wronged in the first place. In the past, he writes, “human forgiveness had been seen as a religious obligation of love that we owe to the person who has offended us. The discovery that I made was the important benefit that forgiving is to the forgiver.”
Psychological research on forgiveness is beginning to substantiate that this giving of grace and release to another promotes personal, relational, and social well-being. Dr. Glen Mack Harnden of the University of Kansas enthusiastically trumpets the benefits of forgiveness. "It not only heightens the potential for reconciliation, but also releases the offended from prolonged anger, rage, and stress that have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure and other psychosomatic illnesses."1
Sound good? Okay, so how does one go about forgiving? Here is a practical outline2 of the process of forgiveness:
1. Don’t deny feelings of hurt, anger or shame. Rather, acknowledge these feelings and commit yourself to doing something about them.
2. Don’t just focus on the person who has harmed you, but also identify the specific offensive behavior.
3. Make a conscious decision not to seek revenge or nurse a grudge and decide instead to forgive. This conversion of the heart is a critical stage toward forgiveness.
4. Formulate a rationale for forgiving. For example: “By forgiving I can experience inner healing and move on with my life.”
5. Think differently about the offender. Try to see things from the offender’s perspective.
6. Accept the pain you’ve experienced without passing it off to others, including the offender.
7. Choose to extend goodwill and mercy toward the other; wish for the well-being of that person.
8. Think about how it feels to be released from a burden or grudge.
9. Realize the paradox of forgiveness: as you let go and forgive the offender, you are experiencing release and healing.
All of this is not to claim that forgiving others should be automatic and easy. However, as Jesus pointed out, it is absolutely essential for reconciliation to occur and, in light of recent studies, for all of us to be freed up to embrace others once again.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget to forgive ourselves.
(from Student Leadership Journal, vol. 17:2)
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1 Christianity Today, January 10, 2000.
2 Adapted from Robert D. Enright, in Scott Heller’s "Emerging Field of Forgiveness Studies Explores How We Let Go of Grudges," Chronicle of Higher Education, July 17, 1998.