How to Choose Forgiveness Even When it Seems Impossible
Making the choice to forgive when someone has caused you unspeakable pain is one of the most challenging decisions you may ever face. The good news is, while forgiveness won’t erase your pain, it will most certainly set you free.
My father was very abusive towards me while I was growing up. I had a very traumatic childhood because of the way he treated me. Those memories have haunted my life ever since.
LEARNING FORGIVENESS FROM A SEX RECOVERY GROUP?
I’ve been a pastor now for almost twenty-five years. I’ve counseled dozens of people who have hurt or been hurt in significant ways. Deep down, I knew I had to forgive my father and I’ve offered that same advice to others. They need to forgive their enemies. The problem is, I couldn’t forgive my dad. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts to articulate the words, “I forgive you,” but I hadn’t really forgiven him.
A few of my close friends told me about a recovery program for people with sex issues and addictions. Wait, what?! How on earth would I benefit from attending a group for sex addicts?
My friends explained that the program focused on the process of forgiving your father. Apparently, most sex issues and addictions stem from past issues with a parent. Even though I didn’t want to go, I knew forgiving my father was something that must happen if I wanted to spiritually grow stronger.
On my first night of group, I walked in having no idea what to expect. I felt awkward about sitting in a circle with sex addicts when I didn’t have a sex addiction. I quickly learned that each week would consist of a speaker who would talk for 30 minutes, followed by someone’s shared testimony. We wrapped our time up with an hour of small group time.
Over the next twenty-seven weeks, I learned what real forgiveness is, and what it isn’t. More importantly, I learned that I could finally forgive my father.
LEARNING WHAT FORGIVENESS ISN’T
Forgiveness Isn’t Forgetting
People love to say, “forgive and forget” but we can’t erase memories. We don’t work like that. If we try to forget, without forgiving, we are merely submerging our feelings.
Submerging our feelings is similar to holding a beach ball under water. The feelings are still there, they are just beneath the surface and pushing their way to the top. Eventually, they do push their way to the surface and erupt unexpectedly. Forgiveness is not forgetting.
Forgiveness Isn’t Waiting
So often, we hear the saying, “Time heals all wounds.” No, it doesn’t. We don’t just wait for the pain to stop. We don’t wait for the other person to say, “I’m sorry.”
Forgiveness and passivity are not the same things. The Bible implores us, “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). I realized I had a responsibility to take the initiative and offer forgiveness.
Forgiveness Isn’t Pretending
Most of us have experienced a disagreement with someone that led to hurt feelings or a fractured relationship. Then, somehow, unexplainably, one day, everything was cool again. We acted as nothing happened and chose not to discuss the situation.
Sure, we avoid a confrontation but that isn’t forgiveness. When God says we are to forgive, he’s not talking about sweeping the issue under the rug or pretending that it never happened.
Forgiveness Isn’t Overlooking
And lastly, and perhaps more importantly, forgiving someone doesn’t mean that what they did was ok. Through scripture, God tells us, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” (Romans 12:17). What the person did was wrong, yet we are still called to forgive them.
It made sense when I realized that God had forgiven me for all of my wrongs. He wasn’t saying that what I did was ok. What I did was clearly a sin. This was critical for me to understand because I always thought forgiving my father would be the same as saying that he wasn’t wrong. But, he was wrong. And God was telling me to forgive him anyway.
LEARNING WHAT FORGIVENESS IS
As I moved past my misconceptions of what forgiveness isn’t, I started getting a better grasp on what forgiveness looked like.
Forgiveness Is Giving Up What Could Have Been
Our inability to forgive can stem from a preoccupation with what could or should have been. Yet still, I realized part of forgiveness is accepting what happened and recognizing our inability to change it. Instead of hoping for a better past, I had to realize that my past is part of my life story.
Holding on to bitterness about what happened can ruin the future. Forgiveness doesn’t change the past, but it can change our path. We may not be able to change what’s already happened, but we can change what’s yet to come.
Forgiveness Is Surrendering Our Need To Retaliate
Releasing my past also means releasing my need to retaliate. I found out the word, “forgive” is a financial term. It means, “to cancel a debt.” A heart that’s full of anger says, “you owe me.”
Hear Bart Millard share more about hope, forgiveness, and redemption in his own words.
When someone has hurt you, it’s natural to feel like they owe you something in return. Especially if;
- You grew up in a broken home. Someone robbed you of the opportunity to be tucked in by both a mom and a dad who love you.
- Your spouse left you. You were robbed of the kind of marriage you were promised at the altar.
- You were double-crossed in a business deal. Someone took the money and an opportunity from you.
The problem is, people can’t always repay everything that they owe. How can you pay back a childhood? How can you pay back a marriage?
Forgiveness Is Choosing Not To Get Even
Getting even is often a natural reaction in our world, but Jesus calls us to something different and better. He taught, “you have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
Through forgiveness, we accept that getting even doesn’t accomplish anything. When we forgive, we surrender our need to repay evil for evil. That’s really difficult. It’s unnatural. And it’s also unfair. But still, it’s what God asks us to do. It’s what he asks all of us to do.
Forgiveness Is What God Expects From Believers
During the days of apartheid, a South African policeman named Van De Broek showed up at the home of a poor African American family. Van De Broek brought several of his fellow police officers with him and forced the eighteen-year-old son out into the front yard. Right there, in front of the mother and father, they burned the boy to death.
Eight years later, Van De Broek returned to the same home. The wife was forced to watch as the policeman built a fire, poured gasoline over her husband’s body, and put him into the flames. This woman witnessed the deaths of her son and husband by the same evil men. She would live the rest of her life with those memories, and without her husband and son.
That woman happened to be a Christian. Therefore, she was expected to forgive those evil men. It would be unnatural for her to immediately forgive them. What happened to her wasn’t fair. But still, it was what God was telling her to do. And, it was what God was telling me to do.
Forgiveness Is Giving Grace When It’s Not Deserved
It seems unfair to forgive someone who has hurt us but that’s how God treats us. Not with fairness, but with grace. Grace means giving someone the opposite of what they deserve. Jesus forgave us for the ways we’ve wronged God with our sin. And, he forgave us without our asking him for forgiveness.
The Bible puts it this way in Romans 5:6-8, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person, someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
When God asks us to forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it, he’s asking us to do exactly what he’s done for us. But, he’s not asking us to do it on our own. God understands our limitations. He knows how difficult this is for us. Throughout the Bible, he promises to help and empower us to live the life he’s planned for us.
EMPOWERED AND SET FREE
When I understood what forgiveness is and isn’t, I was finally able to forgive my dad. I wasn’t able to forgive him on my own, but I was in a place where God could do it through me. I realized and admitted I couldn’t do it. I stopped trying, and instead, surrendered all of it to God. Then, he empowered me to forgive.
Once I finally forgave my dad, I experienced total freedom. The burden of years of bitterness fell off and changed everything for me. The things that once stressed me out stopped having an impact on me. People who once annoyed me were no longer annoying. Anger that had long plagued me suddenly dissipated. I became a different person.
I wonder what would happen in your life if you had a true understanding of what forgiveness is and isn’t? Imagine the weight being lifted off of your shoulders when you finally forgive that person you’ve felt bitter towards for way too long. Especially if the person you need to forgive is yourself. My guess is you would experience freedom and a peace that surpasses all understanding.
Freedom is possible. You can forgive and begin healing. Well, YOU can’t, but God can do it through you. Is today the day to forgive?
Bart Millard, lead singer of the band MercyMe, opens up and shares his powerful story of love and forgiveness in the I CAN ONLY IMAGINE Series. In his own words, Bart reveals what it was like to have an abusive father, and how he, through Christ, found healing and forgiveness. Our 4-episode DVD series offers a message of hope to those looking for reassurance in the face of painful and challenging circumstances.
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