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The Art of Forgiving

This article is a little longer than I like, but it's an important subject and....well...some things just need to be said.....

Jewish scholar and writer Joseph Jacobs once described forgiveness as “the highest and most difficult of all moral lessons.”

Many find the act of forgiving very difficult. I use to think that I was pretty good at forgiving. Yet, looking back, I wonder how I could have been good at something that I didn’t fully understand.

Forgiveness means we don’t harbor resentment anymore toward the person that hurt us and give up all claim to recompense. And yet, forgiveness isn’t that simple. Personally I found it easier to forgive others for wrongs against me, than to forgive myself. But I learned that one can not forgive others completely without learning to forgive self first.

Perhaps the following will at least give you something to ruminate about, and at best help you as you fine tune your art of forgiving.

Hopefully, it will whet your appetite to meditate on what true forgiveness really means and take it to a deeper level in your life. Happiness, the return of true joy, a brighter spirit, a positive outlook on life, energetic health, loving and healthy relationships, a good standing before our Creator are just a few of the benefits of learning the art of true forgiveness.

“We have all sometimes been willing to trade almost anything for a magic sponge to wipe just a few moments off the tables of time. But whatever the mind can make of the future, it cannot silence a syllable of the past. There is no delete key for reality.” (1) It is here that forgiveness enters in.

It would help if we could forget the past, but our memory becomes clogged with pain inflicted by people who wronged us. Or perhaps it’s clogged by wrongs we have committed. If we could forget, we could free ourselves of the pain. But we have a tendency to punish ourselves with the pains of the past. Or punish others in a futile attempt to get revenge. Forgiveness doesn’t wipe out the past. But it does put the past into a new perspective.

Forgiveness isn’t simply about how we feel inside our hearts; it’s about how we live together as a part of humanity, about how we behave toward one another, about the releasing of old wrongs, the restoration of peace, and the mending of relationships. And yet our feelings and emotions must be a part of it or it’s of no benefit. It’s about releasing the negative feelings and replacing them with positive ones, not for the sake of the one needing forgiveness, but for our own inner peace and physical health.

There is a difference between mistakes and serious wrongs. Most offenses against us would fall under the “mistakes” category. We all get in each other’s way, step on each other’s feelings, say silly, thoughtless, painful things to each other. Many mistakes can and should be over-looked for the sake of love. Forgiveness, however, should be saved for the big things. “Forgiving is for the truly serious wounds of life, for the inner pain and boiling resentment brought by the deeper cuts that we cannot ignore when they happen and cannot forget after they have been sliced.” (2) The little things we overlook for the sake of peace and harmony. Things that require forgiveness are of a more serious nature, such as abuse (of any kind), or when trust is betrayed.

Keep in mind that there is a vast difference between our forgiveness and God’s. When human beings forgive it’s a matter of an imperfect human forgiving another imperfect human. “When we forgive those who have sinned against us, it is often with the awareness that sooner or later we may need them to return the favor by forgiving us.” (3) And we’ll never really be very good at it. We will muddle our way through it as we do with most of life. With God, however, forgiveness is always one way. He forgives us, but we will never need to forgive him.

Forgiving keeps us humble. By forgiving we are recognizing that we personally have major flaws for which we need to be forgiven. God’s love for us is not dependent on our being perfect. ”If we imagine that our standing with God is dependent on our doing everything right, we are deeply tempted to cover up our faults. Our own virtues can be one of our most serious temptations, not because there’s anything wrong with being virtuous, but because we would rather rely on them than on God.” (1)

If we rely on our virtues for God’s acceptance, then we will place too much confidence in our own goodness, which can make us forget the common humanity that we share with every other person on the planet. God’s forgiveness says: I love you right now, for the person that you are as well as the person you can become, not for what you have been.

Forgiving of Self

There is no past free of wrongs. Growth happens because of our mistakes, provided we learn from them. It’s part of growing up and maturing. Whether we are a toddler learning to walk, or an adult navigating our lives through the minefields of this world. “The journey of human life and growth is an adventure, not an easy and predictable commute. You are on your way somewhere. You’ve stumbled along the way? Welcome to the human race. The wonderful thing is that, through forgiveness, God is able to take even our failures and turn them into raw materials for future growth. Think of it as a kind of spiritual recycling. Nothing gets lost, ultimately. Through the miracle of forgiveness, even our failures become the means of our spiritual maturation and the foundation of a ministry to one another. They give us understanding of one another’s sufferings and uncertainties. Stumbling blocks sometimes become building blocks. Sometimes our past sufferings become the foundation of our future gifts.” (1)

“Sometimes we think that we’ve accepted God’s forgiveness of us, only to find that, deep down, we haven’t. We have somehow treated it as interesting but irrelevant information. How can we tell? By the fact that we remain unforgiving of ourselves. If we aren’t forgiving of our own failures and errors, we aren’t really taking God’s forgiveness of us seriously either. We’re treating it as some bit of “spiritual” information that has no “real” effect on our lives. We can’t really claim to have accepted God’s forgiveness of us until we are willing to forgive ourselves for our past wrongs.” (1)

When I first read that thought it was like a slap in the face. For that was exactly what I was doing. While we should be conscientious not to repeat wrongs, and to be sorry for any pain we have caused. However, we should also not go to the other extreme of brooding over our sins all the time as though by making ourselves miserable we could atone for them. In other words, accept the value of forgiveness.

Forgiving Others

When we are wronged it’s okay to be angry over it, but be careful the anger doesn’t turn into hate. “Anger is aimed at what persons do. Hate is aimed at persons. The enemy of forgiving is hate, not anger. Anger doesn't mean you haven’t forgiven, it only means you get mad when people do bad things to you. (2)

Vengeance is our own pleasure of seeing someone who hurt us getting it back and then some. Justice is secured when someone pays a fair penalty for wronging another even if the injured person takes no pleasure in the transaction.

Vengeance is personal satisfaction. Justice is moral accounting.

"Forgiving surrenders the right to vengeance; it never surrenders the claims of justice. Human forgiveness does not do away with human justice. Nor divine justice. Vengeance by its nature cannot bring resolution. A wise judge may let mercy temper justice, but may not let mercy undo justice.” (2)

True forgiveness comes from deep in the heart. It cannot be superficial, or accomplished without serious reflection. It involves pardoning an offender’s error and giving up any desire for revenge. Thus, final justice and possible retribution are left in God’s hands, where it belongs. However, because of our imperfection our hearts do not lean toward forgiveness even when it should.

By harboring resentment we can find ourselves in the situation of being trapped in painful memories of past wrongs done to us and are unable to turn them loose. We get obsessive about what has been done to us or by us, and it begins to consume us. This distracts us from other interests and responsibilities, joys and pleasures.

Resentment is a heavy burden to carry. When we own it, it consumes our thoughts, robs us of peace, and stifles our joy. “It is risky to forgive too quickly, it is even more hazardous to wait too long. If we wait too long to forgive, our rage settles in and claims squatter’s rights to our souls. Our resentment gets into our bloodstream and is as hard to get out as a spoonful of ink from a glass of water. We become the pain we feel.” (2)

How do we know when we are holding on to resentment and haven’t truly forgiven? When we want anything other than good for the individual, and when we feel strong negative emotions surface when thinking about the individual and circumstances.

“Forgiving is a personal experience that happens inside us. It’s a desire of the heart. We forgive when we feel a strong wish to be free from the pain that glues us to a bruised moment of the past. When we want to be free of resentment. Forgiving someone who did us wrong does not mean that we tolerate the wrong he did. It does not mean that we surrender our right to justice or that we invite someone who hurt us once to do it again. No one can forgive another except he be aware of his own need to be forgiven. Forgiving expresses our true and best natures. Forgiving is an event inside a heart that hurts, and it happens only when we don’t want to hurt anymore.” (2)

Since forgiving is something that we do inside of ourselves no one needs to know. Not even the person we have forgiven. In fact, it may not be emotionally, spiritually, or even physically healthy (such as in abuse situations) to have that person back into our lives.

“The forgiveness is for our benefit not the other person. We can forgive even when we don’t trust that the person will not wrong us again. But we would only reunite when we trust the person will never wrong us again. So forgiveness isn’t about reuniting, it’s about letting go of the anger, hostility and resentment we hold that will destroy our own well being.” (1)

There is also a difference in tolerating and forgiving. “Forgiving intolerable things does not make them tolerable. They are intolerable because they violate the law of life. Forgiving an intolerable thing doesn’t mean we intend to put up with it. Intolerable things are forgivable. Forgiving and tolerating have nothing in common. Forgiving may enable us to bear up under and even to surmount intolerable abuse that people do to us when we cannot escape it.” (2)

"Forgiving is an opportunity to do something good for ourselves after somebody has done something bad to us. Forgiving is not about letting people get away with something. It does not mean that we tolerate what that person is doing to hurt us. Forgiving is not about staying with people who are hurting us. When people ask how often they should forgive, what they usually want to know is how much abuse they need to put up with. They are not really asking about forgiving. They are asking about tolerating. It is not forgiving we need to set limits on, it is abuse we need to set limits on. Once we have stopped the abuse, we can forgive however many times that it may take us to finish our healing.” (2)

I think Lewis B. Smedes sums this subject up well when he said "Only the hurting person can know for sure when the time has come to forgive. The wise will act when it has."

1 – Forgiven & Forgiving, L. William Countryman

2 – The Art of Forgiving, Lewis B. Smedes



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