October 11, 2016
At some point in our lives, we’ve all had to forgive someone. A negligent barb hit its mark and now replays in our minds, scraping open the scabs. Perhaps it’s a deeper wound caused by someone’s abuse, abandonment, or assault. The ache of these injuries can linger for years, decades, even a lifetime. Forgiving someone can be one of the most difficult things to do in your life. Yet, it’s through forgiveness that God heals our deepest wounds, and frees us from our prisons of anger, hate, self-pity, and self-contempt. But, what does forgiveness really look like?
God has guided me through a long journey of forgiveness. Not usually one to hold a grudge, it still surprises me how frequently I find myself nursing one anyway. Once, more than 25 years ago, I was on watch in the Navy, and another young sailor—a friend, I thought—looked me in the eye and said, “Hunt, you’re such a loser.” Even though I immediately rejected his unprovoked pronouncement, the episode replays in my mind to this day. His sincerity drew blood. I still think of retorts that I might have employed to bite back. To be free of this incident, I really need to forgive that guy. But how?
Forgive as the Lord forgave you
Forgiveness is at the crux of our Christian faith. Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46-47, Matthew 26:28). In turn, God commands that we forgive those who sin against us: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13c ESV). When his disciple, Peter, asked him how many times he should forgive, Jesus essentially answered, forgive and keep on forgiving—“seventy-seven times,” a figurative number suggesting continuing renewal.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns up the heat on forgiveness with these red-letter words: “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:15 NIV).” This sounds harsh, and some people stumble over it, fearing they might lose their salvation if they do not forgive. Yet, it’s wholly consistent with Jesus’ teaching. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). If I’m forgiven by God, then who am I to refuse to forgive someone else? (Matthew 18:21-35) The book of James puts teeth on this. My faith in God’s forgiving grace must bear fruit in deeds: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17).
But, in our day-to-day lives, what does it mean to forgive? Do I pretend it didn’t hurt when that sailor called me a loser? What about when something really bad happens?
How do I forgive as I have been forgiven?
The most painful period of my life occurred after my wife of seven years suddenly announced that she didn’t want to be married or be a mother anymore. Not long after, she was gone and I was raising two very small children on my own. Angry about her abandonment of the children, I did little to process the pain caused by her disavowal of her promise to stay with me for life. To this day, more than 15 years later, I can get very upset when I think about what happened and how it has affected my kids. In those dark days, I could not imagine forgiving her for what she had done, not for a minute.
But God used that terrible time to kick the legs out from under my pride. For years I had been doing my own thing, almost completely ignoring God. As my world crumbled, like that prodigal son wandering in a far-off country, I knew I had to return to my Father. Hurt and angry, I didn’t want to talk much about forgiveness, and I had no idea what it looked like in this situation.
Thankfully, the Lord is a patient teacher.
God taught me a key lesson about forgiveness through a very long, sleepless night. I wrestled with him about what I believed—dreaded, rather—that he was telling me to do: to offer my ex-wife a second chance. The divorce had been final for months, and there had never been so much as a flicker of hope for reconciliation. And he wanted me to give her another chance? I didn’t fall asleep until I said, “Okay, God, I’ll do it!”
The next day, I called my ex-wife. With trepidation, I confessed my sins and offered her a fresh start—not without condition, but with genuine willingness to rebuild what had been broken. As it happened, she did not respond positively.
Why did God have me lay it all on the line with her again? I wouldn’t understand for a long time after, but he was laying a foundation for forgiveness. In making that call, I acknowledged that terrible damage had been done to me and my children; I accepted my own responsibility for the divorce and my need for forgiveness; and I gave up my claim to victimhood and retribution. Through that incredibly uncomfortable encounter, God showed me my ex-wife’s brokenness in light of my own; that she too was made in his image and in need of grace.
I did not forgive all in a day; and even now, years later, I have to forgive my ex-wife again each time my family experiences some lingering consequence from her actions. But, I forgive in light of my own forgiveness; as I have been forgiven, so also must I forgive. As a child of God, a disciple of Jesus Christ, I have been forgiven so much. How then can I bear good fruit in Christ if I am unwilling to forgive? Thank God for his grace through Jesus.
So, what about that sailor who told me to my face that I was a “loser” all those years ago? I recognize now that he might have been looking in the mirror when he said those words to me. Not caring much for himself, he lashed out at someone else. The wound I suffered was real, but the one who inflicted it on me was every bit as broken and in need of grace as me. I forgive him and pray that he too receives the grace of Jesus.
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