Sunday, February 19, 2017
Three helps, when you're working on forgiving
Back to forgiveness, again.
Sometimes I think that when Jesus told Peter that he should forgive seventy-seven times--or seventy times seven times--the point was not so much that people would continue to sin against us, and need to be forgiven many times (although they surely would). Rather, I think the point may have been that as many times as a wrong reoccurs to us, as many times as we remember and feel a twinge of pain, we need to forgive. Again and again and again and again and again and again and again.
Forgiveness is hard. I've written about this many times already. It's hard to forgive when somebody doesn't apologize. It's hard when somebody apologizes, but continues to repeat the offense. It's hard when somebody makes excuses, or transfers the blame back to us. It's hard when the offense was something we feel that we would never do--we know better--and it seems that the offender has absolutely no defense for acting so inappropriately. Forgiveness is hard.
Forgiveness is also necessary. We all need grace. God tells us in His Word that we are to forgive, because He has forgiven us. In God's eyes, sin is is sin. Even what we might consider a very small sin is enough to separate us from fellowship with the Lord. When Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins, He died for the little lie, the selfish attitude, and the stapler stolen from the office desk just as surely as He died for the drug runner, the sex trafficker and the serial murderer. We all struggle with the temptation to consider that our own sins are less offensive, less serious, and that other people's sins are much worse, especially the ones that hurt us. However, Jesus doesn't see it this way. To Jesus, a prideful Pharisee is just as guilty as a cheating tax collector, perhaps even moreso if he refuses to acknowledge his faults. Every sin is fatal if it is not forgiven. Jesus actually said, "If you will not forgive others their sins, my Heavenly Father will not forgive you your sins" (Matthew 6:15). This is awfully serious business. We often talk about how we need to forgive for our own good, which is completely true. We will be miserable as long as we cling to our grudges. But beyond that, beyond the truth that forgiving is a release that is good for us, we need to forgive because God commands us to, and there are dire consequences if we refuse. Forgiveness is necessary.
Because forgiveness is both necessary and very difficult, I've come up with three helps, things you can think about and work through if you need to forgive and are having a difficult time with it.
1. Learn this truth: Hurt people hurt people.
When people have been hurt, they often hurt others; it's like dominoes. People who are bullied turn into bullies. People who are abused turn into abusers. People who are neglected do not learn how to show compassion. A person who is having a very difficult day might turn and lash out at someone else, perhaps even a completely innocent party. We can never predict which straw will break the proverbial camel's back. All we know for sure is this: when stress mounts up, at a certain point it breaks a person. (As a corollary, one should try to be a person who alleviates stress, as much as rightfully possible, rather than yet another in the chain of people heaping stress onto someone. If you add to someone's stress, even in a very small way, there is always the chance that it will be your action that becomes the last straw.)
Healthy people do not go around hurting others. Damaged people are the ones who hurt others. You may not see their internal damage. You may be hurt by someone who seems to be much more fortunate than you: stronger, richer, more popular, more beautiful. Think about it, though. People we call "spoiled" are those who have always been catered to, always given their way, always allowed to have what they want. But what do we call them? "Spoiled." Something spoiled is ruined, damaged. What would have been good has gone bad. Some people have been hurt by their upbringing. They were never taught to be sensitive to others, never taught to sacrifice for someone else's good, never taught to be humble, or to listen, or to apologize and make things right. Indulgence itself is a type of hurt because of the bad results it produces. People who have been indulged as children grow up ill-equipped to navigate life, handle disappointments and interact with others. In this way, even seemingly fortunate people can become very insecure, and thus meaner than ever, as they have negative experiences in adult life because of their lacking skills.
Pain and insecurity make people unable to see past themselves to attend to the needs of others, breeding selfishness, which manifests in hurtful behavior. Whenever someone hurts you, remember that he or she is merely failing to compensate for his or her own past hurts. This should help you become more compassionate and more forgiving, as you seek to demonstrate Christlike love.
2. Learn people's backstories, when you can.
Learning about someone's backstory can also help you in the forgiveness process. When you understand more about where behavior comes from, you can have compassion on the person who offended you. Sometimes you might find yourself needing to forgive other, additional people as you learn backstories, because, as we mentioned, hurtful behavior is a domino effect, and there was always another domino behind the one who hurt the person who hurt the person who hurt the person who hurt you. Ultimately, the original domino was Satan, who introduced sin into the garden of Eden. He is the origin of all the hurts in the world. In the end, God is going to deal with Satan and get rid of him forever. In the meantime, the rest of us must have compassion for each other, and forgive each other as we struggle together under the cumulative effects of sin.
Here's a trick: if you aren't going to be able to learn someone's backstory, for whatever reason, make up an imaginary backstory for that person. Imagine what kinds of past life circumstances and events might have induced you to fall into such a behavior pattern yourself, and then attribute those circumstances to the person who was hurtful toward you. Be generous. Don't say, "I would never do that, no matter what!" You would not do it based on the knowledge and experiences that you have had, but what if you lacked a lot of the knowledge you have, and had totally different experiences? Also, think about what kinds of things could have been different in your offender's past, that might have averted the problem. Grieve for the offender that things were not that way. (This exercise might also open your eyes to be more thankful for your own situation.) Be gracious and cut slack in the same way you wish people would cut slack for you in your own failings which, while they may be completely different, certainly do exist. Because all have sinned. Yet, in Christ there is always hope.
3. See people in terms of what they can become with God's grace, rather than defining them by a collection of their past mistakes.
People change. God works miraculous transformations in people's lives. Choose not to characterize a person by something he/she did that you didn't like, defining him/her as a "bad" person forever after that. Instead, pray for the person to change. Believe that God is able to change him/her. Have faith. Expect to see our good and glorious God do good and glorious things. Accept and affirm change when you see it. This will help you forgive.
The Bible says that we are to forgive others in the same way that God forgives us, in Christ Jesus.
When we speak of forgiving as God forgives us in Jesus Christ, the big take-away is that forgiveness is costly and painful. God forgave us in Jesus when Jesus was crucified and shed His blood to pay the price for our sins. Don't expect forgiveness to be painless. Forgiveness is a form of suffering that we choose to share with our Savior.
A corollary take-away is that God knows everything about us, understands our weaknesses and has compassion on us (Psalm 103 -- He remembers that we are dust). Just as His perfect wisdom is part of His grace, the more we understand about a situation, the better we will be able to extend grace.
Another corollary take-away is that God knows what we will be like in our redeemed, perfected state, and He is willing to work with us and help us until we attain perfection, which won't be until eternity (1 John 3:2). We are called to trust God, to work with Him on our sanctification (becoming more Christlike), and to grow in the grace we receive from Him, extending it to other fallen beings in the world around us. Believe that God is working in others, just as He is working in you.
If you still struggle to forgive, spend some time meditating on how much you have been forgiven. When we grasp what great things the Lord has done for us, it frees us to love as we have been loved, totally undeserving.