There is a man I once knew whose name I don’t mention, and whose face I choose not to remember. He messed up my perception of who I was. He took a part of my innocence. What he did ruined any hope for a healthy sexual relationship during the first few years of marriage. The man who used me when I was twelve years old was the first person who really wounded my spirit, and my first real lesson in forgiveness.
Don’t laugh- or do, and that would be okay, too- but the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about forgiving the “hard” people is one of the original Veggie Tales episodes- “God Wants Me to Forgive Them?!?”
Because isn’t that how we feel when someone hurts us? “But God, you don’t understand what they did…” Surely I am justified in getting even, being angry, licking my wounds, whatever I feel like doing in light of this pain. I know that God is a forgiver, but I am human, and God knows that. Surely He isn’t serious that I should forgive “Them?” Maybe I’ll forgive that person that cut me off in traffic or the person who offended me at work, and God will be proud of me, but I most definitely don’t want to forgive my ex-spouse who cheated me or cheated on me, the person who verbally/emotionally/physically/sexually abused me, or the person who gossiped about me and completely ruined my reputation. Surely He doesn’t expect me to.
Scripture on forgiveness abounds- we should forgive as Christ forgave us, love our enemies and pray for those who use us, forgive seventy times seven times. Indeed before we even come to confess faith in Jesus, our first lesson of Him is His forgiveness of sin through His sacrifice on the Cross. And yet, it’s a common theme in Scripture because we still struggle to understand it. Many can’t receive the forgiveness God offers because they can’t reconcile the mistakes of their past. Many can’t forgive another person because it feels like forgiveness means pretending the offense didn’t happen and that the offender is let off the hook. Why do I have to suffer and they don’t? We can’t reconcile the injustice. And, we are all familiar with the phrase “forgive and forget”- not in Scripture, by the way- and we either can’t forget or don’t want to.
Here are some things I’ve learned about what forgiveness is NOT.
1. Forgiveness does not mean ignoring our own pain. I cannot express how much I hate expressions like “Just suck it up”. For years children were taught that crying was weakness, their problems were unimportant, the adults in their life had more important things to do than listen to their whining, and they just needed to “suck it up” or “grow up.” Those lessons stay with them in adulthood. What is the result of that type of upbringing? People who don’t know how to express how they feel- often the words are not even in their vocabulary. They believe something is wrong with emotions, so when they are sad, fearful, insecure, or anxious, they stuff those things down inside and struggle to smile on the outside and “suck it up”. Often they end up having problems with anger, but have no idea why.
God made us emotional beings! Emotions are simply thermometers- they can give us an indication of what our true thoughts and level of passion about a situation are, but we can’t let the emotions decide what the temperature is going to be. We can’t let emotions lead or control us. Lysa Terkeurst said, “Emotions are indicators, not dictators,” and I love that description. In counseling lingo, we should “Feel, then deal.” Allow yourself to feel the emotions inside of you caused by the person who hurt you, and then decide what course of action you need to take.
Sometimes it’s a simple conversation, or learning to set boundaries with a person if they repeatedly hurt you even after loving confrontation. Other times, and particularly with the “tough” situations of life such as those I listed above, there may be multiple steps that include processing with a friend or counselor, praying, writing out Scripture, or getting in a support group. But whatever you do, give yourself permission to feel what you feel, good and bad alike. You can feel like killing them, even, and that’s ok. It’s just a higher temperature on the thermometer- a feeling– it doesn’t mean you’re really about to go and grab the butcher knife.
2. Forgiveness is not protecting the offender from consequences. Oh man, I wish I had known this a long time ago. Proverbs 3:12 tells us “the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.” God disciplines when there is wrongdoing, and while we are called to forgive, protecting someone from natural consequences of their actions, even if those are severe and of a legal nature, is enabling. It enables them to feel that their sin is ok, and that they can continue in it. In one of my relationships, the individual had a sinful habit that I continued to forgive, and never brought to light, believing I was loving that person. Unfortunately, every act of forgiveness, while it seemed to bring change in them for a season, never resulted in long term change, but in that person indulging in the sin more often and more excessively.
James 1:14-15 says “…each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” In chapter 5 verse 20 he says, “remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” Sometimes bringing sin to light or allowing it to come to light, or to have a consequence, is the most Biblically loving thing we can do.
3. Forgiveness is not forgetting. This goes hand in hand with number one. We can’t just ignore that something has happened to us. I tried for several years to “forgive and forget” what happened to me when I was twelve. I had to continue to interact with the offender, so I worked hard to “stuff” what had happened down inside and just pray that God would take that hurt away. But, as I got older I began to realize that I struggled in relationships. A LOT. I was one person at home, one at school, and one at church, and I didn’t know which one was really me. Finally, I confessed what had happened and began to talk about it. Only then did I really begin to heal.
Scripture says God forgets our sin, but he can do that because he is God. Because we remember a hurt that was done to us we may feel we haven’t forgiven, but forgiving and forgetting aren’t mutually exclusive. I can forgive and still remember and learn from the bad experience.
If you know you need to begin the journey of forgiving someone who has badly wounded you in your past, read “Forgiveness 101: Simple Steps to Letting it Go.” Here I describe some foundational principles of forgiveness. Keep in mind that in your situation, these steps may have to be repeated over and over, and in some situations it’s lifelong, such as when you have to continue to interact with the person who hurt you and they are not repentant. Please don’t hesitate to seek out a good, Godly counselor. We often feel like going to a counselor is an admission of weakness, but really it takes strength to submit yourself to that kind of a process.
Healing from a severe emotional trauma is a lot like healing from a physical one. The wound has to be cleaned (yucky emotions released), which can be genuinely painful, but has to happen in order for the wound to heal without infection (long term personal damage from mistrust, bitterness, fear, anger, etc). Sometimes we need a professional to help with the cleaning (counselor, doctor, pastor), and sometimes we even need surgery. Bandages may need to be changed and medications applied regularly (God’s Word prayer), and we may need people to help with that, too. It can take time, and patience, usually there is still pain for quite a while, and we may temporarily lose use of the injured part. Eventually, pain begins to subside, wounds close, and we are left with a scar. And a story. And only you can decide how your story will end.