Practical Application of the Word of God
We’ve all heard many sermons on the subject of forgiveness and we have Jesus Christ’s instructions about our responsibility to forgive throughout the gospel accounts in the Bible.
However, actually forgiving someone who has hurt us, wronged us, betrayed us, injured us, or offended us is not always a single, black-and-white, “one-and-done” event.
I have never yet heard a sermon that addresses those times in life where forgiveness, like repentance, like overcoming, like converting is a process that takes, not just God’s spirit, but time and distance to fully accomplish.
And that is what I want to discuss today.
Because I’ve gone through a few instances in my life where my ability to forgive, even with God’s spirit to help, was a process and took time and distance to fully accomplish.
And it was a daily process that I prayed and entreated God about continually. And each time the wound of hurt reopened and all the anger and resentment and pain of that hurt resurfaced, despite my heartfelt prayers and pleas to God to enable me to forgive, I felt like a spiritual failure.
I began questioning my own spiritual converting process. Was I just a pretender? Had I not really received God’s spirit at baptism? Had I been deceiving myself and now that something really hard was entrenched in my life the lie was being exposed?
Deep in my soul, I desperately wanted to forgive in each of these situations. And, yet, it seemed the more I wanted to forgive, the more difficult it was to do.
And based on all the sermons I’ve ever heard about forgiveness, the fact that my forgiveness wasn’t immediate meant something was terribly wrong with me spiritually.
Talk about stress upon stress! God gave me the strength not to just throw my hands up and say “I quit!,” but the effort and the process took a huge toll on me that, in some ways, I suppose the effects of will linger the rest of my life.
So I want to take this experience and give you some encouragement if you’re going through a situation where forgiveness is a process.
As I look back on my experiences, I can’t help but be reminded of one of the most powerful examples of the on-going process – which took at least 45 years – of forgiveness from someone I love, respect, and admire: my mom.
My mom’s childhood was one of early loss (both parents were dead by the time she was six years old), verbal and emotional abuse and no love and affection, along with outright cruelty (from the aunt she lived with after her father died).
My mom endured twelve years in an environment so toxic, so hate-filled, and so painful that the damage that was incurred was never completely repaired in this life and the residue went with her to the grave in 2012 to be healed – at long last (something I very much look forward to seeing) – in the resurrection.
But, with God’s help, my mom worked over 40 years through the anger, the pain, the hurt, the bitterness, the resentment toward the end result of forgiveness of this aunt. I heard and saw it from the time I was old enough to be aware of it. I watched it happen over the course of my time with my mom.
It was not easy. Some days, the anger and the tears were front and center. Other days, the pain was so palpable that I almost experienced it the way my mom had. And then, other days, there were the doubts and the questioning: “What did I do wrong?” “Why did she hate me so much?” “Why did everyone leave me?”
But with God’s help, a lot of time, and a lot of distance (my mom never saw this aunt after her 27th birthday), my mom was finally able to forgive her aunt. I will never forget watching that part of the process as it was happening and being absolutely amazed at the power of God’s spirit as it worked with my mom.
My mom was never able to forget – that, too, awaits the resurrection – but she was able to forgive as completely as a human being is able to forgive. That was a miracle. But it was also a process.
I, on the other hand, have never been much of one to hold grudges and to not let things go. I’m aware of my own desperate need for mercy, for forgiveness, as well as my capacity to totally screw things up without even trying, so recognizing my own need seemed to make forgiveness easier and more immediate for me.
Until the things which required me to forgive hit in times when I was totally vulnerable and already in excruciating pain. And then forgiveness eluded me completely.
What bothered me the most was that I was already well into the converting process when these happened, so my failure to immediately forgive devastated me and filled me with anguish, questioning, and actually a lot of self-hatred because I felt like a hypocrite, a pretender, and the worst person on the planet.
At the time, I completely forgot and lost sight of my mom’s process of forgiveness (and have only remembered it recently as I’ve been thinking about this post).
I remember going to God over and over and over and saying “I’m sorry…I want to forgive and I’m failing…please don’t give on me…help me,” followed by sobbing as I recognized my own human limitations and weaknesses, as well as recognizing how unprepared I was to handle the emotional firestorms that were raining down on me (I’ve always been quite good at controlling and stuffing down my emotions, and these times when I was unable to do that threw me for a loop).
But in these cases, forgiveness was a process that taught me lessons that I could not have learned any other way. They were painful lessons, but they were necessary lessons. And they made me more tender-hearted and merciful toward others when I seeing them struggling to forgive.
And I believe that is the purpose that God has when forgiveness is not immediate, but instead is a process.
We are driven into exhaustive and rigorous self-examination when forgiveness does not come quickly or easily.
The first question is always “why?” Is it a lack of love? A lack of faith? A lack of God’s spirit? A lack of mercy? A lack of the willingness to do for others what God through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice has done for me?
Those are scary questions because they cut to the heart of who we claim to be, what we claim to believe, and who we claim to follow.
For me, the inevitable train of thought went like this: “If I believed I could do this and I can’t, then what else have I deceived myself into believing about myself that’s not true?”
That forgiveness was a process created a tumultuous spiritual crisis for me, that except for God’s help and intervention, had the potential of absolutely destroying me.
And that was unnecessary, but it was because no one ever explained that sometimes forgiveness is not immediate, but instead a process and that process is part of spiritual growth and maturity.
Please understand that I’m not throwing stones here at all the sermons I’ve heard on the subject. The reality is that you and I will not know that forgiveness, at times, is a long process, unless we’ve actually experienced it.
On the other hand, though, I think it takes a lot of courage to admit that there are times in our lives where forgiveness has not been immediate, automatic, and easy.
It seems to me that it’s hardly possible that those giving sermons on forgiveness haven’t experienced that at least once, but to address this aspect of forgiveness means revealing their own humanity and weakness – which we all have – and that seems to be a no-no for a lot of the ministry.
I’m not really sure why because Christ wasn’t afraid to show His humanity and vulnerability and we know from Hebrews 4 that we have a High Priest who can empathize (I believe that’s the right word instead of “sympathize,” which means not actually having experienced, but commiserating with the effects, while empathy is “I’ve been there, done that”) with all our weaknesses.
But, I suppose that’s just another human weakness that will need to be healed when Christ returns. Until then, it may be up to those of us who’ve been through forgiveness as a process to encourage our brothers and sisters in the faith who are experiencing the same thing.
I promise forgiveness will happen when you’re willing and working diligently, asking God to help every step of the way, to forgive.
It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. It may not be next week. It may not be next month. It may not be next year.
But your job – and my job – is to endure, to persevere, to literally walk hand-in-hand with God through the process until He grants us the favor we need to forgive.
Don’t quit. And don’t give up.