Grace is unmerited favor delivered through forgiveness, acceptance and sharing. As we receive God’s grace, He asks that we extend it to others. Yet grace is far easier to talk about than to live out. For example, consider the first component of grace: forgiveness. Why should we forgive others when they have seriously hurt us?
“If you forgive others the wrongs they have done, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father.” – Matthew 6:14-15
We must forgive to be forgiven ourselves. The command to forgive is as essential to our health as is the quality of our rest, exercise and nutrition. Think about how our physical bodies function when we incur an injury. The safest remedy is to clean the wound to prevent infection. If the wound becomes infected it must be treated, and the longer the wound is left untreated the more the infection spreads until the results are fatal.
When we’re wounded emotionally, we must also clean the wound, and the only way to do that is to forgive. Otherwise, the wound will expand, infecting other areas of our lives. We probably won’t feel like forgiving at all. It might be the most difficult thing we’ve ever done, but followers of Jesus respond regardless of their feelings.
What do we mean when we say “forgive?” It may be helpful to note first what forgiving is not. Forgiving is not avoiding dealing with an incident. That brand of indifference creates greater conflict down the road.
Forgiving is also not agreeing with the wrong that was done. Some people might think saying, “I forgive you” really means, “What you have done isn’t wrong.” But that’s not the case at all. We don’t have to worry that forgiving someone for anything will mean we agree with what was done.
Forgiving simply means letting go of the wrong that was done to us. We give it to God, we no longer hold it against the person and we move on in our relationship. In the process, we free ourselves from the slavery of bitterness and resentment, no matter how much we have been hurt.
“And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.’” – Luke 23:33-34
When we refuse to forgive, we do terrible damage to ourselves. An unforgiving attitude limits our creativity, constricts our sense of humor and saps our enjoyment of life. Perhaps most tragically, refusing to forgive reduces our ability to love others — even those whom we don’t need to forgive.
We say it’s hard to forgive, but forgiving makes life easier, not harder. Corrie Ten Boom, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, points out the physical consequences of not forgiving.
“I knew [forgiving] not only as a commandment of God, but as daily experience. Since the end of the war I had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were also able to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.”
One notable example of forgiveness was demonstrated by Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. A friend of Barton’s once reminded her of something especially cruel that someone had done to her years before, but Clara didn’t seem to recall the incident. “Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked.
“No,” came the reply, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.”
“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” – Colossians 3:12-13
But what happens when we’re wounded afresh, when feelings of outrage and pain arise even more intensely than before? Do we have to forgive again?
Sometimes the pain may be retrieved from the subconscious. Impressions stored in our long-term memory can be recalled years later. A name, a room or a smell may trigger the memory of that horrible experience you thought you had put behind you. You may wonder, Maybe I never really forgave the first time. But don’t be discouraged. Experiencing the feelings again doesn’t mean you never forgave the first time. And feelings in themselves aren’t wrong — it’s what we choose to do with those feelings that makes the difference.
“Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’” – Matthew 18:21-22
When hurtful memories appear and the issue is reopened, there is only one way to keep the door closed. We must forgive again. It is the only way we can put the past behind us and start anew.