Do you have an emotional wound that has never healed? Maybe someone wronged you or a loved one years ago, and the injury remains. From time to time, similar situations bring the painful emotions right back to the surface. Close friends and family members may have lost patience with your inability to move on. You, too, wonder how much longer the suffering will last. My friend, freedom from hurt and anger comes only through complete forgiveness. But perhaps you have resisted taking that action because of some common misunderstandings about what forgiveness means.
Clearing up some confusion
One of the stumbling blocks to actually forgiving others is the wrong information that has entered our theology. The first concept we need to clear up is this: Is justifying, understanding, or explaining away someone’s behavior the same as forgiving him? Perhaps you can understand that your “brother” was under a lot of stress when he raised his voice to you in front of customers, but is that the same as forgiving him? Certainly not.
Another mistaken idea is that time heals all wounds. This is one of the most misused and damaging clichés I’ve heard. How could the passage of time or the process of forgetting lead to forgiveness? If it were the healing factor, those who endured hurt as children would no longer suffer as the decades passed. Yet we know that many adults still struggle with emotional scars received during childhood.
Here is another misunderstanding: Forgiving others means denying that we have been hurt or pretending that an offense was no big deal. This form of denial works against the healing process. It ignores the real physical, mental, or emotional pain that others have caused us.
Another misconception is that to forgive others, we must go to them personally and articulate our forgiveness. Pardoning in person usually causes more problems than it solves. I rarely counsel someone to express forgiveness this way unless the other party has requested it. God forgave us long before we ever asked for it. He pardons us for sins we will never confess (1 John 1:9). In the same way, we are free to forgive others without explaining that we have done so.
I say rarely because there are occasions when confession of this type is appropriate. Keep in mind that telling others you have forgiven them and actually forgiving them are usually two separate actions. Ideally, forgiving others should begin at the time we are offended or soon thereafter, whereas verbalizing that we’ve done so may take place later. In other words, we can extend mercy without waiting for someone to ask for it.
We should express our forgiveness if one of two situations occurs. First, we should do so if the other party requests it. This helps clear his or her conscience and offers the assurance that we do not hold a grudge.
Second, we should express forgiveness if we feel the Lord would have us confront others about their sin.The affront may have been directed against us personally or against someone we love. In the course of conversation, we may need to offer assurance that they’ve been forgiven and that we’re coming more for their sake than ours. But remember, our purpose should never be to force someone to ask forgiveness—when we confront others about their sin, the issue must first be settled in our own hearts.
Forgiveness is much more than just saying some words in a prayer or putting time between us and the event. It is a process that involves understanding the mercy God has shown in our life and recognizing how that applies to those who have hurt us.
We will know we have forgiven when . . .
Several things occur once the forgiveness process is complete. First, our negative feelings will disappear.We will not feel the same way when we run into these people on the street or in the office. Harsh feelings will be replaced by concern, pity, or empathy, but not resentment.
Second, we will find it much easier to accept the people who have hurt us without feeling the need to change them. We will be willing to take them just the way they are. Once the blinders of resentment have been removed from our eyes, we will have a new appreciation for their situation and motivation.
Third, concern about our offenders’ needs will outweigh concern about what they did to us. Instead of concentrating only on ourselves, we will be able to see that the individuals who have hurt us are people with legitimate needs of their own.
You can experience liberty from old wounds that now hold you in bondage. When the Holy Spirit reminds you of those who need your forgiveness, don’t ignore His still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12 KJV). Find the courage and strength to face the past, and willingly release others from the emotional debts you might feel they owe you. Only then will you know genuine freedom from bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness.