Tag Archives: Forgiveness

Why We Won’t Forgive – Part 2

A while back I started a blog conversation about forgiveness by telling my personal story. Not only did I share about the incredible freedom I found in forgiveness, but I also described a huge obstacle I faced in that process: forgiveness was nearly impossible for me to give when the offending party didn’t admit he or she was wrong.

But there are a number of other reasons why we won’t forgive.

© Phil Date

I’ll never forget the night I was interrupted at church. It was several years ago and I was wrapping up a talk to a youth group about forgiveness when I was suddenly cut off (haven’t you always wanted to interject your point at church?!). The young man doing the interrupting was in foster care, and while I’d just been learning his story, I knew it was tragic. His dad was so physically abusive that he could no longer live with his family.

I’d been talking about Jesus’ words, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” when he just blurted out from the back of the room, “I won’t do that. I won’t forgive my dad.”

His honesty and raw emotion were gut wrenching. The room fell silent as he conveyed something that’s felt by many who have suffered terrible hurt and abuse: if I forgive, it would be like saying what that person did was OK.

It’s understandable why we feel this way. Our minds want to equate forgiveness with acceptance, so we come up with several arguments about “why we won’t forgive”:

  • It would be the same as saying what they did wasn’t wrong.
  • Others would think we’re being tolerant of their hurtful actions.
  • It would give them permission to keep hurting us or others.
  • They’d never be held accountable for their actions.
  • We’d have to pretend like none of this ever happened.

But those arguments are built on a faulty premise.

As I discussed in my first blog on this topic, forgiveness is never about giving a pass to a wrongdoer. Real forgiveness has to do with letting go of our hatred toward the offending party, and letting go of our right to be that person’s judge, jury and jailer. It has to do with trusting God with the offense and the offender, believing, “I can let go, because I believe God will bring whatever justice is necessary.”

When we discover the true nature of forgiveness, we begin to understand:

  • Forgiveness never erases accountability for actions. Just because I let go of my right to be someone’s judge, it doesn’t mean the offending party shouldn’t face a real judge.
  • Forgiveness and boundaries are not mutually exclusive. When I forgive someone, I may also need to create healthy boundaries (for a season or forever) so that person doesn’t continue to inflict pain.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t minimize the reality of the hurt; it maximizes the reality that God is able to deal with both the hurt and the one who inflicted it.

I wish I’d been more fully aware of the nature of forgiveness the night I was interrupted. My prayer is that someone has come alongside that wounded young man to help him discover: forgiveness doesn’t free others from the responsibility of their actions; it frees us from self-destructive rage and pain.

Unforgiveness is a soul-eating bacteria — but the good news is that the antibiotic is available to all, and is effective no matter how deep the wound.

Questions to ask:

  • Is there anyone I’ve refused to forgive?
  • Why have I chosen to hold on to unforgiveness?
  • Can I trust God to deal with the one who hurt me?
  • What pain do I need to let go of today?
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Letting Go of the Rope (My Struggle with Forgiveness)

When I was a kid and would get into arguments with my younger brother or sister, my mom enacted swift justice. She’d pronounce guilt, then immediately make the offending party (usually me) say to the one who’d been aggrieved: “You were right. I was wrong.”

Then, whether we wanted to or not, the other would have to respond: “I forgive you.”

That was it. Clean and simple. I might have still been seething inside, wanting to throttle my sibling (either because the court of family justice had once again let me down, or because I really hadn’t forgiven anything), but it was done. Time to move on. This must simply be how forgiveness works.

Gripping the Rope

While life did move on, my views of forgiveness didn’t. I continued to deal with petty failures (others or my own) through this same kind of framework for forgiveness: one party admits fault, the other says all is forgiven, and you just move on.

That seemed to work until about 11 years ago.

Over the course of about a year we could tell that my dad was slowly imploding. He saw his worldwide marriage ministry taking significant hits, and life seemed to be crashing in around him. So, battling depression and feelings of deep rejection, after more than 30 years of ministry and 40 years of marriage, my dad split.

It was a very public and hurtful divorce. It quickly became an illustration in multiple news sources of “another minister who couldn’t keep his own marriage together.”

I was livid. As a son, I watched my mom go through incredible pain and embarrassment; as a father, I watched my three young children go through deep sadness and questioning; and as a person, I had my own hurt and anger to deal with. Lots of anger.

After two emotionally charged phone calls with my dad, we stopped talking altogether. We resorted to lengthy diatribes via email in which I was furiously attempting to prove his wrongness and he was just as forcefully defending his decision. We were at a bitter impasse—one that, after several weeks, was literally making me sick.

I discovered that the deeper my hurt, the tighter I wanted to squeeze the life out of the one who had caused my pain. I felt it was my right (maybe even my duty) to keep a choke hold on my dad until it either killed him or forced him to admit his sin.

Then along came a friend, a counselor, who began to gently probe around the edges of my wounds. As he graciously helped me process my anger, he had me imagine what forgiveness might look like in my situation. At first I didn’t even think it was possible—after all, my dad hadn’t said the magic words: “I was wrong. You were right.” Without the admission of his guilt, what was there to forgive?

But the pain in my soul urged me forward and I began investigating the concept of forgiveness. In the weeks that followed I began deconstructing my old, immature views of forgiveness, while building a new, transformative understanding of this life-giving process.

Two things helped more than any other.

First, I turned to Jesus’ words and discovered I’d been ignorant as to what forgiveness truly meant. As I went to the root meaning of the words he’d used to talk about forgiveness, I found they literally meant: “Let go.”

There are many examples of this truth, but one that rocked me started in Luke 6:37. The exact word Jesus used when he said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” was also used by Pilate before he sentenced Jesus to death. In John 19:10, Pilate said “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

This concept revolutionized my thinking about forgiveness, especially because my hands were so tightly gripping my dad’s throat (figuratively, but barely). Like Pilate, I could extend either freedom or death. It was in my power to forgive, whether or not my dad ever acknowledged any wrongdoing.

I could feel God gently asking me to let him go—not pretending my dad hadn’t caused real pain—but urging me to loosen my grip so I could release him (and my hurts) to God.

I found it came down to an issue of trust. Did I trust Jesus to handle this situation, or did I trust myself more? Did I trust God to judge my dad and bring any needed correction, or did I assume I would do a better job as judge and jailer?

I chose to trust the Lord with my dad, and slowly began the process of letting go. Forgiveness had begun.

The second thing that helped me greatly was coming across an illustration about forgiveness from 20th Century saint, Corrie ten Boom. Corrie’s family members had all died at the hands of the Nazi’s during the Second World War—she was the lone survivor. But her realization that God’s grace is greater than any evil allowed her to become a beacon of hope for millions in the decades after the war.

Corrie said this about forgiveness: “If you have ever seen a country church with a bell in the steeple, you will remember that to get the bell ringing you have to tug awhile. Once it has begun to ring, you merely maintain the momentum. As long as you keep pulling, the bell keeps ringing. Forgiveness is letting go of the rope. It is just that simple. But when you do so, the bell keeps ringing. Momentum is still at work. However, if you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stop.”

Corrie’s words not only affirmed the reality that forgiveness means letting go, but also clarified that this wasn’t simply a one-time act that would immediately free me from all pain. Forgiveness was going to be a daily commitment to keep my hands off my dad’s throat, and that eventually the pain would subside. She was right.

While the pain I went through with my parent’s divorce doesn’t scratch the surface of what many have endured, others have let me know that these concepts about letting go have helped them as well.

Can you imagine what forgiveness might look like in your situation? Whose throat are you squeezing? Could you trust Jesus with your pain and those who caused it? Who do you need to let go of to find peace for your soul?

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The Next Best Day

I recently heard someone pose these brilliant questions and answers:

When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.

When is the next best time to plant a tree? Today.

All of us have things we wish we would have done long ago.

  • Started that diet
  • Asked for forgiveness
  • Begun a retirement fund
  • Brought a meal to a neighbor
  • Made good on a promise
  • Practiced to run a 5k
  • Sent a love note

The problem is that we get so frustrated with ourselves for what we haven’t done that we become frozen do-nothings. And we come up with self-defeating arguments that keep us stuck: “I can’t start now. It’s been too long. People wouldn’t understand. I’m too old/fat/poor/sick/__________. I’d look ridiculous. It wouldn’t amount to anything.”

This kind of thinking keeps us stuck in a life-sucking, downward spiral of regret:

Frustration → Regret → Stuckness → More Frustration → Repeat →

My Broken Promise

I’d just finished high school when I had the opportunity to travel with a group from my church to Papua New Guinea. We worked for a month on a construction project and had an amazing time getting to meet so many loving people from this beautiful island nation.

Just before we departed for home, the people we’d met threw us a huge party. We feasted and laughed, and were humbled by the gifts they gave. One young man presented me with a beautiful bow and arrow set he had hand crafted. I didn’t have anything to give in return, so I asked if there was something I could send him from home. He was a Bible college student and really wanted a particular study Bible that would help him in his studies. Of course I promised that I’d send one right away.

Unfortunately when I got home I forgot about my promise for several weeks. Then when I remembered, I went to a bookstore I assumed would have the Bible he wanted — of course they didn’t (this was way before Amazon.com!). My busyness and regular forgetfulness caused months to slip by, and by that time I began to become embarrassed as well. I told myself, “The guy already thinks I’m a jerk, and he probably doesn’t even need the book anymore. I’d look stupid for sending it so late. I’ll just chalk this up as a life lesson and I’ll try to remember to not be an idiot next time.”

But as months turned into years, the thought of this unmet promise continued to nag at me — not constantly, but periodically I’d find myself thinking about how I hadn’t fulfilled what I said I would do.

It wasn’t until 20 years later that I finally came to the end of myself — and the end of this destructive thinking and behavior — and immediately wrote a check to go to the library of that young man’s Bible college in PNG. I knew, of course, that he may never find out that I attempted to right the wrong — but I was no longer stuck. What a great feeling!

Getting Free from Stuckness

How can we break free from this “cycle of stuckness”? Here are three thoughts to help us get moving in the right direction.

1. If I’m regretting something I’ve left undone in the past, it’s a strong indicator I should still deal with it.

There are thousands of things we could have done differently in our past. But out of all those decisions, there are probably only a small handful that really stick with us and bring regret. Those are the ones we should put on our “DO TODAY” list.

2. God gives me the strength to do what I need to do today, not to go back and relive the past.

Quit regretting past mistakes. We can’t go back in time to fix those things, but God has given us today! And God’s grace is available to us now to do what we need to do.

The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).

3. Do it now — right now!

Don’t let another minute go by without taking irreversible action to do what needs to be done. Go pick up the phone, start the letter, or buy the running shoes! Don’t wait and let the regret grow. Take care of it now. What’s the worst that could happen? Who cares — it’s better than living a life stuck in regret.

Today is the next best day to do what we should have done before! Now go plant a tree.

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The Beauty of Discontinuity

I’ve read that Elton John likes flowers. A lot. In 2000 he testified in court that in a 20 month span he’d spent £293,000 on floral arrangements (that’s over $30,000 a month in today’s US dollars).

That leaves just one question in my mind. What do you buy Elton for Valentines?

For most people, receiving flowers is quite special. The blend of surprise, thoughtfulness and beauty interrupts their day and warms their heart. The gift is beautifully discontinuous with everything that is mundane and normal about life.

But for Elton, he’s constantly surrounded by flowers. They are part of his normative, to-be-expected, day-to-day reality. It would take something substantially different to positively capture his attention.

Jesus seemed to understand this human dynamic. He knew that people needed to be jolted out of their everyday expectations, so he acted in ways that were beautifully discontinuous to the world around him. He surprised people with conversation and action in ways that completely arrested their attention. He touched the leper, he forgave the sinner, he fed the hungry, he raised the dead, and he spoke not just with wisdom and authority, but with real love.

Jesus was shockingly redemptive, but shocking nonetheless.

That reality is captured in a story of Jesus shattering the ethnic and gender barriers of his day by having a conversation with a Samaritan woman. He began by simply asking her for a drink of water, then we read…

The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?” John 4:9

And Jesus continued to surprise her, a stranger, by telling her about her life and relational brokenness. That beautiful discontinuity jolted her from the routine of her daily pain and struggle and proved to be a key for her to find real freedom.

We also discover that Jesus taught his followers to live in ways that are shockingly discontinuous to the norms of the world as well. He taught us that by shattering the world’s expectations in redemptive ways, we’ll show that we are truly his.

If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.
If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.
If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.
Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.
You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor’”and hate your enemy.
But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!
In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:39-45

When is the last time I surprised someone with a redemptive act? When have I broken free from the mundane continuity of my own day-to-day existence to shock someone with blessing? When, by my actions, has someone thought I look anything like Jesus?

I don’t know about Elton, but I can’t wait until Valentines to surprise my wife. The flowers are coming today.

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Good Gifts

I admit it. Sometime when I read the Bible, I skim over the parts that seem almost like “throwaways”. You know. The genealogies, greetings and the sort. They can seem like the obligatory copyright and table-of-contents before you get to the start of a story.

This was happening the other night as I started to read the book of Ephesians. The first couple verses read like, “Paul…blah, blah, blah…Ephesus…blah, blah, blah…grace and peace…blah, blah, blah.”

But after reading a bit further, my eyes flitted back to “grace and peace”. I read verse two over several times…

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It was as if Paul was just handing out gifts to the readers of his letter — reaching in to a spiritual bag of presents, looking for what would be most needed and appreciated. I can almost hear Paul saying, “Here’s some grace for you. And some peace for you. These are from Dad. He thought you’d like them.”

Before Christ came, it was primarily angels and prophets who spoke such blessings. But after Jesus gave his Spirit to us, we are the ones who are charged with declaring grace and peace to the world around us.

Some of the most profound gifts I’ve ever received have been blessings from Christ, spoken by another. And these were not just words — they were animated by the Spirit of God himself to become life to me. They were just what I needed. “You are forgiven.” “You’re going to make it.” “I love you.”

This Christmas, maybe the greatest gifts we’ll pass out to others won’t be those wrapped with bows. They’ll be the ones spoken from the heart, prompted by God, to meet a need of the soul.

Is there someone in your life — a neighbor, a child, a parent, a co-worker, an enemy — who desperately needs to hear Christ’s heart for them? Will you speak it, write it, text it, sing it?

“The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewelry.” Proverbs 25:11 (MSG)

Spread hope this Christmas!

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