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?

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.

When the World Out-Forgives the Church…

Not sure what you think of these two icons of the silver screen — but when Iron Man asks Hollywood to forgive William Wallace, it’s pretty cool. (Actually it’s Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson, but IM & WW sound cooler.)

  • What might this act of radical grace look like in your context or mine?
  • Who is “beyond hope” that may need another chance?
  • Who has forgiven you for your failures?
  • Who might you sponsor in forgiveness?

Watch this video and meditate on Luke 6:37.

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven” (NLT).


What could disqualify someone from ministry leadership? Permanently?

Maybe a better question would be: are there people so broken that they can not be restored?

My hope — and I believe God’s heart — is that no matter what the offense, restoration is not only possible, but should be the ultimate goal. But things get tricky and sticky when it comes to how we do “church life”, and often people are permanently sidelined after failure. Why is this the case?

  • There’s hard work involved. Restoration is often a messy, lengthy process, and leaders dread wading into these challenging waters.
  • Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…and so on. We are fearful that people will be repeat offenders, and we don’t want the backwash of their continued failure to splash polluted water on to our “clean” reputations.
  • We just don’t want to be associated with the brokenness of others. If I embrace you, offense and all, people may assume that I tolerate your sin (gasp!) and this would be a negative reflection on me (double gasp!).
  • The church often reflects a shame-based culture. When someone blows it, there must be something inherently wrong with them (as if there isn’t something inherently wrong with me). We label those people as failures, as shameful examples of what “not to be”.

A friend has experienced something like this over the past year. A qualified and skilled ministry leader, he went through a dark season, during which he made a bad decision that snowballed a bit before he “woke up” and put an end to it. I had the privilege of walking with him during that time and since. I was so proud of him for going back to each person involved and making it right, choosing to swallow his pride and walk in repentance. The whole episode lasted no longer than two weeks, and he came out of it stronger and more humble than before.

But over a year later, my friend’s pastor won’t even consider him for a ministry role. There’s just no place for him. He’s disqualified. Worse yet, there’s no pathway of restoration being made available to him. In his pastor’s mind, he’s permanently disqualified.

Can’t we just admit that we’re all broken people in need of grace? We all need the hope of restoration. And discarding those who fail is plain stupid (oops…did I just say that?!).

Part of the problem of maintaining a shame-based, rather than a grace-based culture is that people will go to great lengths to hide their issues. Oh, they still have them. They just fear the permanent shame they believe will be brought about by exposure. My fear of marginalization usually exceeds my desire to walk in honesty.

Are there times when someone’s habitual failure should sideline them for a season? Yes, I believe so. Leaders have the responsibility to protect the community — both the one who is currently weak as well as those who could be negatively impacted by his or her failings. But even then, restoration should be the goal of a season on the sidelines.

I’ve recently been reminded of the need for a grace-based church culture in a profound book, Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness. I’m not sure how this book, authored by pastor Jerry Cook, had escaped my reading for so long. But I’m really glad I picked it up…and I’ve bought and passed out dozens of other copies. Pick up your own copy and get ready to live differently. There is a world of broken people who are waiting for us.

(Photo credit: Ramzi Hashisho)


Recently, in early morning hours, my dreams turned dark. Hell-fueled thoughts sank deeply into my restless mind as I slept – all pummeling me with blows of rejection. In those dreams I experienced the most severe sense of rejection I’d ever felt, yet my waking did nothing to alleviate this life-sapping pain. For some time I lay in the dark, wrestling with this evil, unsuccessfully trying to work my way back to some semblance of self-worth; fighting in vain to regain hope.

At the end of myself, I feebly whispered my plight to Jesus. It wasn’t a prayer, but a half-hearted affirmation of what I believed to be true: that I am simply accepted by Him.

What took place over the next hours was life altering. The light of God invaded my soul, not only chasing away the dark lies of the enemy, but replacing them with a flood of His truth. I grabbed a notepad and began to document this truth encounter.

May what follows restore hope to you as it did to me.

* * * * * * * * * * *

God’s love is manifested in His complete acceptance of me.

His acceptance of me is not based on my ability, my perfection, my good looks, my success, my righteousness, my history or pedigree, my wittiness or humor, my keeping-up-appearances, my status, my intellect, my anything.

This is why He tells us that NOTHING can separate us from His love.

I spend so much of my life working to earn my way into acceptance, when all He wants to do is throw His arms open and WELCOME me into the most precious, deep and intimate of relationships – where I am my beloved’s and He is mine. He is the bridegroom waiting for His bride. His banner over me – the one He is longing to wave over ME – is love.

This perfect place of acceptance was seen in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. Nothing hidden. Nothing to prove before God or each other. Only knowing complete acceptance at every turn. No fear. No wondering. No striving. Just complete and utter acceptance.

Sin shattered acceptance. Fear came. Feelings of rejection came. The need to hide, both from God and each other, came. And it was the corruptness of pride that led to this travesty. Lucifer’s sin had been evidenced by his unwillingness to simply be accepted by God; he wanted to BE God. And this same pride-fueled brokenness now oozed into the soul of man. Truth was overshadowed by want. Wholeness was overshadowed by separation. And when the “apple” was eaten, taken in, swallowed, worshiped, idol-made (for hope was placed in that which was inanimate; hope for more; hope for a deeper, better existence; hope for a heightened identity apart from God), sin entered man’s story. And sin shatters acceptance.

The remainder of history – from the Garden until now – is the story of God’s restorative work. His mission is to reclaim all that has been lost, not only redeeming humanity to Himself, but man’s relationship to man as well. His mission is nothing short of the full restoration of acceptance, where nothing stands between us and God; where fig leaves (our feeble attempts to mask our gross inadequacies) are not needed; where shame and fear, separateness and rejection are eclipsed by the fullness of forgiveness, love and acceptance.

History culminated in the person of Jesus. The incarnation: God as one of us. Immanuel: God is with us. Jesus was, and is, the full and perfect representation of God Himself, fully manifesting His heart and His mission: to complete the possibility of restoration. Jesus came to audaciously proclaim, “YOU ARE ACCEPTED. I have not come to condemn you, but to redeem you, to save you, to make a way for you to experience the forever-freedom that comes from knowing HE WHO ACCEPTS.” Jesus, the perfect One, the accepting One, sacrificed Himself to take our brokenness, our shame and our sin, so that true relationship might be restored.

This is Jesus…

  • who invited Himself to a thieving tax collector’s home, and ate with this man who was marginalized and rejected by society due to his occupation and corruption.
  • who sat and talked with a woman of a “lesser” ethnic origin, giving hope to this person rejected by others due to her gender, race and personal impropriety.
  • who touched and healed the leper, someone completely put out of society due to disease and fear.
  • who verbally ripped apart religious leaders, who by word and deed, claimed superior status with God, yet heaped burdens on others that kept them from experiencing His grace.

The apple – that symbol of prideful and idolatrous brokenness; that object of shame that resulted in distance and fractured relationship – has been replaced by bread and wine. That which is animate, made alive in Jesus Himself, has replaced that which was inanimate. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” It is the meal of acceptance – “real food and real drink,” as opposed to all other vain pursuits of acceptance and relationship. Bread and wine stand opposed to the apple.

And now, “…because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” The acceptance we have found in Christ, we are now required to freely give to all others. We are to contend for unity: that place of full and unfettered acceptance, that place where even truth is spoken in gentleness, humility and love.

Jesus still assaults all word and deed that leads to relational brokenness and spiritual distance. Jesus stands opposed to rejection. And the table – that place where bread and wine are freely shared – must never be a place of greed, lust, pride or humiliation. All are welcome. All are accepted.

I am accepted.