Quite a long while ago, I read something Corrie Ten Boom wrote on forgiveness.
She wrote about her own experience struggling to forgive one of her former Nazi captors, and she wrote this one phrase which hit me:
'...And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too.
Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.'
~Tramp for the Lord by Corrie Ten Boom
From my own limited experience--I should thank God that my life contains such a ratio of kind people--I have found that forgiveness is not only a conscious decision we make, but an ongoing, continuing decision.
When we forgive someone, ideally we are able to put the whole incident behind us and move on in our relationship on the foundation of reconciliation. In Ken Sande's immensely insightful and helpful book, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, he gives four guidelines for true forgiveness, which he calls the 'Four Promises:'
I will not dwell on this incident, I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you, I will not talk to others about this incident, I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.
Unfortunately, it seldom works that way. I find that bitter, unloving thoughts and emotions will continue to bombard me, long after I've made the conscious decision to forgive that person. Sometimes the very morning after. Like a Battlestar Galactica ride, my emotional state goes up and down, sometimes triggered by something I hear, sometimes by some unhelpful incident or thought of my own. The sense of peace and the desire to love that person, which is only possible for us to experience through the work of the Holy Spirit, isn't magically bequeathed to us for all time. At one moment I believe I've truly forgiven him. Two days later I find myself struggling to keep a good heart towards her, gripped by the same old sense of bitterness and resentment.
This is because forgiveness is not an emotion, but a conscious and ongoing decision.
Emotions are volatile.
Forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is purposefully recognizing each bitter, resentful thought as the sin it is, as the devil's little triumphs, and purposefully putting it away--refusing to dwell on it. Replace it with prayer for the person, or something that is 'true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy' of the person, if possible. (Philippians 4:8) Or, when the battle is at its bitterest and the very thought of doing that kills you, simply pray to God--thanking Him for His providence and His forgiveness towards you, remembering His grace and power.
Forgiveness is best exemplified in God's forgiveness towards us. Before we even attempt to forgive others we need to first immerse ourselves in this ultimate example of forgiveness through the death of Christ.
God's forgiveness is undeserved.
It enables us to forgive, in turn, as we never could without an acute sense of our own overpowering guilt, and the overpowering grace held out to us.
It is complete. Christ's death, in fact, does more than just erase the tally of our sins--it gives us His own perfect score, so to speak, and the close, free relationship with God that He had. When we forgive we neither forget nor excuse, as Ken Sande points out, but 'forgiving is an active process; it involves a conscious choice and a deliberate course of action.' (The Peacemaker) God doesn't give us an awkward handshake or sidehug and then shuffle off uncomfortably to ignore us; avoiding us, withholding His trust, privately brooding over our worst offences. even after officially declaring He's forgiven us. He throws His arms open to us. Come to me, my son. I love you.
As He forgave, so will He enable us to.
As He forgave, so should we.
If you are not speaking to someone--
--complaining to others, rather than honestly confronting and settling it between the two of you--
--resorting to hypocrisy because you don't want to rock the boat, but can't bring yourself to truly forgive and move on--
--and believe you are as spiritually healthy as you ever were, because you get more prayer time everyday than most people in your church, because you listen to sermons every Sunday, because you're serving and ministering--
please take care.
By all means, struggle to forgive. As long as you're struggling it means you're aware of the danger of your situation. Once we stop seeing forgiveness as a goal--even if we haven't actually reached it yet--it becomes a very different, much more destructive, because unrecognized, battle.
Failure to forgive inevitably affects our spiritual life because it shows a lack of appreciation, or understanding, of God's grace. Or, which is worse, a lack of obedience--which in turns indicates a lack of love.
I would hope that when this happens to me, someone who truly cares for me will be brave enough to tell me this, because it's a reminder I'm never far from needing.
And so I dare to say this here, though I don't know your individual circumstances, though I don't know whether you're struggling with forgiveness or being forgiven, whether you feel your resentment is justified or whether you realize, through the struggle to put away bitterness, just how little our human will and emotions count for, and how much relies on the forgiveness and grace of God in enabling us to forgive.
Let's paraphrase 1 John 4:8 in a way that makes us realize how inexcusable the call to love--in the context of this post, to forgive--is to all Christians:
Our love for God is only as much as the lowest common denominator of our love for our fellow men.
(this was, in slightly different words, a theme for the recent church camp I went to.)
In other words--the person you find most unlovable, the person you struggle most to forgive, is the most accurate indicator of how strong our love (and therefore obedience, in emulating) for God is.
I don't know about you, but I was sadly humbled. My love for God is not best indicated by the times when I feel soaked through with awareness of His goodness and love for me, when I sense His person in the virtues of people around me. It's the times when forgiving someone feels literally like dying to myself--the thought seems to kill that wild writhing part inside you. When swallowing my pride physically hurts. When these bitter thoughts swamp me and I want to embrace them instead of pushing them away. When fresh mistrust and hurt open an old wound and the need to forgive comes spurting forth even more urgently, but is even more painful.
We need to fight for forgiveness.
Let us try to forgive our debtors, as He has forgiven us.
a quiet voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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