Oct 26, 2018

Forgiveness: A Journey Worth Taking (Part I of III)

By Katy Cloninger

Because we all daily sin much, forgiveness is an important aspect of our vocations.

Sometimes forgiveness is relatively easy: a tiny human ball of energy recklessly slams his skull into our mouth for the umpteenth time today—then, with big eyes and infuriating cuteness, he lisps, “I sorry, Mama.”

Other times, forgiveness is not so easy: someone hurts us deeply, perhaps deliberately, and the trust we had in that person is permanently shattered. How can we forgive in a situation like that?

Forgiving my ex-husband and his second wife has been the hardest part of recovering from my divorce. Though I’ve never desired to take revenge on them, it has taken me a long time to overcome my anger and bitterness over the effects of their actions on me and my son. Even two and a half years after my husband left me, I am just now reaching the point where I can honestly say I’ve forgiven them, and my wounds are still tender. But with the help of God, I have come a long way and learned a lot about forgiveness.

Whatever injury we have suffered, realizing certain truths about what forgiveness is (and isn’t) can help bring us to the point where we are willing and ready to forgive. In this first of three posts on forgiveness, let’s take a look at some of the most basic of those truths.

1. Forgiving someone does not mean that the person did you no wrong, or that the offensive actions are OK. In fact, the very concept of forgiveness is predicated upon acknowledging that someone harmed you. If no wrong had been committed, there would be nothing to forgive! Think about it this way: when God forgives us our sins, that doesn’t make our sins OK, nor does it mean that we didn’t actually sin. Rather, it means that God no longer holds our sins against us. Likewise, when we forgive our neighbor, we are acknowledging that this person wronged us, but we will no longer harbor anger or bitterness about it; we will move on into the future rather than perpetually revisiting the past. 
And, by the way, forgiving someone also does not mean that our trust in the person must be restored. In fact, in some cases, trusting the person would be extremely foolish, especially when there’s a pattern of abuse, negligence, deception, manipulation, or violence. We can learn from our experiences with the person and act accordingly, yet also let go of our bitterness and anger at him. We can forgive even if we don’t forget. 
2. Forgiveness is not a feeling, but a choice—albeit a hard one to make. I had to be told many times that forgiveness was something I could choose before I finally believed it. My feelings of anger were so overwhelming that there was no way I could just turn them off with the magical incantation, “I forgive my ex.” Yes, I could say those words, but I knew they weren’t sincere. I knew that Jesus instructs us to forgive our brothers from our hearts (Matt. 18:35), but I didn’t have forgiveness in my heart.  
But I have come to realize that forgiveness is indeed a choice—albeit a hard one to make, because we are still encumbered by our sinful flesh. Our hearts are hard and resistant, and even when we want to forgive, we may be too bitter to genuinely do so. This is very much a Romans 7 conflict—the good we want to do (forgiveness) is not what we do, and the evil we don’t want to do (withholding forgiveness) is what we do. Who will deliver us from the body of this death (Rom. 7:24)?  
When we find ourselves having trouble forgiving, the first thing we should do is ask God to forgive us. At the same time, we should pray daily for God to take away our bitterness, hurt, and anger so that we can forgive from our hearts. Then, each time negative feelings come up, we should examine them to pinpoint and articulate to ourselves precisely why we are angry, hurt, or bitter. Once we’ve acknowledged the cause of these feelings, we should confess to God (and perhaps our pastor) whatever our feelings demonstrate about our failure to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We should then commend all things to God’s unfathomable wisdom and omnipotent hands. It might help to pray, “Almighty God, forgive X and bring him to repentance, and take away the bitterness from my heart, that I may truly desire that for which I have asked.”  
Unforgiveness is a prison we make for ourselves. What we will realize, once we clear our eyes of the red we are seeing, is that this prison has no walls; it is merely a frame, and the only thing keeping us inside is our unwillingness to step out and walk away. Imagine what freedom will feel like. Stick a toe outside and consider what it would be like not to hold on to this heavy burden of resentment any longer. Picture yourself stepping out with your whole body and walking away for good. Then ask God to help you do just that.
It may take us time to come to terms with the above truths; it did for me. But once I realized these things for myself, I was well on my way to forgiving hurts that had previously seemed unforgivable. In Part II of this series, we will look at some more truths about forgiveness and how they, too, can help us move along our journey toward freedom.


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Katy Cloninger is a sister, daughter, and mother, as well as a freelance copyeditor and a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Columbia, SC. She has a BA in English from Newberry College, loves studying theology and teaching it to her son, and is currently enrolled in the school of hard knocks.

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