(This is the fourth entry of a series on forgiveness.)
Within the fallenness of this world, the reality of sin, and human weakness, forgiveness seems unnatural. God intends forgiveness to be natural and to be the norm in disciples of Christ. Oh Lord, how difficult it is! At times it just seems impossible to overcome the raw emotions of betrayal, hurt, anger, vengeance, and hatred. To have a heart of forgiveness with kindness and forbearance toward someone who has hurt us, someone toward whom we feel so just in despising, how Lord? How?
I know if we are going to see the need for forgiveness, if we are going to be able to forgive, if we are going to want to forgive, we need to remember. Remember and focus on the forgiveness we have received from God, and from others. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions…. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:1, 3, 4). Peter reminds us of the cost Jesus Christ paid for our forgiveness. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). To see the need, to be able, to want, to forgive, we must remember and take responsibility for the fact of our own sins with an attitude of repentance and humility as did the psalmist David. We must remember with deep gratitude the extent to which God’s mercy, love, and compassion went to forgive us. Then we will be brought to our knees. Honesty with ourselves as we see in the words of David instills within our hearts a humility so vital to forgiving, to compassion, and to empathy. Such honesty with ourselves and with God, such humility, brings us to our knees in thanksgiving to God. In gratitude to God we cannot not forgive. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
As we stew in our hurt and anger we need to think about what happened when we were offended. In the midst of disappointment, betrayal, rage, it is difficult, but we must honestly evaluate what happened. We need to seek a clear understanding of the person who wronged us. Was what happened a misunderstanding? Did he know what he was doing? Was it a lapse or has she made a career of this behavior? Understanding the person who offended us helps us to see him not only through the wrong done, but as a person who is weak. This is how God is with us. God “knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). Knowing who we are, God “has compassion on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).
To be able to forgive we can’t shut down our feelings. We need to face our feelings and emotions. Name them. Express them. They need to be brought out into the open to ourselves. We need to talk to someone we trust about what happened and express what we are feeling and experiencing. It is good to trust someone who can help us find our way to forgiveness.
Pray. Be honest with God. Pour it all out. Seek his wisdom and his help. Thank him for the forgiveness he has given you.1
It is important to remember forgiveness is not excusing. Forgiveness is not tolerating the intolerable. Allowing ourselves to be continually abused is not forgiveness. Forgiveness is not allowing people to get away with wrong. Also, forgiveness doesn’t change what happened. The consequences of what happened to the injured, the consequences for the offender, are not always changed by forgiveness. What forgiveness does change is how the offended handles the difficulties of what happened. Forgiveness doesn’t always take away the anger. It does heal the hate. The anger is turned into positive energy to prevent the wrong from happening again. This positive energy seeks justice when it is needed. It provides the strength to confront the sin. Forgiveness helps heal and restore the broken relationship, if that is possible (more on this in another post).
We know we are on the journey to healing and forgiveness when the resentment and bitterness begin to diminish. When we begin to look at the person who wronged us and not see only what he did we know we are on the journey to healing and forgiveness. We know we are on the journey to healing and forgiveness when we are able to look on the one who wronged us and ask God to bless this frail human being.
A Story of Forgiveness2
On March 12, 2007, Heather Fox was on her way to Bible class. She saw a young mother holding a diaper bag in one hand and a baby in the other, at the Walgreens at Poplar and Prescott in Memphis, TN. The young woman, Shani Butler, looked as if she was desperately in need. Heather offered her a ride. As Heather, Shani, and her baby, drove down the street, Shani, holding the baby carrier with one hand, reached with her other hand into her diaper bag. She pulled out a 40 caliber pistol and ordered Heather to drive to an ATM. At the intersection of Sam Cooper and Hollywood, Heather opened her door and tried to jump out of the car. Shani shot her in the back. Shani drove off with Heather’s car, leaving Heather lying in the street.
With every heartbeat Heather could hear her blood squirting out of her wound. She was bleeding to death while she cried for help. Ashley Sanders, eighteen years old, inexperienced and scared, came to Heather’s aid. Ashley used both her hands and applied pressure to the wound until paramedics arrived. She saved Heather’s life.
On March 24, 2009, two years after Shani shot Heather and left her to die, Shani was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. At the trial Heather Fox spoke to Shani. “Shani, you almost took my life. Many people would be filled with anger from your actions, but the opposite is true for me….I cannot imagine what has happened in your life that led you to make the choice to put a gun in your diaper bag. I believe that it’s important that you pay the time for the crime you committed and I pray that you receive the help you need while in prison.”
Heather looked beyond what Shani did to see Shani as a person, to try to understand what led her to do what she did. Doing this helped Heather to heal her heart and to find peace. She replaced her negative emotions with compassion, kindness, and a desire for what is best and good for Shani. Heather did not excuse Shani’s crime. She believed justice was needed. Shani needed to be held accountable through facing the consequences of her actions. In an interview Heather expressed that she was grateful Shani was convicted on federal charges and the state charges dropped. Heather hoped Shani would receive the help she needs in a federal prison.
The apostle Paul exhorts us. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Remember the words of the fictional character Muir Powell? “Think of the sweetness of the morning light on a day we knowed we would not hate or be angry, accuse or fear anyone. That promise is not just a dream. It is possible right here, and it is in ourselves.”3
____________ 1Lewis B. Smedes. The Art of Forgiving, When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 138-9. 2Trey Heath, “Lifesaving bone,” www.commercialappeal.com, 7/18/2007; Lawrence Buser, “Carjacker sentenced to 22 years,” www.commercialappeal.com, 3/24/2009. 3Robert Morgan. This Rock (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel HIll, 2001), 310.