“… and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespassed against us.” (Luke 11:4)
Jesus loves me, this I know. But this I also know: He demands certain things of me, none of them small. I can’t call Him Lord if I don’t take those demands seriously.
So I’ve been working on meeting them for 48 years, making some progress while enduring my share of setbacks. The lion’s share of those setbacks has concerned three particular demands He makes: that I not worry (Matthew 6:34); that when I’m struck I turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39); and that I forgive as I’ve been forgiven. (Matthew 6:15).
I’ve never thought of myself as an unforgiving, grudge-holding kind of guy. But for whatever reason, I’m now seeing many things I just haven’t let go of. Old things, ancient history from childhood, or junior high days, or very young adulthood.
Which is interesting, because candidly, I’ve been messed with pretty badly in recent years. Some of the worst betrayals I’ve ever experienced happened within the last decade or so, years when I was well into middle age. So you’d think those not-long-ago hurts would still be throbbing, but no. I’ve pretty much shrugged them off, and they rarely cross my mind.
The same can’t be said for conversations and events occurring forty-plus years ago. They intrude into my thinking, and before I catch myself, I’m replaying them, often re-writing the script so that instead of being victimized the way I was, I don my cape and deliver well-deserved sucker punches to the bad guys, coming out heroic rather than wounded.
Yes, I know, fantasizing a revised personal history to make ourselves feel better is awfully childish. But it’s also a more commonly practiced mind-game than many of us would care to admit. At any rate, I’ve reached a season when long-ago traumas are playing through my head like old movies you discover while channel surfing, squinting at the tv with vague recognition, then saying, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that one.”
All of which raises the obvious question of forgiveness. Have I forgiven? If so, why are the old hurts resurfacing? And if I haven’t forgiven, then why not? It’s not as if I haven’t been forgiven plenty myself, and we all know what the master had to say the servant he forgave when that same servant turned around and refused mercy to another. (Matthew 18:33)
So here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
1. Forgiving isn’t forgetting.
God alone can say He remembers our sins no more; (Hebrews 10:17) We simply don’t have the capacity to delete our memory banks. I am therefore not required to literally forget old hurts. I can certainly choose whether or not to dwell on them, but I can’t make them vanish.
2. Forgiveness isn’t indifference.
I may well forgive someone for a deeply inflicted wound, but if the memory of that wounding crosses my mind, it will still hurt. How can you think of something traumatic without an emotional response? That alone doesn’t constitute unforgiveness.
3. Forgiveness isn’t isolated.
That is, I may genuinely forgive, then, in my sinful human state, I may later in life re-hash what I’ve forgiven, dredge up the old hurts, re-experience the pain, then ignore the law against double jeopardy by re-trying the perpetrator, finding him guilty, and mentally executing him.
None of which means I didn’t forgive him in the first place. Rather, it means I sinfully chose to revisit the sin I had no right revisiting. Sometimes it’s not just forgiveness that’s required of us. It’s re-forgiveness as well.
4. Forgiveness can become harder with time and perspective.
What seemed hurtful to a 12 year old can appear downright monstrous to an adult, because with time and perspective we better realize how horrendous things like bullying, abuse, or other violations really are.
An abused kid often thinks, “Perhaps I deserved this”, but the adult of later years screams, “No, you didn’t, and that never should have happened!” That’s why I often find that women and men I work with who are well into their middle years are angrier or sadder over their old hurts than they were when the hurts were first inflicted.
We pay a high price for growing up, one of which is the awareness of just how wrong the wrongdoers of our lives really were.
Finally, forgiveness is sometimes humanly impossible.
Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Holocaust survivor whose sister died at the notorious Ravensbruck women’s camp, recalled meeting a former Ravensburck guard at a church in Germany where she was speaking after the war.
He approached her, extending his hand while asking forgiveness, and she froze. All the camp horrors flashed through her mind, and she realized she couldn’t, in her own strength, forgive the man who was part of
She quietly prayed. Miraculously, as God gave her strength to take his hand, she felt a rush of love flow from her arm right into his. She realized she couldn’t forgive, then by God’s grace she did what she couldn’t do.
Proof yet again that Jesus was speaking quite literally when He said, “Without Me, you can do nothing.”
When I try forgiving things which never should have happened, I often find myself in Peter’s position when he saw the Lord walking on water and, in his distress and desperation, he said, “Bid me come walk with you.” (Matthew 14:28) Only by keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus in constant reliance could he do what was otherwise impossible.
Big amen to that. I cannot in my own strength forgive, not really. The way of Joe Dallas is to mouth forgiveness then quietly mutter, “But I’ll get back at you someday.”
But the way of the One who Joe Dallas follows is that of an unqualified “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” His love never fails, He remains aware of the human frailty behind the worst of sins, and His desire is always for reconciliation rather than revenge.
So today I’m getting an eyeful of how far I’m falling short of His ways, and a heart full of desire to be the strong and forgiving man only He can fashion. He tells me today, as He told others centuries ago, that if I don’t forgive others, I’ll not be forgiven.
Then I, struggling to obey while fearing that I can’t, offer him the prayer of that father I so relate to in the Gospels who, when told in Mark 9:24 that his faith could make the impossible attainable if only he’d believe,
“Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.”