- For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Just a few simple words. Part of what we usually call The Lord's Prayer, but which probably should be called The Disciples' Prayer. After all, it's how Jesus told us to pray.
Nonetheless, those simple words are perhaps the hardest teaching of the whole Bible. Because if we don't forgive, the Father will not forgive us. Jesus basically told us it is our jobs to forgive. Just go around forgiving 24/7. Because there will never be any shortage of offenses to forgive. Oh, no! We're stuck! We have to forgive. So, let's just do it, right?
Would that it were so easy. Forgiving is hard to do. God has the ability to remember our sins no more, but we're somewhat limited in that capacity. We remember, and the memory rankles, and it builds up into resentment, and before you know it we're harboring un-forgiveness in our hearts . . . even after we've said, "I forgive."
I have some experience with this (he said in an amazing display of understatement). A few years back I went through a process that revealed to me that I had not forgiven something that happened to me a long, long time ago. As in 35 years ago. I'll write here about that sometime. It is a story that still astounds me. I don't want to dwell on those specifics at the moment. I'll just say that the result of my lack of forgiveness was buried anger that bubbled up to the surface in specific situations. And I didn't even know I was harboring those feelings. When they came to light, I was intensely surprised.
Recently, the need for forgiveness has come home to me again. I was hurt by someone's actions, someone I would never have thought would hurt me in that way. Immediately, when I learned what had happened, I knew I needed to forgive. And I told God, "I forgive." But it has still bothered me. Satan keeps bringing it up, and I have to fight my own human tendency to dwell on it and get angry all over again. And frankly this was a minor thing as offenses go. Millions of people go through worse every day. That just goes to prove how difficult forgiveness is.
So, how do we forgive? What is the process?
I'm not sure I know all about this, but I can tell you what isn't part of the process. It doesn't require the other party to ask for our forgiveness. The other party may not even know of the offense. Or if they do, may not consider it an offense, or just don't want to talk about it. Those crucifying Jesus did not ask for forgiveness. He asked the Father to forgive them anyway. If I remember correctly, Jesus is supposed to be our guide in such things.
Neither does forgiveness depend on a feeling of forgiveness. If we wait for that, we may be waiting a long, long time. Meanwhile, the acid of un-forgiveness will be eating away at us, tearing up our lives. I guarantee the resentment and un-forgiveness I held for all those years didn't hurt the other person. That person never even knew what was going on. For that matter, I didn't consciously know what was going on.
No, forgiveness, like love, is a choice. It's a decision to never hold that offense against the other person no matter what. Most times it must include a decision never to speak of the offense. There are exceptions to that. A parent who is hurt by a child may forgive the child, yet still correct the child. Forgiveness is truly offered, but correction must come for the child's own good. We see that also in how God deals with us. He forgives sin, but consequences still come.
In addition, forgiveness must include a decision to continue to forgive. The feeling of forgiveness will eventually come, but only if we continue to make that choice. This, too, is much like love. We love each other even when things go wrong, even on days when we don't feel very loving. It's a conscious choice, and from that conscious choice, the feeling of love grows and increases.
I will recommend a few other things, too. First, pray about it. Ask God to help you forgive. He is eager to do so, and he wants you to ask him for your every need. This is a big one. Second, speak your forgiveness out loud. There is something powerful in speaking the words. I can't explain this, but I've felt it and seen it in others. Third, if at all possible, tell someone you trust of your decision to forgive. Sometimes you can't do this because to do so would betray the confidence of the person you are forgiving. But it helps to have someone else hold you accountable. And this can be a sounding board for you. If in telling your story you find you're still holding resentment, that should be a clue that you have more work to do.
So I'll continue to forgive the one who hurt me. It gets easier every time I do it. And I'll continue to tell Satan to drop it. The feeling of forgiveness will ebb and flow until one day it will just be the way things are. On that day, I will thank God again for what he has forgiven me.
Oh, and if you think this is about you . . . please forgive me.