Sunday, February 29, 2004

The whys and hows of forgiveness


No relationship will survive without forgiveness. Whether it’s a friendship, a marriage, or a healthy relationship between parent and child, all enduring relationships require at some point the other person's forgiveness of you, and yours of them.

But let’s be honest — to forgive can be terribly difficult. How do we resolve this dilemma?

We should begin by defining forgiveness.

Simply put, forgiveness is the cancellation of a debt. The Bible repeatedly uses this image (Matthew 6:12, 18:21-35). To forgive someone means to say in essence, “You owe me nothing more. I won’t seek your pain or misery, I won’t wait for more apologies. I won’t punish you with my words or actions—there’ll be no cold stares or cold shoulders. I have given up the right to seek revenge.”

Why would we take such a step?

First, because forgiveness will end the cycle of blame. Maybe you’ve been in the cycle: “You said so-and-so ... you did such-and-such ... but I heard ... but I saw ... ” At some point somebody has to be big enough to release the hurt and desire for revenge. Somebody has to be big enough to forgive. This is the only way to end the otherwise endless cycle.

Furthermore, forgiveness will release you from the prison of bitterness. The week before Timothy McVeigh was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing, a gentlemen who’d lost an arm in the explosion remarked to a reporter, “If I don’t forgive Timothy McVeigh, I will remain his prisoner for the rest of my life.”

When we refuse to forgive we remain perpetually imprisoned by our bitterness. When we forgive we set a prisoner free—ourselves.

However the ultimate reason to forgive others is because God has forgiven us. Billy Graham was once asked, “How is it possible to forgive people who have hurt us?” He responded, “I believe it is only possible when we concentrate not on what others have done to us, but on what we have done to God—and how He has forgiven us anyway.”

Okay, we understand forgiveness (the cancellation of a debt), we are motivated to forgive (the aforementioned reasons), but still the lingering question: How exactly do we go about forgiving someone?

Begin by praying for strength. Forgiveness is unnatural, therefore we need supernatural help. Ask God to provide that help.

Next, decide to forgive. Forgiveness is an act of the will. We must make a conscience decision to do it. Forgiveness doesn’t depend on emotion — “When I feel okay about the person again, then I’ve forgiven them.” Instead forgiveness is the decision that precedes the emotion.

Then, have the conversation. Express your regret for any damage you have caused throughout the ordeal, and ask forgiveness. Hopefully your friend will do likewise. Even if they don’t ask for forgiveness, however, explain that you have chosen to release the bitterness you had been harboring. You will not seek revenge. You will cease the blame game. As far as you’re concerned, the matter is closed.

It’s only when you’ve granted forgiveness that you can, finally, accept the progressive peace of God. I use the term “progressive” not because God grants peace in a progressive manner, but because we tend to receive it progressively. Our sinful natures battle for continued bitterness and revenge. But stick with your decision to forgive, and as time passes you’ll feel less resentment and anger, less desire for revenge, and more peace about the whole matter.

Corrie ten Boom told of struggling to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She forgave the person, but kept rehashing the incident such that she couldn’t sleep at night. Finally she cried out to God for help in putting the problem to rest.

“His help came in the form of a kind Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks," she explained.

"Up in the church tower," the pastor said, nodding out the window, "is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the bell-ringer lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there's a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we've been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn't be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They're just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down."

"And so it proved to be,” Corrie ten Boom concluded. “There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force—which was my willingness in the matter—had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at last stopped altogether."

Write that letter. Make that phone call. Send that e-mail. Have that conversation. Offer forgiveness. Experience peace.

(Daniel Overdorf is the senior minister of Fayetteville Christian Church, located at New Hope and Hickory Roads in Fayetteville. He may be heard each Sunday at 10:30 a.m. as a part of the church's weekly worship. Daniel may be contacted at the church office--770-461-8763, or at

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