By Barney Armstrong, MA, LMHC, Bellevue Christian Counseling
The benefits of forgiving have long been acknowledged, to the point where they have become almost proverbial. “If you don’t forgive, you will become bitter.” “If you don’t forgive, you hold yourself in prison,” we are told. The returns are in — not forgiving can produce significant emotional turmoil, mental stress, and mental and even physical fatigue. And, on the positive side, the health benefits of forgiveness are proclaimed — reduced anxiety, lower blood pressure, and better sleep, to name just a few. There are benefits to your physical, emotional, and mental health, all of which are likely true and which sound advantageous.
Our Motivation for Forgiving
These benefits are cited in order to urge people to forgive, but for what incentive? Such urgings imply that your motive for forgiving someone is self-serving, that you should forgive for your own well-being, peace, health, and comfort. Forgiveness, which is an innately self-less and altruistic act has been distorted to a modern formula for a healthy lifestyle.
So, when someone says, “I just can’t seem to forgive _____, I just can’t let it go,” they are concerned about their own unwanted feelings and their struggle to rid themselves of those feelings. This is certainly not other-centered and anything but self-less.
What Does the Bible Say About Forgiveness?
The Bible offers insight into the nature of authentic forgiveness for those who are struggling to embrace it. But the genuine article is not just an impersonal flipping of a switch, and may take some real engagement of the heart relationally. The Bible tells us that God’s act of forgiving us is an altruistic act. The Letter to the Romans speaks about Christ:
… whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed … (Romans 3:25 NKJV)
Righteousness is a theological word that simply means “good.” That is, forgiveness is something good that God does — it is not morally neutral, like simply letting someone go or just ignoring a debt owed. It is morally in the plus zone — an act of good. In the Gospel, God graphically displays His innate goodness.
Forgiveness is Hard
So … why can’t you forgive? For the same reason that you don’t do any number of other good things. God forgives because He is innately good. But you are not innately good. You don’t do self-less acts by reflex, for you are innately selfish. Hmmm … sounds like bad news at first.
The Bible is jam-packed with similar things. Forgiveness is not just a formula you choose to do. Finding it hard is like finding any number of things in the Law hard, for example, “You shall not covet.” Worse yet is almost anything in the Sermon on the Mount, such as, “Love your enemies.” Everywhere in the Bible, it shows you what you are not by telling you: “You can’t possibly do this. And, if you don’t do it, you’re in big trouble.”
Forgiveness is About Giving and Requires Grace
However, what this really teaches us should go beyond, “I can tell I’m in big trouble,” to, “I definitely need to be rescued, I need grace, I need a rescuer.” What the Bible describes is not what you are like, but what God is like. It invites you to partake of Him.
Forgiveness is about giving. It is a genuine giving that you actively do for another person. As such it is inherently relational. Take a look at Luke 7:36 ff. There you see the woman who crashed the dinner where Jesus was eating, anointed his feet with her tears, hair, and costly perfume, and yet Jesus forgave her immoral ways. Her sins were very personal, and her gratitude was also very personal. True forgiveness is a high point in relational connection. Jesus’ forgiveness of her was a personal favor, a gift He gave to her. Yet giving a gift to someone who has hurt you requires grace.
Perhaps You Need to be Forgiven
You can easily give a little if you have been given a lot. This is shown in the negative in Matthew 18. The slave who was forgiven an enormous debt had plenty of grace to forgive minor debts. When you are given a lot, you have a lot to give.
So, if you are having trouble forgiving (giving a gift), perhaps you need to go back to the Source and get more forgiveness. That is, perhaps you need to be forgiven more. (Luke 7: 47) To put it another way, you need to reassess your own need for forgiveness. For, it is by receiving a lot of forgiveness that we are able to forgive.
Christian Counseling Can Help You in Your Struggle to Forgive
If you are still struggling in this area, there may be complications that prevent you from seeing the playing pieces clearly. Sitting with a Christian counselor — a safe face in a safe place — can be instrumental in unraveling some of those complications and seeing your way clearly to grace and forgiveness. If Christian counseling sounds as if it may help you, I would be honored to work with you.
“Punish Forgive Keys…” courtesy of Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.com; “DSCN7078.jpg” courtesy of grietgriet, morgueFile.com; “Contemplating” courtesy of Gagilas, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)