“People like that deserve a special place in hell.” I’ve heard that statement applied to many different types of people, from bad drivers to restaurant patrons who insult their waiters. It’s a human trait to point fingers at behavior we don’t like, even if it doesn’t affect us directly, and assume the role of judge. And jury. And executioner. When someone offends us personally, we like to hold on to our feelings of outrage and righteous indignation. After all, we think, we were just minding our own business when the other person showed up and hurt us. Why should we have to let go of our feelings?
During the Easter season, we are reminded of Jesus’ example on the cross. Our savior said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34) – mercifully asking forgiveness for the soldiers who had brutally beaten him and nailed him to the cross, even while they sat below him gambling over his clothing. Not only were they his executioners, they insulted him even while he lived. And he forgave them. Likewise, we are told to forgive because we have been forgiven (Col. 3:13).
Holding on to resentments and seeking revenge only hurts ourselves. It is analogous to ‘taking poison and expecting the other person to die.’ Resentment, refusing to forgive and seeking revenge are all part of a false self we have created and that masquerades as strength, independence and wholeness. The truth, however, is that through the resurrection of Christ, we have been created anew.
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
1 Peter 1:3 (NLT)
This new life we have in Jesus is
one of forgiving. Forgiveness is “to grant pardon, or absolve; to give up all
claim on account of; to grant pardon to a person; to cease to feel resentment against.” These are active
decisions, not just a ‘putting aside’ and hoping that the feelings don’t resurface. Even more than a decision, I
believe forgiveness is a spiritual practice in which we can and should engage. Corrie ten Boom, a
prisoner during the Nazi era in Germany, tells of being confronted by her
former prison guard, who had since become a Christian and asked her forgiveness (in
Tramp for the Lord, 1974, pp. 53-55). In that story, as she struggles to take the man’s hand, she
experiences Jesus’ love and forgiveness flowing through her to her former
enemy, now her brother in Christ. This is the
good news about our struggle to forgive. Jesus has already forgiven this person,
and we are seeking to join him in his loving act.
When we are reminded of the need to forgive, below are some steps we can take. This needs to be
done in a quiet place away from distractions and in a spirit of prayerful
submission to the One who has forgiven us. It may be helpful to ask a trusted
spiritual companion to accompany you through
the exercise. You may find fasting to be useful in the process of
- Admit that it happened and admit your response: that you felt afraid, angry, betrayed, violated and perhaps vengeful; or depressed and withdrawn. Confess and release those thoughts and feelings to the Lord. Receive his forgiveness.
- Seek and confess your own part in the event: many times, we
ourselves have in some way participated in the offense
(perhaps by the attitude we projected or by our words or actions that
situation or by harboring ill feelings). Receive
the Lord’s forgiveness for your part as you confess it.
bringing the other person to the arms of Jesus: consider how Jesus feels about
this person. How does Jesus treat him or her? Do
you see Jesus expressing love to this person? Can you ask Jesus for that same
- Pray in detail for your ‘enemy’ (Mat 5:43-48): not to feel superior, but truly to ask the Lord for the person’s good.
- If need be, from recognizing your own part, personally seek forgiveness from the other person.
Forgiveness is often a process that takes time. Even if we have worked through the steps, negative feelings may resurface. Forgiveness on our part is a matter of the desire and the will to do so, and simply remembering or recalling the circumstances does not mean that we have not forgiven.
For further reading:
The Gift of Forgiveness, Charles Stanley (Thomas Nelson, 2002)
The New Freedom of Forgiveness, David Augsburger (Moody, 2000)
Mark is pastor of Living Grace Christian Fellowship in Arvada, Colorado. As a member of the Odyssey in Christ ministry team, he participates in spiritual formation workshops and seminars and serves as a spiritual director on retreats.