I find it curious. Curious that forgiveness is found at the heart of our Christian message and yet we have such a tenuous relationship with it. The concept that God forgives us our sins seems to roll off the tongue – even if we sometimes have a hard time processing that reality. But when it comes to forgiveness within our own families or community we tend to hold onto the wrong – to hold onto the pain – and at the very least broadcast the wrong. Maybe as a means of shaming the wrongdoer or maybe it’s a reflection of how disconnected we have become from each other.
The word “Forgive” appears 42 times in the Old Testament and 33 times in the New Testament. The word “Forgiven” appears 17 times in the Old Testament and 28 times in the New Testament. And the word “Forgiving” appears 6 times in the Old Testament and 1 time in the New. The number of times that it is mentioned indicates how much of a deal this is. So why do we have such a hard time with it? Can you feel the pull of it on your soul when there is something left unforgiven? Can you feel the pull of it on your soul when your own transgression is left unforgiven or hidden from sight? I think that one probably feels like guilt.
You’ve probably heard it said before that if you don’t transform your pain you will transmit it. Right? Hurt people hurt people. I have certainly seen this enough times in my life to know that it is true. We all know people who could never get over, get past, or forgive a major transgression that had happened to them or their family. The longer that they dwell in anger and hold onto the hurt the more likely they are to not thrive in life. Holding onto that anger in the soul causes real-life consequences that show up in the form of depression and all sorts of other illnesses.
Now I’ve had people who come to me and have said – But what that person did to me was so vile there is no way that I would give them the satisfaction of forgiving them. Yeah, I hear you. And Jesus knows that there are people that we are going to have to disassociate from because they do not produce fruit that is worthy. That means that there are people out there who are not interested in being anything other than vile and predatory. But if you don’t forgive someone because you think you are holding some sort of power over them then I think that you don’t really understand how forgiveness works.
Forgiveness is a selfish and healing process. Let me explain what I mean by that. Forgiveness is first and foremost about the individual reclaiming their power and beginning the healing process. Case in point, there was a young woman who had been physically assaulted and just could not bring herself to forgive her assailant. She would relive the attack time and time again, she would put up defenses, and she would dwell within this narrative of being the victim of this assault. She lived in fear of everything. Every place she went she would fear that she would run into her attacker, every choice that she made about clothing reflected the shame that others put on her about attracting the wrong kind of attention. Her life was stalled at the moment of the attack. Though she never even toyed with the idea of reconciliation, the first time she had any sliver of hope was when she began to take the idea of forgiveness seriously. The act of forgiveness recognizes that the actions of the past need not have control of your present reality. It is a calling back of the pieces of yourself that have been consumed in the trauma of that moment. It is recognizing that events of the past no longer have control of the present moment.
People and events from the past no longer get to live rent-free in your head and they don’t get to call the shots. It is letting go of the power that someone else held over you and claiming it back. It is the work of making yourself whole again. And it is holy work that God is calling us to do. Sure, sometimes forgiveness leads to renewed relationships and deeper connections. Where that is safe reconciliation is wonderful. But forgiveness can happen even when reconciliation cannot.
May you find deep forgiveness and healing in your life.