Forgiveness. One of those basic ideas kids probably understand better than adults, because they take it literally, while adults often try to deny that it applies to us. Sometimes we deny it by refusing to believe that the other person deserves forgiveness. Our pain is too great, they did too much damage, and it is impossible to forgive them. Others of us spend our lives denying our pain, explaining it away. If we were hurt by someone else, it means we are weak or too sensitive. It means we are admitting they had or have power over us to be able to hurt us, and that is unacceptable. And if they never hurt us, then we have no need to do the unthinkable and forgive them. Let me illustrate these options with a story of two little boys I once taught. They were super mad at each other (I still don’t know why). I separated them before the glaring turned to fighting. I sat Ethan* down on one side of the room, and Jordon* was with a small group of boys trying to calm him down on the other side of the room . Choose your ending:
A. As Jordan was talking with the other boys, his voice got louder. When I left Ethan to take care of another issue in class, Jordan ran over to Ethan and punched him. Naturally, Ethan punched back, and they both ended up in the Principal’s office.
B. Even though Ethan was still mad, Jordan suddenly didn’t care any more. He told the other boys it didn’t matter, and Ethan was just being dumb. Ethan eventually cooled down, and class went on. But those two never played together much after that.
C. Jordan left his group of friends and walked over to Ethan. Slowly, deliberately–as if it took every ounce of strength he could muster–he reached his small hand out and put it on Ethan’s shoulder. “I am sorry,” he said. Ethan started crying, and put his hand on Jordan’s shoulder. They had no trouble playing together after that.
I’m glad to tell you that thanks to God’s miraculous grace in my class that day, the ending was “C.” And I learned a valuable lesson about forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that we deny our pain–we feel it, and we admit it–whether the other person knows how much they hurt us or not, whether we “should” or “shouldn’t” feel that way. We also realize that they probably do not deserve it. We deserve to be angry at them for hurting us. But, by God’s grace, we make the choice and the action to forgive–to not hold it against them. Why? Well, Jordan told me, “I hate to go to the Principal’s office, that’s why I hate to kill him.” Yeah, sometimes it’s just to keep the peace, but as Christians, a deeper reason goes back to Jesus. We forgive because He told us to. Not only did He tell us, but He did it. On the cross, He asked God to forgive those who were hurting Him. (Luke 23:24) He also took the blame–and the punishment–for all of our offenses toward God, so that God could forgive us. Jesus died to make forgiveness possible. So when we forgive, it’s not just about the other person, or the hopeful result of reconciliation. It is because we want to be like Jesus, and this is what He asks and expects from His followers.
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. (Matt. 6:14,16)
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)
Does it mean you forget? No, not always. God is able to do that, but right now, we are not able to. But every time we remember, we can ask God to help us to forgive again. To leave judgement with Him, and to treat the person with grace–even in the privacy of our own minds. Again, it doesn’t mean to excuse their behavior or discount your pain, it means acknowledging the pain, if necessary confronting (Matt. 18:15), and then choosing to forgive and move on. I truly believe that God is the only one who makes forgiveness possible in its truest definition, and it’s a work of a lifetime, not an instant. Be patient, persistent, and always willing to listen to the Holy Spirit, and even the impossibility of admitting your pain and offering forgiveness becomes possible.
*Names are changed.