Thursday, October 8, 2015

Forgiveness

What happens if you forgive someone? A whole lot of wonderful things happen. In your spirit, in your soul, in your body. And in your future.

But before we talk about what happens if you forgive, maybe we should talk about what happens when you don’t forgive. Because there are big consequences in our lives for not forgiving people.

Many of us are being hindered from our destiny because we are being held hostage by a leash around our souls called unforgiveness. And that leash keeps jerking us back. The tricky thing about unforgiveness is it has a kind of logic to our hearts. We think it makes sense to hold on to our pain and agony because of what happened to us. All the way from a simple, but undeniable slight by a coworker at a meeting to the most profound abuse, there are a multitude of things that keep us tethered to that leash.

Whatever it is though unforgiveness is holding you hostage! Are you still seeking revenge? Do this person’s actions against you occupy far too much of your daily thoughts? Even though unforgiveness may “feel” right to your psyche, your heart will be destroyed without forgiveness. Today I would love to see you set free from this pain and anguish.

Nothing will hinder you arriving at God’s destiny for you like unforgiveness will. You may be ready to say “Great, I don’t want my destiny trashed by my holding onto the things that are already torturing me anyway. What is forgiveness exactly?”

Well, first of all forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling. You can forgive someone and not “feel” like it. It is an act of the will. And since we are the ones doing the forgiving it doesn’t require any action on the offender’s part. When we forgive we can be released from our painful bitterness, resentment and all-consuming thoughts by releasing the offender through our forgiveness. We do not need to wait for them to apologize.

What happens when we forgive is we give up our claim or rights over the person who has hurt us. Does it sound strange that you may be walking through life having a “claim” on someone who hurt you? Well yes. You may be living your life as if the offender’s wrongdoing allows you the freedom of certain thoughts and behaviors. And these thoughts may seem perfectly allowed and justified as far as your heart is concerned. So exactly what rights might you be giving up if you forgave someone who hurt you?

Well for starters the right to hate this person. Or the right to go after him and hurt him as much as he hurt you. You might be giving up your right to badmouth this person. Or giving up your right to nurse a grudge over her actions whenever you think about the offense.

But let’s be clear. Forgiveness is not forgetting. You still have a working memory after you choose to forgive and situations may come up that will naturally bring up the offense to your mind. But as we give the undeserved gift of forgiveness to our offender, we start to remember the offense differently. The offense no longer wounds us. We never forget, but the memories no longer damage us. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the wrongdoing. And it doesn’t say you ignore it. It just deposits the offense in a different part of your psyche and your soul. And allows you to move on in a way you just can’t imagine possible if you haven’t forgiven.

But let’s talk a little bit about the idea that forgiveness is a decision. It is. It’s the first step. But forgiveness is not usually a one-time action. It is more of a process. Because a huge part about being human is having emotions and feelings that go along with the living of life. We have tremendous feelings of good during certain times of our life, but certain things like abuse often leave us in a mountain of pain. Forgiveness may indeed be an act of the will, but to work through the emotional aftermath of the pain from the hurt takes integrity. Forgiveness is the writing of the check, but choosing to do the work of healing and continuing to choose to forgive is like having the funds in the bank to cover the check. In my case the ongoing process of healing and forgiving in the midst of that healing took about 20 years. Lest I leave you with the feeling that forgiveness happens instantly.

I am reminded of the families in the Charleston shooting that occurred several months ago. These were amazing loving souls who dug deep and began the act of forgiveness in a courtroom setting by telling the killer face to face. These folks’ love and forgiveness could almost take your breath away. But not for one minute do I believe that initial decision to forgive isn’t going to be revisited in their hearts and minds and spirits over and over again in the next years. Because it will! We must do the emotional work of feeling the pain that comes from those who hurt us in order to let go. Yes, it starts with a decision, but it is a whole lot more.

My perspective as one who has been cruelly abused myself is that the ability to forgive is really a gift from God. Honestly we are hardwired to care about injustice and care about it deeply. It is no wonder that wrongs done to us and others we care about bothers us and makes us cry out in agony and despair. It seems SO wrong to see evildoers hurt people and yet seem to have no consequences for their actions.

You may be given the opportunity one day to seek reconciliation for certain offenses done to you. You may have the courage to go to your coworker who spoke poorly of you in a public meeting to challenge that action and to find out what is behind it. Perhaps you offended them and they are retaliating. That is certainly an important part of reconciliation. To learn that often we played a part in the conflict. And reconciliation between two people is a wonderful thing. Over events big or small. But in some instances the perpetrator of the wrong has no understanding he even did something that caused hurt, or worse, does not care and likely will never ask you for forgiveness. It is in those times that the forgiving will seem very one sided. And that is because it is! The power, the energy, the willingness to forgive may all have to come from you!

If that is the case, remember the ability to forgive is really a gift from God. Ask for the gift from Him. He is the great forgiver of all the wrong we have done (and others have done) and He is in the business of forgiving us. So He knows a whole lot about this. He created the human heart and He knows everything about healing it. There is a verse in the Bible that says “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Isn’t that fascinating that we get to see our own forgiveness of others in the greater context of God forgiving us?

God forgives us for everything we have EVER done wrong. He chooses to hold nothing against us, ever, for what we have done. No matter what it was! When He asks us to forgive, He is asking us to forgive a specific person for a specific thing done to us. Not for everything the person has ever done wrong, but THIS thing that has been done. It is not some blanket forgiveness. It is one person and one situation at a time.

God is not surprised by your anger at wrongdoing. He made you to care very deeply about wrongs. Just like He does. He has given all of us the command to right as many wrongs as we can in this life. We are to fight against injustice and to help people. Often we need to get clarity from God or wise compassionate people to even understand a wrong has been done to us and to even call it a wrong. (This can be especially true for people who were abused as children.) But when that clarity comes we are given the freedom to call that pain by its real name. And to not minimize abuse or pain caused by others. Acknowledging pain is an important first step in healing. So while God honors our need to see our pain named and acknowledged He does ask us to forgive as He forgave us. And He forgives us completely and totally.

It is a tall order. Honestly for some offenses it sounds plain impossible. Because in our brains forgiveness sounds like letting someone off the hook. So we are incredibly reluctant to do it. It seems to be a terrible betrayal to our own hearts. But forgiveness is never synonymous with forgetting what a perpetrator did. Or worse, not being allowed to care about the devastating consequences that may have come into your life. Forgiveness is neither of these things. There are often significant legal, societal, family or other relational consequences to a person’s actions against another. But forgiveness is not tasked with fixing or punishing the person for what they did wrong. That is someone else’s job actually!

What God was doing when He gave us forgiveness was giving us a gift. And this is a gift designed to free the human heart from the bondage of bitterness, despair, revenge, depression, and all the long list of things that happen to us when we hold on to the pain and the suffocating bondage of what others have done to it. I believe God invented forgiveness FOR us. God loves and cares about the victims’ heart. He knew how debilitating it would be to our hearts not to be able to forgive. So He gave us both a command to forgive but plenty of reassurances that He was in the forgiveness business and would step with us along the pathway through the pain. God is fully able to be with us on this journey, however long it takes, and be there on the other side when we are set free of what is dragging us down. God is the great Physician and Healer and longs to be able to give us these gifts.

One person described forgiveness as being symbolized by a rope that both you and the perpetrator hold. The rope ends up being able to tie you forever to him/her as long as you are unable to forgive the person’s actions. So to follow this word picture, to forgive is simply to let go of your end of the rope. Just let it go. The wrongdoer still has the other end of the rope. And perhaps this rope symbolizes that until the offender seeks forgiveness from you or from God the actions he did are going to destroy his soul too. But that is not necessarily your problem! (We might talk about restorative justice in a future blog.) One thing you do by letting go of your end of the rope is you cease to be judge and jury of the person. You give that job back to society and ultimately to God.

For me forgiving began with the knowledge that forgiving was what God wanted me to do. Because I experienced ongoing abuse over a long period of time the work of forgiving required working over a long period of time. And I needed others to help me. As I worked through main themes of abuse, over time I was able to reconnect to the experiences of abuse and the hurt. I was able to see the damage in my heart as a result of the abuse and was able to resolve the hurt emotions that had kept me so “stuck” and unable to go forward with my life.

First I had to work through the fear and terror my father had infused into my heart. Then I was able to work through the anger and resulting hurt and bitterness. At that point in the healing/forgiveness process I began to connect with little boy feelings of needing a father and not having his love and care. These emotions were softer with quiet crying and weeping. Eventually I had to mourn the losses of what never was and never would be. Feeling these losses brought on deep body crying with writhing because of the overwhelming anguish and grief and this often took all the physical strength my body could give.

As I slowly resolved all these many hurt feelings and was able to express them, many insights came to me I had not been able to see before. I began to realize the brokenness in my father, my abuser, and I began to get a sense of what his brokenness must have been like for him. With that understanding at last I was able to forgive my abuser deep within my heart. I had to be open to forgiving initially or I would never have been able to do the work required to deal with the emotional pain I had in my soul from my abuse. And dealing with my pain allowed me to understand my father. And it was at this point of understanding that I was able to fully forgive my father.

I remember the specific thoughts I had during this part of my healing work. I realized if my father were to ever have the willingness to face what he had done, honestly face it, he would very likely fall to the ground and never be able to get up again. When I experienced the wrenching agony in my body as I worked through the abuse I lived with at the hand of my father, it became clear to my heart that I had taken into my heart and my body what my father had been unwilling or unable to face within his own heart. He had buried his hurt and fear so deeply beneath his rage that it turned to rancid hatred. This hatred came out in his life and poisoned his soul and those in his life. When I began to understand this, I was able to have pity on my own father and was able to forgive him.

God understands us completely and is continually and immediately ready and willing to forgive us. He took all our mistakes into His own body in the person of Jesus Christ. But we must open our hearts to Him. To forgive another person we must open our hearts to ourselves (and God), admit our anger, resentment and bitterness, perhaps even hate, for the person who hurt us. When we take this first step, God does the healing work we need and enables our willing hearts to forgive our abuser. It starts with a mental decision and can eventually become full heart forgiveness. The abuser may never know anything about the work we have done but the work frees us to love again. We are free to love ourselves, the abuser and others in our lives. If you have a wife and children this becomes of priceless value! Yes! Because with a freed up heart you are able to give more of yourself to the ones you love and be more present in their lives.

If you allow God into your life and into your world then when you let go of the rope you have a loving God who can overrule the effects and damage of whatever happened to you. This is hard to understand but in amazing ways that only God can, He will work good in your life in spite of what happened to you. And in fact God will use what happened to you to bring good from it in a way you may never even dream possible. And God does this kind of thing every day. It seems like a miracle when it happens to you, but it is part of God’s continuing work in our lives.

If you have read my blog you know the process of forgiveness is not an easy one for those of us who were abused over a long period of time and in a particularly cruel way. But it most assuredly can be done. With God’s help I have become a truly free person. I am free to no longer hate my perpetrator. That is an amazing place to get to. Because I am now free to live my life without the baggage of all that pain and hatred. I wish I could describe to you the difference between the person I was when I was still holding on to that rope and the person I am now.

When you have a view of God that allows you to understand that He can even use the mess that messed you over, you will step into new territory in your relationship with God. You’ll come to understand He can make you into someone new and in many ways stronger and more compassionate as a person than you ever imagined. What happens when you forgive others is it can amount to a paradigm shift in your life. Most of our lives when we are victimized by people we just feel like victims. When we realize God can give us a new sense of freedom and self-worth and dignity as we choose to forgive we realize it allows us to step into our destiny in a new way.

When you are set free from the burden of the pain connected with unforgiveness you are able to handle the person who hurt you very differently. When you let go of the rope from a spouse or a co-worker or a son or daughter or friend you might just free them up to move on and do what they need to do in their lives. Others you choose to forgive may not be safe people in your life and just because you forgive them does not mean you have to have face to face contact with them.

God has some amazing promises in the Bible. One of them says “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” That doesn’t say God sees the evil that happened to us as good. It doesn’t. It says God is able to bring good and work good out of any situation. Sometimes it takes faith to believe that initially but after you see God at work in hopeless situations in your life long enough you begin to trust Him. I believe this also happens to people all over the world who don’t know God but who God knows are going to come to know Him. Perhaps from God’s perspective this happens in nearly every person’s life. Who knows.

I forgive so that I can move on. That sounds a bit self-serving. Shouldn’t I want what is best for my daughter who I had a big fight with and not just “release” her by dropping the rope because I get to move on? Well, yes, by all means, be aware that your letting go of your judgments and anger and asking God to help you forgive may well bring her tremendous good, but sometimes do it just because you know God gave you this great gift of human relations. And He gave it to you for your good, so you could move on, And of course there are huge benefits for the doers of wrong down the road. Maybe! But honestly that is not ours to wrap our brains around. We have enough trouble living out a life of integrity and doing what is right. It just so happens that forgiveness is the right thing to do and the BEST thing to do for us . . . and for our futures.

Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the handcuffs of hatred and is the antidote to resentment. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness. What liberation when you can forgive! Love is an act of endless forgiveness. It is wiser to forgive than to hate. If you look closely you will find that each human heart is fragile and in need of understanding and forgiveness.

Let the forgiveness begin…

Mark Phelps

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