–An excerpt from The Promise of a Sound Mind: God’s Plan for Emotional and Mental Health—
This topic will be the lengthiest section of this book, so I’m breaking it into two chapters. There is so much we need to understand about forgiveness that it is necessary to cover this topic more fully. All of God’s commands are intended for our good, but few commands produce immediate results like the command to forgive. Yes, forgiveness is a command – not an option.
Let’s first look at the results of unforgiveness. Harboring resentment and anger creates more stress on our minds than any other cause. It’s like a weight than we never put down. We might endure the stress of carrying this burden, but we’ll never thrive as we could. The longer we carry it, the more blind we are to its presence in our lives. This is why childhood traumas have such lasting impacts. Long after we’ve forgotten the specifics, we struggle with the symptoms.
Victims of bitterness often don’t even know why they are bitter. Or why they have certain emotional scars. It becomes part of our personalities and what drives many of our emotional reactions.
Anger and unforgiveness creates bitterness and hatred. Everyone is wronged. Any person who lives among other people will be offended and done wrong. Human nature cannot be removed from our social world. This is even true in church. Sometimes it appears that offenses are more common in churches, but this is because relationships are more intimate in a congregation, and the opportunity to offend becomes greater.
You will be wronged. You may not realize it, but you will also wrong other people. Sometimes one comment, a slip of the tongue, can create a chain of events with consequences we could have never anticipated. Churches split, families divide, friends become enemies – all from one misspoken word which hit an area of sensitivity in another person. Children fight and make up, but adult disputes can last a lifetime. This problem has always existed and we must learn to deal with it. Consider the words of James 3:2, 5-10
2 For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.
5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.
8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God.
10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.
Let’s first take note of how James introduces this discussion. If anyone doesn’t stumble in their words, they would be a perfect person. Keep in mind, this applies to all. As mentioned earlier, when the Bible uses the word ‘man’ in the general sense, it is referring to mankind – both men and women.
Who doesn’t slip up with their words and say things that offend? No one. Everyone struggles to control their tongue – this includes you and I. Our words are compared to a match in a forest. Sometimes one word can cause a fire that spreads outward and causes much unexpected damage.
We say things thoughtlessly that can create a firestorm, but we also say things spitefully. As James puts it, the same mouth which praises God is a curse to man. These things ought not to be, but they are. James is speaking to the church. Though we should be guarding our mouths, in a moment of carelessness or a moment of anger, we say things which have serious consequences.
Saying, “I shouldn’t have said that,” doesn’t stop the fire. Someone once shared this illustration I believe is fitting. A man took his kids in the bathroom and squeezed all the toothpaste into a sink. He offered ten dollars to the first child who could put the toothpaste back into the tube. Some tried, but no one had success. He then said, “This is what happens with your words. Once they’re out of your mouth, you can’t put them back in.”
King Solomon put it this way, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Sometimes our words are life to the hearers. A word of praise. A word of encouragement. A kind gesture.
Other times our words are death. Discouragement, carelessness toward someone’s feelings, statements that drive right to the heart of another, these can all be daggers to the soul of the hearer. Instead of bearing up those who are weak, we have a tendency to say things that add to their burden and shatter the emotions of those around us. Because we struggle with our own human nature, we have a tendency to speak more words which kill the emotions of others than we use words that give life and encouragement.
I say all of this to make an important point. You are guilty. So am I. We will say things which ought not to come from our mouths. We offend and then expect others to not take offense. Yet we then want to hold them to a higher standard than we are willing to hold ourselves. I’ve seen people apologize and be rejected. “I can never forget what you said,” the offended person says.
If we were held in contempt for every word spoken, the wars would never end. For some people they don’t. For many, it’s a silent war. In churches and families the cold war rages in a never ending standoff.
Think for a moment on our own ways of dealing with words. Have you ever been offended and had someone say something like, “What did I say?” Or perhaps we’ve asked the same question. Someone comes up to us a week or a month later and says, “You hurt me by what you said.” Immediately we rack our brains thinking, What could I have said? I don’t remember saying something offensive.
We live in a self-centered perspective. When I speak, I’m evaluating my conversations based on what I feel and what I have experienced. There are times when people are offended at something that seems ridiculous to me. I can’t see their feelings. I can’t know their experiences. I don’t know what is fragile in their emotional makeup, so an offense won’t make sense to me.
The opposite is also true. What cuts me deeply may seem like a passing comment to the other person. They aren’t bothered, so why am I? They don’t know I’m sensitive about the way I look, or the way I talk, or that I feel insecure because I can’t afford nicer clothes. They don’t know I don’t feel accepted when they mention ‘those people on that side of the tracks.’
We all offend. We all get offended. It’s how we respond that affects our lives. It’s true that we should always seek reconciliation and give a heartfelt apology when we’ve offended others. However, this book is going to focus on how we deal with forgiving those who will never apologize. People will offend and not be able to see the wrong they have done.
There are people who don’t care if they have offended us. There are people who are abusive. There are even people who take pleasure in hurting others. There are also those who cannot see how their actions or words are harmful to others. These will not apologize and if not handled properly, it leaves an open wound. Open wounds don’t heal. But learning the true meaning of forgiveness is the salve that heals.
We learn to handle the offenses of others by learning how to deal with ourselves. The solution is not to change others. You can’t change the other person. You and I must learn how to deal with offenses in a healthy manner while also learning how to take care not to be the cause of offense. It is our responsibility, regardless of who has the greater fault.
Let me tell a true-life experience that taught me much about forgiveness. Several years ago I worked as an IT professional. I loved the type of work I did and my performance showed it. I was promoted several times and eventually became the team lead for our department. The company I worked for had some financial struggles and were hit hard by layoffs. Our team was cut in half and we were merged with another technical team. My manager didn’t survive the cuts so I now reported to the other team’s manager.
I already knew this manager and quickly established a good working relationship. Then one day I was asked to do something unethical. I won’t go into details, but it was something commonly practiced by my new team in order to falsify performance reporting. When I brought up the discrepancy to my manager, the reaction was immediate and harsh. I was demoted from a lead position and my manager made the comment, “When I right someone off, I never go back and I never forgive.”
No truer words were ever spoken. What I thought had been an honest mistake turned out to be the way the team hid unethical practices. For the next three years my manager did everything within his/her power to destroy me. I was given impossible projects that required 70-80 hours a week to accomplish. Being salaried, there was no extra pay.
When I completed the project, it would be transferred to someone else so I didn’t get credit. The reason for the change, “Eddie wasn’t able to get the job done, so I transferred it to Bob from Account Temps.” Never mind that the work had already been completed.
I was given work in two cities that were due at the same time. One would inevitably go past due. My manager also put me in charge of the parts room. When I was sent to a different state to work, I was still responsible for issuing and watching over the inventory of parts in my home state. My inability to get back in time to issue parts to other technicians was noted as a failure on my performance review, but not the reason why.
To make a long story shorter, anything that could be done to show me in a bad light was done. On my yearly performance review, I was given an unsatisfactory rating and dozens of infractions were listed against me. Knowing this was coming, I logged every email, communication, and job. I disputed my review and provided a thirty-page document detailing every perceived infraction, and proving why the accusations were false. Human Resources (HR) complimented me on the details of my documentation and removed every infraction from my record, but they refused to remove the poor performance rating.
I was frustrated. I was a salaried employee, so I got no overtime, but I had more than double the workload of anyone else on the team. To keep up I put in up to thirty hours a week unpaid overtime. Sometimes forty. I mapped out my coverage area – forty-thousand square miles. The next closest person had one hundred square miles.
When I left in the morning, my kids were asleep. When I came home, my kids were asleep. I looked for another job, but with five kids I couldn’t afford a pay cut, and the economy wasn’t offering many positions at my level. I was growing bitter, grumpy, and miserable. I kept praying, “Lord, why are you letting this happen? Get me out of this situation.” When I applied for jobs within the company, my manager would give a bad report and nix my chances.
Another year rolled by and it was time for my next annual performance review. I knew what was coming. It would be another substandard performance review. The previous year I had disputed the slander and every allegation was proven false. My complaint was noted, but the manager had an explanation that apparently persuaded HR not to act. Now I was in the same position again. Do I dispute? Last year it did no good, created more tension, plus it was stressful trying to present my case to a skeptical corporate Human Resources department – a group that naturally wanted to support management.
While I pondered my difficult situation, I prayed for guidance. In my morning devotion, I came across this passage in 1 Peter 2:23
When He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously;
It didn’t make much of an impression on my heavy mind at the time. I headed out for the long drive and listened to my Bible on audio. My audio was at 1 Peter and I heard this passage again. What a coincidence. Later in the day, I was driving between sites and turned on the radio. Just as the radio came on, someone was reading scripture for a sermon, “When He was reviled, did not revile in return…but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.”
I turned off the radio. Three times in one day. Lord, are you trying to show me something?
I began praying for God to open my eyes to see what He was showing me. That’s a prayer God quickly answered. I couldn’t see it before because I had only been focused on my own misery. My focus was on the wrongs being done, not on the work God wanted to do.
It was like blinders fell from my eyes and the bigger picture of God’s plan unfolded in my mind’s eye. This was a refining process. I had seen God work in my life through the good things and the situations I understood were blessings, but I didn’t recognize the true blessing of God refining my life and showing me what was truly important.
My job wasn’t something I had control over. Nor did I need to fret over it. If it was truly a blessing from God, it was God who gave it, and only God who could take it away. This manager could rage against me, but had no power beyond what God was willing to put me through. And according to scripture, if I’m walking in God’s purposes, everything works toward my good.
Did I believe this was true? I knew it was.
Suddenly I felt a load lifted off my shoulders.
Then God hit me with something I wasn’t sure I could do. Rather than me telling you, let’s look at the scripture’s command in Matthew 18:23-35
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24 “And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
25 “But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made.
26 “The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’
27 “Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’
29 “So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’
30 “And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.
31 “So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done.
32 “Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.
33 ‘Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’
34 “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
God was not only teaching me patience and trust, but He was teaching me what it truly means to forgive.
One thing we must realize is that sin is a debt. When I sin, that sin must be paid. The Bible says every sin will be held in account before God. For us as Christians, our debt has been paid, for Jesus bore that debt upon the cross. That’s why Jesus said in the model prayer, “Forgive us of our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
My manager was a debtor to me. Every wrong was piling up in the account I was keeping track of. Even subconsciously, we keep a mental note of wrongs and recount them when something reminds us. Jesus’ disciple, Peter, made a statement he thought was a noble effort. “How many times should we forgive someone? Seven times?”
Seven was a generous offer by human standards. Freely forgiving seven times is more than most people would do. Most times it only takes one offense to create an enemy. Jesus’ answer took the records of debt away completely. “Not until seven times, but seventy times seven.” Four-hundred and ninety times. You see, I can remember seven times, but there is no way I can keep track of four-hundred and ninety. Even if I forgive from the heart, my memory can go back seven times. But Jesus pushed the number beyond our ability to remember. In other words, never stop forgiving. If I’m keeping records, I have failed to forgive. When I remember the wrong, I am commanded to erase it again.
As a self-protection method, I had been keeping track of my manager’s wrongs. I could easily have produced another thirty-page defense. I could have produced a hundred-page defense. But the Lord shattered my rationale. I thought about my record keeping and remembered, seventy times seven.
When I’m keeping records, I am taking my problems out of God’s hands and setting myself up as the debt holder. Which also puts me under the debt, for I have decided to be judged under a human standard instead of by grace.
Do I want God to be in control, or me? At this point, I had a two-year track record. None of my work and recordkeeping had done much good. Easy choice on that one.
But look how many things this person has done to me, I thought – wanting to justify my anger. Then I remembered the passage above. I was the man with more debt than he could pay.
To put Jesus’ parable into perspective, the man who owed ten-thousand talents could never pay it. It’s ironic that he pled, “Have mercy and I will pay all.” The only thing the Lord listened to was, “Have mercy on me.” The debtor could never have paid it all. A talent was a weight of measure which is approximately 130 pounds. In this scenario, it was gold measured out by weight. What would a hundred and thirty pounds of gold cost in today’s market? Now multiply that by ten-thousand. I don’t think a man who was penniless would have any hope of repaying one talent, much less ten-thousand.
A day’s wage in that era was a denarii. His fellow who owed him 100 denarii did have a significant debt. It would take one-hundred days of labor to pay the man back. But what is that in comparison to the billions of day’s wages he owed, but had been forgiven?
The picture Jesus is painting regarding forgiveness is that you can never repay God for the offense you have done. Or I have done. Every sinful thought, action, lie, offense, wrong is a debt we cannot repay. The flesh can never produce good, so even a lifetime of servitude cannot repay anything to God.
Jesus even took sin to the reality of the human heart. “I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust has already committed adultery in his heart.” Think about this the next time you do a double take when an attractive man or woman walks by. He said greed is equal to thievery, envy equals idolatry, hatred is murder, etc. What debt do I have to God? Yet He forgave me of all that debt, and now He is asking me to release the debt of wrongs done to me. God offers grace freely, but I have the right to refuse grace and hold on to human nature.
I tossed aside my records. But that wasn’t enough. It’s not to just ignore the wrongs done, it was to forgive them from the heart. And what is the evidence of forgiveness? Remember the first verse we looked at? God has given us power, love, and a sound mind. Forgiveness flows out of that love and is something God has empowered us with the ability to do. Look now at Matthew 5:44-46
44 “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,
45 “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
This is forgiveness in action. It’s hard to do, but necessary. Until I forgive, bitterness and hatred remain. Bitterness and hatred don’t only destroy the person they are against, these also destroy the one who possesses them. Have you ever seen a hateful person who has joy? Are they happy? Bitterness is the bars of our own prison cell. It becomes a prison we construct to imprison ourselves in order to get back at our enemy.
Love your enemies. How do I do that? According to Jesus, I must bless. I must do good. I must pray for them. Pray for, not against. “God, get them back for me,” is not praying for our enemies. “Lord, I release them of all wrong. Bless them, forgive them, and give me an opportunity to do good for them,” is a prayer of forgiveness.
It isn’t for you or I to judge someone’s worthiness of forgiveness. God’s first desire is always mercy. It’s God’s desire for your enemy to repent of their wrongs, surrender to God’s mercy, and find forgiveness through Christ. This makes your enemy a brother or sister in Christ. Just as those whom you have wronged have no right to demand God refuse mercy to you, you have no right to demand for God to be merciless to another person.
Is forgiveness hard? You bet it is. And it takes time to heal. But this healing is applied each time we forgive. When our mind conjures up past wrongs, it’s a reminder to pray for that person. You’ll find deliverance from your own pain when you deliver that person from debt. Your pain will remind you of that person, and this should remind you of the command to forgive, pray, and seek their good. When you do so, there is a reward. Look at Proverbs 25:21-22
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
22 For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, And the LORD will reward you.
The Lord rewards those who follow His word. Your first reward is peace and deliverance from anger and bitterness. Also, when we forgive, we are placing ourselves in the center of God’s mercy for our own lives.
The choices are to remain angry, become bitter, refuse God’s mercy for our own life, and suffer the consequences. Bitterness is the most destructive force in your emotions. Clinging to it is like poisoning your mind. Yet our human nature would rather poison itself than release the debt of another. We don’t call it ‘a fallen nature’ for nothing. It’s corrupted by sin, but God has the power to give us a new spiritual nature through His righteousness.
After you forgive, the wrongs will come to mind again. And again. And again. You have trained your thought patterns to dwell on the things that bother you. Now you have to change your way of thinking. And this doesn’t come easy.
After God revealed these things to me, the relief was almost overwhelming. No longer was I controlled by my enemy, but I found a peace that had evaded me for two years. As I thought upon these things and began to see how much it caused me to grow spiritually and emotionally, I would have written a ‘thank you letter’ if I didn’t think it would have antagonized the situation.
Then something happened. A new wave of attacks came. Though I had forgiven and felt such sweet relief, all my anger and frustration came pouring back when the next wrong came along. I had to wrestle with my emotions again. I had to go through the forgiveness process again. I had to make myself say the words, “I forgive you,” and then pray for that person’s good. I had to wrestle with my heart so I could sincerely bless that person. Over time I learned how to do this better, but it was never easy to forgive someone I knew would never even acknowledge the wrong. In the end, who is better off? The person saying, “I forgive you and I bless you?” Or the one seething with hatred and trying to find a way to cause more harm?
While my manager was in bondage by the vindictive attitude controlling them, the attacks became my blessing.
It would be another year before God removed me from this situation. On occasions I remember this manager and pray for them. The wrongs I suffered can never be undone, but the Lord rewards and out-blesses any wrong.
· Memorize Matthew 5:44-45
· Memorize Proverbs 24:17-18
· Pick out an offense or someone who has hurt you. Say out loud, “I forgive you.” Consciously release that person of their debt against you.
· If you have hard feelings against anyone, take time out and pray for that person.
o Pray for God to forgive them.
o Pray for God to reveal His mercy to them.
o Pray for God to bless them.
· Continue going through any offenses or hurtful relationships and forgive, then pray for the person who has caused you pain.
· Each time you feel hurt or remember a wrong done, follow the above steps to forgive and pray for the person who wronged you. Don’t allow your feelings to fester.
Review Life Applications from previous chapters.