Can I Truly Forgive?
Jesus said the absolute highest level of spiritual maturity is defined by forgiving, loving, and blessing one's enemies. Gees. That is worth hearing again, since it is one of the most important Biblical statements we will ever hear: the absolute highest level of spiritual maturity is defined by forgiving, loving, and blessing one's enemies. This is the transformational pinnacle of authentic Christianity.
Now that we have been humbled, let's look into this. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus said to love and pray for our enemies (v44). He finishes by saying the person who does this consistently from the heart (18:35) is "perfect" like God (v48). He does not mean perfect in a literal way, He means perfect as in pinnacle spiritual maturity. Other scriptures also use "perfect" in this sense (Jas 3:2, 2Co 7:1, see in the YLT).
Jesus modeled this level of godliness on the cross. At His worst, most painful moment He prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34).
If we cannot relate with the sinless God-man, let's relate with Stephen, a clay human in our same mold. As he was being violently and unjustly stoned to death, he spoke these puzzling words (Ac 7:60): "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
Paul also reached this zenith of spiritual maturity. After being deserted and betrayed by everyone closest to him, he spoke these words of forgiveness (2Ti 4:16): "May it not be held against them."
A Bit of My Journey
I confess, for the first few years of my ministry in my late teens and early twenties, I was climbing the wrong ladder. My life and ministry revolved mostly around my vain ambitions. It is only because a mustard seed of my motive was pure that the Lord suffered long with me. Isn't it baffling how He focuses on the 1% mustard seed of sincere faith in us, while looking patiently upon the 99% selfishness? We owe Him more than we could ever repay.
There was a dirty basement in my soul that needed cleaning out. A basement of unforgiveness, pain, and themes of injustice. So the Spirit amped up His convicting illuminations and transforming initiatives. He did not throw cold water on my desire to do great ministerial things. He simply showed me "a more excellent way", the way of love (1Co 12:31). And the pinnacle proof of that love is consistent forgiveness from the heart, as Jesus said. I began looking for a window out of that basement.
For the next few years God put me in situations, over and over and over, where I had to forgive. If I did not, I could not go on with Him intimately or go on into fruitful ministry. His presence and power through me seemed to be put on Pause until I forgave.
At first it was hard. Very hard. The unsanctified regions of the heart want to hate. Those regions want us to turn away, run, hide, and lick its wounds in maimed, resentful seclusion. Those regions want payback. Those regions want all debts repaid, not cancelled. I needed a new heart. I already had one in my new identity in Christ positionally, but I needed it experientially and practically in those troubled regions. I began understanding, in acutely clear and personal ways, scriptures like James 4:8, 3:14, 1Timothy 1:5, Hebrews 4:12, and Revelation 2:23--scriptures that address the heart and its contents.
I began realizing my emotions were not always my friend. They did not always want what is best for me. I needed to betray my heart to be loyal to my spirit. I needed to declare war on poisonous parts of me if I was to ever go on with God.
Several years later, my heart is astonishingly different. It is not perfectly pristine, but its dominant disposition is decidedly forgiveness-oriented. Forgiveness flows so, so, so much more naturally and supernaturally now. It does not require six months of wrestling with myself and God to genuinely forgive, but one or two or a few deep prayer times. Genuine and consistent forgiveness is possible.
Unforgiveness is not normal or acceptable. It is a sin, a disorder of God's order. Like corrosive acid, it rots the soul and body of the possessor. We all can and must reach the spiritual maturity level Stephen and Paul reached. Here are some practical truths about forgiveness that really helped me, and Christians I minister to or counsel.
Forgiveness IS NOT
Forgiving can be so hard because we often attach wrong assumptions to it. Let us sift through these misconceptions.
Forgiveness is Not Denial
Some Christians cannot forgive because they assume forgiveness means denying any wrongdoing happened. This is understandable since many people "forgive" simply to avoid confronting an uncomfortable or miserable subject. Many that have suffered injustice often play this card, saying things like, "They didn't really mean to do it...they didn't know any better...it's okay, we've all hurt someone" and so on. This is not forgiveness; this is denial or avoidance.
Genuine forgiveness sometimes includes respectful confrontation, especially when a genuine wrong has been committed (Lk 17:3). Leviticus 19:17 (HCSB) says, You must not harbor hatred against your brother. Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him.
Stephen forgave his murderers in a most astounding way (Ac 7:59,60). However, only moments before, he confronted their religious error and called them "stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears" (v51)! Rebuke and forgiveness can and sometimes must coexist. When confrontation is impossible, impractical, or unwise, forgiveness must still be applied in the heart.
Forgiveness is Not Trust
Some Christians cannot forgive because they assume forgiving would mean re-trusting the offender. Not true.
Forgiveness is automatically granted from the heart, but trust is not. Trust is cultivated and earned. Jesus forgave perfectly under the greatest injustice the world has ever seen, yet, He was light years away from trusting His offenders. John 2:24,25 (HCSB) says, Jesus, however, would not entrust Himself to them, since He knew them all and because He did not need anyone to testify about man; for He Himself knew what was in man.
He admonished His disciples similarly (Mt 10:17 NASB): But be on your guard against people...
David publicly forgave Saul for trying to kill him, but then "went up to the stronghold" immediately afterwards (1Sam 24:22). He did not trust him enough to come out of hiding. He did the same thing in 1Samuel 26. He forgave Saul again, then went his own way and sought even more security in Philistia (26:25, 27:1). David knew the chasmic difference between forgiveness and trust.
To clarify, Scripture is certainly not promoting isolationism or self-righteous suspicion. Rather, God is warning us to wisely calculate who we trust, for He knows trust leads to tragedy or triumph (Pr 12:26 NKJV). We are to forgive, yet maintain wise boundaries and immovable values. Jesus, David, and Paul were models of genuine forgiveness. They were equally models of calculated trust.
Forgiveness is not Intimacy or Proximity
Some Christians cannot forgive because they assume forgiveness means being "close" again with the offender. Not true.
Intimacy presupposes trust, and where trust has been negated, so has intimacy. Similarly, some assume they have to be willing to be around the offender if they forgive. Also not true. Forgiveness does not equal proximity. Though Jesus spoke to and forgave the Jewish leaders who killed Him, He also calculated when, how, and how long He was around them.
Forgiveness is internally cancelling an offender's debt so that you genuinely love and bless him/her from the heart. Jesus zoned in on the internalness of forgiveness in Matthew 18:35 (NIV, underline added): This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from the heart.
Forgiveness is a genuine, heartfelt cancellation of an offender's wrong. I disagree partially with the assertion that forgiveness is not a feeling, but a choice. It is a choice, for sure, but it is a heartfelt choice as Jesus seemed to emphasize, "...from the heart." I am not at all suggesting we wait to "feel good" or "feel like it" to forgive. No, not at all. What I am saying, as Jesus said, is that our forgiveness package, sooner or later, must include a heart of love toward the offender. How do we do this?
The Holy Spirit's Influence
Anything Christlike we want to actualize comes through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. He is the cultivator of Christ's nature in us (2Co 3:17,18). We cannot forgive like Jesus, David, Stephen, and Paul without mining the same power they did--the Holy Spirit. Not by your might, not by your willpower, but by the Spirit of the Lord (Zec 4:6).
We need Him to continually alight upon our soul with fresh graces to forgive from the heart. Practically, this means depending on Him daily through honest prayer, worship, Bible study, and perceiving His voice. If we have a vibrant and ever-increasing daily experience with Him, sooner or later, our heart will naturally and supernaturally conform to His.
Faith? Luke 17:3-6 say consistent heartfelt forgiveness will demand faith. But faith for what? Faith that God will compensate what your offender owes you. Let that sink in. Meditate on that in God's presence. Talk with Him about it.
So much of our inability or recalcitrance to forgive lies in the fact that we feel we will never get justice. And so we spiral downward into an animalistic mindset, murdering others with internal hate and Raca words (Mt 5:22), convinced we will never get justice.
The apostles sensed forgiveness would require faith (Lk 17:5), faith that God will repay what our offender owes. Remember Joseph! Who do you want settling your accounts? You or God?
Applicationally, this means feeding your faith daily with Bible promises and Spirit-prompted rhema promises that God will rebalance the account your offender overdrew. Romans 10:17 says your faith can and will grow muscular by continually baptizing yourself in God's specific promises on your specific situation.
Heal the Emotions
When feelings get hurt, especially for certain individuals or at certain stages of life, it can seem impossible to get past them. Proverbs 18:19 (NIV) says, A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city...
Sometimes we genuinely get hurt because we have been genuinely wronged. It is okay and healthy to be hurt, to acknowledge our pain, to grieve, to lick our wounds with God and a trusted godly friend for a brief time. Eventually, though, we must gearshift in the Lord's presence and burrow into Him for healing. He promises to pour in soothing oil and strengthen our hearts to rise again in wholeness. Isaiah 61:1-3 has sweet promises on this. If we do not drive our pain into Him for healing, the hurt will morph into hostility. Whatever you accommodate grows.
Besides honest prayer and grieving to the Lord (1Pet 5:7, Ps 6:2,3, 118:5), we heal by opening up our pain and praying with trusted Christians (Jas 5:16), meditating on and praying specific scriptures the Holy Spirit illuminates to us (Ps 107:20), speaking the Word out loud (Pr 18:21), making practical choices that defy the inner pain and move towards health and personal evolution. When Biblical mechanisms are combined and consistently engaged, they work wonders to restore our emotions to health and strength. The greater the hurt, the more intensely these things will have to be applied.
Understand the Mechanics of the Offense
There is great motivation to forgive in understanding the mechanics of the wrong (when possible). I found a surprising wellspring to forgive a certain offender as I came to understand key facts about their past and present life. It opened my eyes. It explained their behavior. It moved me with new compassion to more fully cancel their debts toward me. It even stirred me to bless and serve them. Sometimes all we need is more information to stop penalizing and start forgiving.
I am convinced this is why David could so easily forgive Saul over and over. Saul was insanely jealous of David because of his performance superiority (militarily and socially, 1Sam 16:5-9). Saul resembled Eliab, David's jealous older brother who also mistreated and competed with him (1Sam 17:28,29). David saw Eliab in Saul, and therefore, he could fully understand Saul's specific type of bondage. This helped David not take Saul's behavior so personally.
Use Your Mouth to Shape Your Heart & Life
Proverbs 18:21 says you can select your fruit through your speech. James 3:4 says you can steer your life like a ship through your tongue. This is not some weird mystical hocus-pocus chanting. God simply gave us a power in our words that resembles the power in His words. We are in His image. Be honest: how would your heart and life change if you spoke words of forgiveness, love, and blessing out loud, in prayer, in conversation?
This is what I do now. Whenever someone wounds me, as soon as possible I get alone with the Lord and say these words: Father, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I genuinely forgive _____ from my heart, I cancel their debt to me, I love them, I bless them, I wish the best for them.
I say this (or some form of it) to God until the knot inside me starts to loosen. I say it as often as the bitter impulse rises in me, until I truly wish only well for them and the bitter impulse rises no more. God's Word is true. It works the more we grow into it.
Serve & Pray For the Offender
This is real second-mile Christianity (Mt 5:38-42). This is what the Stephens and Pauls are made of.
Serve the offender in whatever way possible, but only if wise and possible. Send a gift, bless them financially, mow their lawn, carry their bags, cook them dinner, take them out, hold the door for them, compliment them sincerely--anything. Commit to pray for them daily for a set time period.
Feelings are so ridiculously naive they will conform to whatever they are exposed to repeatedly. So trick them into thinking your enemy is your friend. It is very hard to hate someone you keep serving and praying for.
I realize the serving part is not always possible. Attempting to serve your offender might not be wise or safe. There are other factors to weigh. Therefore, consider the serving part with discretion. Pray for the Spirit's guidance and use common sense. When in doubt, get some good godly opinions.
Do Not Try to Reform the Offender
You are not the Holy Spirit. Do not try to change the offender. It is hard to forgive someone we are obsessed with reforming. Abandon that mission. Our task is to love, forgive, bless, intercede, confront respectfully when appropriate, create distance when appropriate, etc. Those windows will provide enough openings for the Spirit to work, should the offender be open to Him.