How to Forgive What You Can’t Forget
Dr. Jim Denison
The Wall Street Journal recently carried a front-page article describing the so-called “Revenge Industry.” This is a new kind of business which caters to those who have been wronged and are unwilling to forgive.
“Revenge Unlimited” is one example—through its web site it sells dead flowers, black roses, boxes of fish heads, melted chocolates, and stones with curses on them. Drop Dead Florist in Orlando has five full-time employees, and had to hire six more for Valentines Day week. The Voodoo Boutique will sell you a variety of magic-spell kits and voodoo dolls for the person you hate.
Only in America, you say? No, the Revenge Industry is as old as Cain, the brother of Abel, and as appealing to us as it was to him.
Lewis Smedes wrote the wonderful book Forgive and Forget. Here’s how it begins: “Somebody hurt you, maybe yesterday, maybe a lifetime ago, and you cannot forget it. You did not deserve the hurt. It went deep, deep enough to lodge itself in your memory. And it keeps on hurting you now.
“You are not alone. We all muddle our way through a world where even well-meaning people hurt each other. When we invest ourselves in deep personal relationships, we open our souls to the wounds of another’s disloyalty or even betrayal.
“There are some hurts that we can all ignore. Not every slight sticks with us, thank God. But some old pains do not wash out so easily; they remain like stubborn stains in the fabric of our own memory.
“Deep hurts we never deserved flow from a dead past into our living present. A friend betrays us; a parent abuses us; a spouse leaves us in the cold—these hurts do not heal with the coming of the sun….
“Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which, despite their best intentions, people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.”
How? Where do we begin? Let’s follow Jesus’ wisdom on the subject, for the sake of our homes and our hearts.
What is forgiveness?
We begin with the logical first question: what is forgiveness? What does this mean? What is it? Listen to Jesus’ answer: “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Let’s understand what Jesus is saying.
“If you are offering your gift at the altar”—this is the act of worship, in the context of the Temple sacrifices. We would say, “If you are about to put money in the offering plate.”
“And there remember that your brother has something against you”—not just that you have something against him, but he has something against you.
“Leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother”—we would say, “Get up from church, go make things right with him, then come back and put money in the offering plate.”
And so biblical forgiveness is reconciliation—it is “making things right” with someone with whom things are wrong. The most common Greek word translated “forgiveness” is “aphiami,” which means to wipe away, to remove, to let go, to release. This can be a legal word, meaning to release from a debt or punishment, to pardon.
Here’s what forgiveness is not:
Biblical forgiveness is not forgetting the pain. You do not have the human ability to do this. God can “remember our sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34), but we cannot.
Biblical forgiveness is not excusing the person, pretending the pain did not happen.
It is not ignoring the conflict, as though it will go away; it will not.
It is not tolerating the person, merely accepting that this is the way he or she is. Then nothing is solved or resolved.
Biblical forgiveness is pardon. It is to choose not to punish. When the governor pardons a criminal he does not forget the crime, or excuse the criminal, or ignore the situation, or tolerate the problem. He chooses not to punish the criminal, even though he could. To forgive someone is to choose not to punish them.
You may be thinking that you cannot do this. That the pain is too great, the hurt too deep, their spirit too unrepentant. That this is beyond you. You’re right. But it’s not beyond the God in you.
Think of all Jacob did to his brother Esau, stealing his birthright and family position. But there came a time, years later, when “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept” (Genesis 33:4).
Think of all Joseph’s brothers did to him—selling him into slavery, stealing years from his life, separating him from his father and family for multiplied years of imprisonment and suffering. But at the end of it all, Genesis 45:15 says, “And [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept over them.”
Stephen was the first Christian martyr. As the religious authorities were stoning him to death, the Bible says, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60).
If they did this, so can we, with God’s help.
How do we forgive?
So, how do we do this? Counselors describe stages in this process.
First, we are hurt so deeply that we cannot forget the pain. Next, we hate; we want to strike back so that the person hurts as deeply as we do. Then, we begin to heal; we see the person who hurt us in a new light. Finally, we help; we invite the person who has hurt us back into our life. Sometimes he or she won’t, but we’ve done what we can.