The Painful Path of Forgiveness

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All of us have been faced by a situation that required our forgiveness. Some of us have been in much more difficult situations than others. Maybe you have been faced with an abusive parent. Maybe you been betrayed by your spouse. Maybe you found out a close friend was gossiping about you behind your back, or plotting your demise. Maybe you were wrongly fired, maligned, or misrepresented. Whatever the situation, when we feel like we have been wronged, forgiveness is virtually impossible.

In situations where we have been betrayed, stabbed in the back, cheated on, abused, belittled, mocked and so forth, our human heart jumps at the opportunity for justice. We want to see those who have caused our pain, have equal or more pain inflicted upon them. Our desire for justice is a beautiful thing designed by God, that we have hijacked for our own purposes. Justice is a funny thing. Most humans want justice when they’ve been wronged, and want mercy when they have wronged someone else.

My wife and I have had to have a lot of conversations about forgiveness lately. As is typical in our relationship, she is generally the one that has to do the forgiving. Being the wrong-doer constantly has me thinking about applying the gospel to myself. At the same time, it has caused me to reflect on what it looks like to apply the gospel to offering forgiveness as well.

I am writing this under the assumption that those who have wronged you are repentant and seeking your forgiveness. I’d assume that, while many of the same principles may apply, dealing with someone who is unrepentant and unwilling to recognize their wrong is a different situation.

So what does it look like for a Christian to forgive? How do we carry the weight of the gospel into the battle-scarred arena of our own soul? How do we extend the precious mercy and grace that we have received?

1. A Gospel Mirror

The first obvious truth is that we must, daily, look into the gospel mirror. Christians who are constantly informed by the gospel, live lives that express and extend gospel truths. When we have been wronged, it is all the more essential to look deep into the gospel. When we drink deeply of the truths of the cross and resurrection, our lens towards others adjusts dramatically.

First, we see our own life fraught with failure treated with grace and forgiveness. When we have been wronged, betrayed, abused we taste in a very small sense what it is that God has experienced in a cosmic sense. Every time we have mistreated someone, mocked someone, cheated on someone, gossiped about someone, we are betraying, rebelling against, mocking, and cheating on God Himself. When we look deep into the gospel, our self-righteousness fades away and we gain an accurate perspective of ourselves. We, too, know the feeling of emptiness and brokenness that comes with wronging someone – God Himself. Yet God, rich in mercy, did not hold us accountable for our sins; He extended His grace, mercy, and forgiveness. For the Christian, forgiveness is like looking into a mirror. It is extending to others the grace that was extended to you in Christ.

But second, when we look deep into the gospel we find justice. God can freely extend forgiveness and grace to you and me because the price has been paid. In the same way, we are free to extend forgiveness and grace to those who have wronged us because the price has been paid. We often want to humiliate, inflict pain, shed blood. All of those happened in Christ. Christ was humiliated in your place and in the place of your wrong-doer. Pain was inflicted to Christ instead of to you and your wrong-doer. Christ’s sinless blood was shed instead of your sinful blood and instead of the sinful blood of your wrong-doer. In the ultimate act of injustice, justice was served.

We must preach these truths to ourselves daily. Not just when we’ve been wronged. It is imperative that we do so when we’ve been wronged, but it is necessary that we do so every day. As we communicate these truths to ourselves, the good news of the gospel will deeply permeate our responses to those around us.

2. First Your Will, Then Your Affections

This gospel mirror is the most helpful tool towards forgiveness. But what of our forgiveness practice? It is hard to actually swallow the knot in our throat and forgive. Many times, when we forgive, we feel like we are letting someone off the hook. Again, it is a misconstrued sense of justice for the Christian. The whole premise of the gospel is that we have been let off the hook, because Christ was hung in our place.

As hard as it is, when faced with a profound wound we often must first act as if we have forgiven before we feel like we have forgiven. We must first forgive with our will and our actions, trusting that God will move the forgiveness deep into our affections. The challenge of our affections is that we cannot control them. We can certainly influence our affections, but we can’t force them to feel certain things. On top of that, we often are deceived by the faulty assumption that what we feel is right. We feel a need for justice, we feel fear that we will be used or manipulated, so we decide that we must protect ourselves. Our affections, our hearts, can be deceitful. The truth of the gospel must determine our approach towards others, not the whim of our feelings.

Often, we must begin with the act of forgiveness for us to actually feel like forgiving. We must decide, in our will, to set aside the anger. We must pursue reconciliation, as unjust as it may feel. If it’s a parent, we must pick up the phone and talk to them, opening a small window for relationship again. If it is a spouse, we must stop withholding affection, as painful and disgusting as it may feel, or go out on a date, or watch a movie together. If it is a close friend, we must go get coffee, laugh with them again. We must first forgive with our will.

As we take a step towards forgiveness, and continue to look deeply into the gospel mirror, we trust that God will move our affections in that direction.

3. Their sin is not just against you

It is hard to have an aerial perspective when we have been wronged. We are often down in the dirt and the muck of the problem. The sins of others have dramatic effects on us, that is undeniable. Many of us still have wounds from previous injustices and wrongs against us. When we sense ourselves walking into similar situations we cower like abused puppies, not wanting to experience the pain that we did previously.

Ultimately, the sins committed against you are not committed against you. Yes, in a sense they are committed against you. But in a much bigger, cosmic, terrifying way, those sins were committed against God Himself. It is easy to get stuck on the part of it that was done to me. And, in many cases, it is very understandable. I cannot imagine the pain and hurt that comes along with being a victim of abuse at the hands of a predator.

However, to forgive, we must take an eternal posture. We must remember that every single one of us will have to give an account to God. God does not take justice and accountability lightly. We can confidently extend forgiveness knowing that this sin was not just committed against us. Far worse, it was committed against God. And God will ensure that justice will be served for that sin. It will be served in one of two ways: Christ will resorb the blow of justice on the cross, or your wrong-doer will. In either case, it is healthy, when we forgive, to remember that they have not just sinned against us.

When we remember this, it should break our hearts with compassion. If we have looked deeply into the gospel mirror, our longing should be for reconciliation. Not just between us and our wrong-doers, but between our wrong-doer and God. If you have been sinned against, and your wrong-doer is repentant of their wrong, out of love you should seek their reconciliation with God. It won’t be easy. You may have to stand for days examining your own images in the gospel mirror. But, in the end, the love of the gospel compels us to extend God’s grace to others – His grace to forgive, and His forgiving grace.

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