“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Mahatma Ghandi
Last week we discussed the benefits of forgiveness, but I left you without addressing the “how” question – how do we learn to forgive? Forgiveness does not come easily to most of us, especially those who’ve suffered serious mistreatment and abuse. The suggestions I’m about to offer won’t make necessarily make forgiveness easy; they just might help make it more likely.
How can I increase my ability to forgive?
1. I increase my ability to forgive by first asking God to forgive me
Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Every one of us needs God’s forgiveness. That’s why Jesus died on the cross – to pay the price for our sin and make that forgiveness possible. Have you asked God to forgive your sins because of what Jesus did? If you do that God will not only forgive you, He will also give you a new heart; one more capable of forgiving others.
2. I increase my ability to forgive by remembering how much I myself have been forgiven
I once made a fool of myself in a seminary classroom verbally attacking a professor. He was a godly, patient man, a missionary statesman, who didn’t deserve my harsh question. But he reddened, replied graciously, and let it go, though I deserved a tongue-lashing. I’ve been forgiven many times for my failures and offenses. All of us have. When I’m about to get on my high horse and ride roughshod over an offender, I remember those who did not choose to ride roughshod over me and it helps me to be more forgiving. We’re to “forgive as the Lord forgave you.” God has forgiven us a million sins, can’t we forgive each other a few?
3. I increase my ability to forgive by remembering that forgiving is not condoning
Sometimes a forgiving spirit will soften the way we see the other person. We may be able to clear up a misunderstanding, or at least have a bit more sympathy for them. Forgiveness, however, doesn’t make what’s wrong right. It helps to know that we can forgive without, in any way saying that what was done was “okay” or “acceptable.” The next point adds to this one:
4. I increase my ability to forgive by giving myself freedom to feel negative emotions like anger and hurt
As a child growing up in a Christian home I somehow absorbed the idea that certain negative emotions were, in themselves, ungodly. I thought that anger was unnecessary for a Spirit-filled believer who trusted God. By the time I hit my 20’s I was outwardly calm and inwardly bubbling with resentment. I had to learn that it was okay to feel angry or afraid or frustrated; that these are normal human responses to life. The godly Christian will still feel negative emotions. These, in fact, often serve a useful function. One key to staying godly, however, is learning to process painful feelings in a healthy way – feeling them, understanding what triggered them, and then allowing them time to dissipate. As Psalm 4 puts it: “in your anger do not sin”. But how can we forgive someone we’re still angry at? Again, the next point helps to clarify:
5. I increase my ability to forgive by recognizing that forgiveness is primarily an act of the will
Please hear this truth – it could change your life. It’s possible to forgive even when we’re still furious. But isn’t that hypocritical? No it’s not. Forgiveness is not primarily an emotional state. It’s a choice; an act of the will. I can genuinely choose to forgive you even though my emotions fight me tooth and nail on this. Certainly, our long-term goal is for our negative emotions toward the other person to subside, but that usually takes a while and we can’t force it to happen. So how is forgiveness an act of the will? The next points will explain.
6. I increase my ability to forgive by not continuing to rehearse the offense
I’m not suggesting that we ignore the offense. Take time to ask questions like: “What happened? What was my role? What was theirs? How does this make me feel? What should I do?” If necessary, get the input of a person you trust. What I’ve discovered in my own life, however, is that this review is usually best if it’s brief. While the initial review yields information, continued rehearsal mostly yields deepening resentment. In other words, it doesn’t help to keep thinking about it. At a certain point, it’s best, when you catch yourself rehearsing the offense yet one more time, to say, “I’m done going over this” and focus on something else.
7. I increase my ability to forgive by asking God to help me
God can do so much to aid the forgiving process if we enlist His aid. I’ve often said, “Lord, please help me to forgive this person” and found comfort. He can bring healing inside us, give us wisdom in the matter, and help us have the right attitude.. This leads to the next suggestion:
8. I increase my ability to forgive by praying for the other person
One of the best ways to change my attitude toward the offender is to pray a positive prayer for them. I ask God to work in their life; to draw them toward Himself, to heal their brokenness, to give them wisdom, and so on. When we pray positively for the offender we become their ally rather than just their adversary. It’s easier to forgive an ally.
9. I increase my ability to forgive by talking it through with the offender
I understand that this doesn’t always work. Nevertheless, often it is useful to sit down and have a talk with the one who’s wronged us. At the very least, it allows us to air our frustrations and makes them aware of how we see things. And often, if done skillfully, we can find some understanding and reconciliation. The key word here is “skillfully Skillful conflict resolution involves aspects like humility, a willingness to listen, “me” language rather than “you” language, and so on. On the other hand, angry accusations just throw gasoline on the flames.
10. I increase my ability to forgive by learning to draw boundaries when necessary
Last time I noted that forgiveness does not always mean that we release the other person from the natural consequences of their actions. Often, we do choose to just let it go. But sometimes, for their sake and for ours, we draw a line in the sand. We may, for instance, not share any more sensitive secrets with a gossipy friend until they have regained our trust. Knowing that we have some control over the next possible offense makes us feel less like a victim and sometimes makes it easier to forgive; to let it go.
11. I increase my ability to forgive by learning to give things time
Forgiveness, especially on the emotional level, usually takes a while to have its full affect. If we can deal with the matter, forgive, and let it go, it will usually fade after a while. It just takes time.
I’ve given you a lot to think about today. I hope that you’ll seriously consider it. Forgiveness is a great gift, both to us and to those imperfect human beings whom we share this world with. Mark Twain put it this way: Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.