God is not easy on his demands of his children and one of the most difficult things he asks us to do is forgive those who have hurt us. Not only does he insist on it, he threatens to withhold his own forgiveness should we withhold ours. It is something that many of us do not realize, believing that we will have absolution simply by repenting, even though a prayer that we say very frequently makes it clear that God's forgiveness is conditional. If we paid attention to the prayer that Jesus taught us to say, we'd catch the lines that said this: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us ...
And just in case we didn't get it—as many of us don't, because we rattle off the prayer like we're in a race to see how fast we can finish saying it—Jesus made it explicitly clear by following up the prayer with the warning that if we didn't forgive men their sins, our Heavenly Father would not forgive us our sins (Matthew 6:14-15).
As anyone who has ever been hurt will know, this is easier said than done, but even the most difficult things are made possible in the School of the Holy Spirit. In the School of Forgiveness the Spirit teaches us how.
My own lessons in the subject began shortly after my release from jail. A lot of anger smouldered in my heart towards several people. Though I had shouldered the responsibility for the events that led to my arrest in all public testimony that I have ever made, I wasn't as gracious in my own heart. I was convinced that whatever happened that night was not entirely my fault and blamed quite a few people for it. My sojourn in jail resulted in more anger against more people, and incidents that followed my release triggered off even more anger, all of which I suppressed.
Given my inherent volatility, I was like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, and were it not for my conversion and the ensuing grace, there would have been nothing to stop the explosion. As it was, there were several minor outbursts, but fortunately they didn't result in too much damage. Before there could be, the Holy Spirit defused the "bomb" by asking me in his quiet manner how I could possibly hold anything against anybody when God had forgiven me for far worse. Just a few days earlier I had made my first confession in 25 years, and received absolution for all my sins.
[I hadn't yet learned to recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit as His, but in retrospect there is no doubt in my mind who the teacher was. And as with most things I was taught, I would get the Scriptural validations later. The parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 provided the validation, not that it was really required in this instance.]
Much of the anger dissipated the instant I absorbed this, and though a lot of bitterness still remained, I had received my first lesson in the School of Forgiveness: the understanding that nothing that anybody might have done to hurt us, no matter how bad, is comparable to what we have done (and continue to do) to hurt God. And if God can forgive us for all that we do, wiping the slate completely clean time and time again, then how can we not forgive others in the same way?
This provides the motivation to take the first step, which is making the decision to forgive those who have hurt us. Yet, it doesn't seem to do much good because many of the bad feelings— the anger, bitterness, rage, pain and assorted feelings—remain, and rise to the throat like bile the instant we think about the person or the events surrounding the incident that resulted in injury.
This brings us to the second bit of understanding the Spirit provides: that the unforgiveness remains because the hurt remains. All unforgiveness we harbor against somebody is invariably the result of being hurt, whether deliberately or unintentionally. The hurt is emotional, but is no less real and no less painful than what we suffer from physical injuries. In the comparison, lies the cure for the malady.
When we suffer physical injury, we normally brush it off if the hurt is minor, and in a few moments whatever little pain might have been there is gone and the injury itself completely forgotten. If the injury is more severe, we might apply some balm or antiseptic lotion, and within a few days as the pain goes away, so does the memory of it.
If the injury is serious, however, we immediately cut a path to the doctor. After making some relevant inquiries, he cleans the wound, dresses it, prescribes some pain killers (if necessary), and tells us to come and see him in a few days to see how the wound is healing. Depending on the severity of the injury, this might take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, but if treated properly, the wound will eventually heal. In a few cases there might be an occasional twinge of pain; in a few instances it might leave a scar, but most of the time, there won't even be a recollection of the injury.
It is no different with emotional hurts. In most instances, minor hurts are brushed off and quickly forgotten. We might dwell a bit longer on hurts that are bit more serious, but they too are forgotten soon enough. It is the serious injuries that give us problems and the reason they cause so much anguish is because we don't do what we would do with a regular wound: go to a doctor! The doctor, of course, is God. Instead, we keep looking at the wound with an unhealthy, morbid fascination. We poke and prod it, not giving it the slightest chance to heal. And on the rare instances when it does seem like it might heal despite everything, we tease it, making it bleed all over again. Imagine having a deep gash on your arm that you keep digging your fingers into and you'll get an idea of what I am getting at here! And then, we go around showing off our wound to all and sundry. More often than not, they only add salt to the wound, increasing the pain that you feel. Soon, the wound begins to fester, and again, just like a physical injury, it affects your entire system making you ill.
In the School of Forgiveness, the Spirit does not let you leave such wounds untended. After strictly forbidding you from showing them or talking about them to anybody (with perhaps the exception of your spiritual director or counsellor), He takes you to Jesus for healing. And, Good Doctor that He is (I don't know how they missed that one in Scripture!), Jesus gets the process underway. He asks you what happened, knowing that just telling him the story is therapeutic. He then cleans your wound and dresses it for you. He asks you to return in a while so that he can see how well it is healing. And one day you will wake up to see that you have been healed, with whatever grievances you might have had against your offender forgotten. And not much longer after that, you will find yourself unable to remember even the events surrounding the hurt.
It took me nearly a year to achieve such a state of reconcilation. In the months before this happened, there were occasions when circumstances forced me to meet the people who had hurt me. The Spirit insisted I make no attempt to avoid such interaction, though a strong part of me wanted nothing whatsoever to do with them. And when I did meet them, the Spirit would insist that I resist the temptation to be caustic or rude, urging me instead to be as civil and courteous as I could possibly be. He didn't ask me to engage in hypocritical behavior — at no point in time did he tell me to treat these people as though they were my best friends; he just wanted me to do the right thing by God. And then a day came when I found that I no longer held anything against any of these people anymore. As a matter of fact, I found myself having to struggle to even recollect what they had done to hurt me. The reconciliation was complete.
Once you have dealt with past hurts, the Spirit teaches you how to deal with fresh injuries. We live in a world that is so full of hate, the hurting never ceases. We need to be able to protect ourselves from this if we are to have any peace of mind at all, and the only way to do so is by understanding yet another an important truth, a clue to which can be found in the words a dying Jesus said on the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
People do not know what they do! They do not comprehend the nature or the consequences of their hateful actions. They do not understand that the things they do jeopardize their salvation. Spiritually challenged, they walk in darkness so total they just cannot see the light. This doesn't justify their actions, but it does allow us to see them in a different perspective; one in which your feelings might be more of pity than of anger.
The Holy Spirit taught me this truth in his inimitable manner. One evening, somebody very close to me launched into a tirade of totally unwarranted verbal abuse. In the past, the repercussions would have been swift and brutal, but this time, rather than anger, I felt this feeling of immense sadness sweep through me. It came about because I realized that in his attempt to hurt me by what he was saying, he was hurting himself more and God in heaven still more. I just wanted to reach out and wrap my arms around him and comfort him.
It was a revelation of sorts, and provided the answer to something else that I had often puzzled about. Jesus had told us to offer the other cheek if one was slapped. I had long since discovered that this was simply impossible if you took the "intellectual decision" to turn the other cheek. Unless you were far smaller and much weaker you'd hit back instinctively! But if you saw the slap as the action of someone who simply didn't know any better, you'd actually be happy to turn the other cheek, in the hope that this act of love might touch the other person and make him loving.
As a final lesson in the School of Forgiveness, the Spirit would lead you into praying for the people who hurt you. Prayer is vital to the act of defending yourself against unforgiveness. It renders the enemy's attack impotent. When you ask for God's blessings upon the person who has hurt you, rather than engage in thoughts of bitterness and vengeance and hatred that the enemy feeds you with, you take the sting out of his tail. After all, what's the point of sowing seeds of hatred, if they grow into plants of love?
As you can see, none of the lessons are easy but you have to learn them if you want to grow in this School. You pass out from it only when you have consistently made it a habit of forgiving those who have hurt you almost immediately upon their doing so. It would help you immensely if you could keep this final point in mind: that not forgiving somebody is simply not worth the separation from God that it results in. It is much better to forgive and be one with Him.
May the Spirit be with you.
Level 1 - Basic forgiveness: You take the decision to forgive all those who have hurt you in the past and ask God to heal you of all your hurts. You also take the decision to be loving to those who might hurt you in the future. You might not succeed. Be patient. Some wounds take time to heal.
Level 2 - Intermediate forgiveness: You make no attempt to avoid anybody who has hurt you, and when your paths cross are civil and courteous, if not affectionate. The healing process begins and God's grace keeps you strong. You take new hurts to God the instant they occur.
Level 3 - Advanced forgiveness: You no longer bear any ill will towards those who have hurt you, treating them as you would any friend. The wounds have healed and you find it difficult to remember the events that led to your hurt. Fresh hurts are mitigated to a great extent as you understand why people act the way they do and pity them rather than be angry when they wrong you.
Graduate Level: You forgive anybody who hurts you instantly, successfully fighting off any and all desire to hold back your love—which is what unforgiveness really is; while simultaneously praying for God's mercy and blessings upon that person.