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, 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.
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 smoldered in my heart towards several people. Though I had shouldered the responsibility for the events that led to my arrest in all 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 at the time, but in retrospect there is no doubt in my mind who the teacher was. And as with everything 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 treat our wounds, even if they are minor. If the injury is serious, 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 severe, however, we immediately cut a path to the doctor. After making some inquiries, he cleans the wound, dresses it, prescribes some pain killers if necessary, and tells us to return 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 a scar, but most of the time there is no visible trace of the injury.
When we suffer emotional hurts, however, we don’t treat our wounds, or seek treatment for them. Instead, we poke and prod our wounds, not giving them 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 we feel. Soon, the wound begins to fester, and again, just like a physical injury, it affects our entire system making us ill.
In the School of Forgiveness, the Spirit does not let us leave such wounds untended. After strictly forbidding us from talking about them to anybody (with perhaps the exception of our spiritual director or confessor), He takes us to Jesus for healing. And, Good Doctor that He is, Jesus gets the process underway. He asks us what happened, and just telling him the story is therapeutic. He then cleans our wound and dresses it for us. He asks us to return in a while so that he can see how well it is healing. And one day we wake up to see that we have been healed, with whatever grievances we might have had against our offender forgotten. And not much longer after that, we will find ourselves unable to remember even the events surrounding the hurt.
It took me nearly a year to achieve such a state of reconciliation. 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 again insisted 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–but he did ask that I do the right thing by God by treating them kindly. 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 recollect what they had done to hurt me. The reconciliation was complete.
Once we have dealt with past hurts, the Spirit teaches us 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 our 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, a feeling of immense sadness swept 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 told us to offer the other cheek if one was slapped. I had long since discovered that this was simply impossible if we just took the “intellectual decision” to turn the other cheek. Unless we were far smaller and much weaker we’d hit back instinctively! But if we saw the blow as the action of someone who simply didn’t know any better, we’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 more loving.
As a final lesson in the School of Forgiveness, the Spirit leads us into praying for the people who have hurt us. Prayer is vital to the act of defending ourselves against unforgiveness. It renders the enemy’s attack impotent. When we ask for God’s blessings upon the person who has hurt us, rather than engage in thoughts of bitterness and vengeance and hatred that the enemy feeds us with, we 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 we can see, none of the lessons are easy but we have to learn them if we want to grow in this School. We pass out from it only when we have consistently made it a habit of forgiving those who have hurt us almost immediately upon their doing so. It would help us immensely if we kept this final point in mind: 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.
The levels here overlap considerably, but still provide a very good indicator of where we stand.
Level 1–Basic forgiveness:
We take the decision to forgive all those who have hurt us in the past and ask God to heal us of all our hurts. We also take the decision to be loving to those who might hurt us in the future. We might not succeed, but we need to be patient. Some wounds take time to heal.
Level 2–Intermediate forgiveness:
We make no attempt to avoid anybody who has hurt us, and when our paths cross, we are civil and courteous, if not affectionate. The healing process begins and God’s grace keeps us strong. We take new hurts to God the instant they occur.
Level 3–Advanced forgiveness:
We no longer bear any ill will towards those who have hurt us, treating them as we would any friend. The wounds have healed and we find it difficult to remember the events that led to our hurt. Fresh hurts are mitigated to a great extent as we understand why people act the way they do and pity them rather than be angry when they wrong us.
We forgive anybody who hurts us immediately, successfully fighting off any and all desire to hold back our love–which is what unforgiveness really is; while simultaneously praying for God’s mercy and blessings upon that person.