By Fisher Humphreys
Jesus forgave his enemies. While hanging on the cross, he prayed that God would forgive
those who had crucified him. Jesus also called his followers to forgive their enemies.
Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In case we didn’t quite get the point, Jesus added, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Forgiving the people who wrong us and hurt us, is one of the most beneficial things Jesus has called us to do. It also is one of the most difficult.
What Forgiveness Is
Forgiveness is difficult because it is contrary to what we instinctively want to do.
Forgiveness begins when you are deeply hurt by someone. Maybe it’s a fellow church
member or an entire church. You aren’t perfect, but you did not deserve the hurt you have
experienced. It’s not fair.
How do you respond when you are hurt unfairly? You know that Jesus has told you to forgive.
But what does that mean? It means, I think, that you suffer in a special way. In order to forgive, you must experience two distinct kinds of pain. First comes the pain of being treated unfairly. There is no way to avoid this pain. But in order to forgive you must experience a second kind of pain.
When you’re treated unfairly, you become angry. No one has to learn to do this; it is a natural instinct. Even small children do it. Because you are angry, you naturally want to retaliate. This also is instinctive rather than learned. We want to hit back. We want to hurt those who hurt us. We want revenge. It is controversial to say this, but I believe that you are entitled to retaliate. It’s only fair. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth–that balances the scales. That’s justice. But it’s not forgiveness. Forgiveness goes beyond justice. It is an act of generosity and grace toward those who hurt you.
In forgiveness you do not express your anger by retaliating. Instead, you voluntarily embrace
the pain of your anger. You absorb your anger. You don’t repress or deny it, but you accept it and then live through it, in such a way as to drain the poison off it.
That is what forgiveness is: absorbing the pain caused by people who hurt you, and also
absorbing the anger you naturally feel because you have been hurt, in such a way as to
neutralize your anger and so to end its destructive power in your life and in the lives of others.
Clearly, this is not fair. You didn’t hurt the other person; the other person hurt you. You
shouldn’t have to suffer; the person who hurt you should have to suffer. But in the real world
of moral relationships, it is the injured party alone who can forgive, and that means that it is the injured person who must suffer.
What Helps You to Forgive
Because forgiveness is so hard, we need all the help we can get if we’re going to do it.
Simply decide, intentionally, that you want to forgive. Because the natural response to being
hurt is to retaliate, forgiveness is a response we have to make intentionally.
Belong to a community that supports you as you attempt to practice forgiveness. Many
communities do not believe in forgiveness. They think it is a sign of weakness or of moral
indifference. Those communities will encourage you to seek revenge.
The church, when it is faithful to the message of the Lord Jesus, will support you as you
attempt to practice forgiveness. Of course, sometimes it is a church which has hurt you.
Try to understand those who hurt you. Maybe they have been hurt themselves. Maybe they
are having a lot of problems right now. You don’t excuse them, but you do try to understand them, to see their humanity, and so not to demonize them.
Think about the future, about what will happen if you don’t forgive and what will happen if you do. If you don’t forgive, you’ll continue to live with your anger. It may take the form of hot rage or of cool resentment. Either way, it is still anger, and you know what it will do. It will make you miserable. It may even make you physically ill. If you bottle up your anger, if you let it make you seek revenge, you can get hypertension, ulcers, lesions, headaches, and insomnia. And it will hurt others too. As Gandhi said, if the world lives by the principle of an eye for an eye, it will become a world full of blind people.
On the other hand, if you do forgive you will neutralize the pain that is destructive of your
health and happiness. Then you can begin to experience healing from your hurts. In this sense
forgiveness is something you should do for yourself as well as for the Lord.
Steps toward Forgiveness
Here are six small, practical steps that will move you toward forgiveness:
- Name the person or group who hurt you, and name what that person or group did that caused you pain. You cannot begin to forgive until you acknowledge honestly that people have hurt you.
- Live in such a way as to do your enemies no harm. Refuse to believe the worst things about them or to gloat over their misfortunes. Refuse to be rude to them or to say ugly things about them behind their backs.
- Do not stoke the fires of your anger. Don’t replay in your mind the events in which you were mistreated and hurt.
- Ask God to help you to forgive.
- Pray for your enemies. You may want to pray that God will punish them, but that’s not helpful. Instead, begin by praying simply, “I pray for this person who hurt me.” If you do
this repeatedly, a time will come when you will be able sincerely to pray, “I pray that you
will bless this person who hurt me.” When you can do that sincerely, you are well on the
way to forgiving the person.
- Be patient. Sometimes it takes a long time to forgive, but it’s worth waiting for and praying for. If you think you have forgiven and then discover that you haven’t, don’t blame yourself. Instead, simply begin again to pray for your enemies.
I have been treating the experience of being hurt as a single, discrete event, and that is often the case. But sometimes the hurting we are experiencing is not a single, discrete event but a continuing pattern of behavior. Today we have a word for that; we call it abuse.
Our Christian faith calls us to forgive, but it does not call us to accept abuse. If abusive
behavior occurs, with very few exceptions, you should take steps to get out of harm’s way. The
Lord Jesus, who in the end would lay down his life for his enemies, made it clear that he would do so only on his own terms, when he said: No one takes my life away from me. I give it up of my own free will. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it back (John 10:18, TEV). So do you.
Forgiveness is hard work, but it can be done, and it is worth doing. We do it for ourselves,
so that our anger will not ruin our lives. And we do it for the Lord Jesus, who suffered to forgive us all.
Fisher Humphreys is Professor of Divinity, Emeritus, of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. In retirement he serves as Residential Scholar at St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands Episcopal Church in Birmingham and as chairman of the board of Christian Ethics Today.