I watched as Jude and Charlie got released from "time out."
"What do you have to say to each other?" Heather asked.
"I'm sorry I hit you," Jude said.
"I forgive you," Charlie responded.
"I'm sorry I screamed at you," Charlie said to Jude.
"I forgive you," Jude replied.
Then the 5-year-old and 3-year-old embraced, giggled, and ran off to play.
We could learn a lot from kids. They haven't learned yet how to hold grudges.
In reality, grudges hold onto us even more than we hold onto them. And the alternative of forgiving our offender is uncomfortable. But forgiveness is what heals us. It's important for our souls and for our relationships.
One morning at my small group, I handed out sheets of paper and gave some instructions:
Think of someone who has hurt you. Then write the following:
- I'm angry at you because …
- For me to forgive you would mean …
The room became quiet. A few picked up a nearby pen or pencil and began writing. Others stared at the paper before them, remembering past offenses and the people who hurt them.
When the writing stopped, I asked if anyone wanted to share what they had written. Surprisingly, a couple of brave souls did. It was evident that the exercise had touched them as I'd hoped.
"What do you want us to do with these?" they asked as we concluded.
"It's your choice," I responded. "You can throw them out, or you can give them to me. If you give them to me, I will pray for them."
I felt privileged with each anonymous paper I was handed. These hurting people wanted to forgive, yet they were stuck. Without knowing it, I had given them a way to voice their pain, a pain that was incredibly deep for some. One person had written, "Forgiving you would mean I would disappear." How often we get wrapped in our pain, letting it define us.
We all know we're supposed to forgive. Countless articles and books have been written on the subject. We don't mind the message of forgiveness when we're the ones who need to be forgiven. We want that grace showered on us. But when we are required to forgive and extend grace, it's a different story.
A Right Understanding of Forgiveness
Our inability to forgive keeps us hostage to our hurts. Perhaps our idea of what it means to forgive is at fault. According to Tim Sledge, author of Making Peace with Your Past, we might think the following:
- If we forgive, we're saying what was done to us was okay.
- If we forgive our offender, then he or she will have control over us.
- We cannot forgive when the offenses are ongoing.
When we examine what we're thinking about our hurts and those who have hurt us, we may be able to start on our journey towards forgiveness.
Forgiveness Does Not Condone the Offense
Sometimes we try to control the situation by holding on to the hurt. The deeper the hurt, the longer we attempt to hold on. We are afraid we will send the wrong message if we extend forgiveness.
But forgiveness isn't being blind to what was done. Rather, it's facing it head on and embracing the pain. Then when you have worked through those emotions, it's deciding you will not charge the offender any longer. You are the only person who can make this choice. Most times, though, we enlist others to validate us by seeing our side. This works against us because it prolongs our pain and refuels our anger. We relive the hurt, confirming that the offense is worthy of punishment. Refusing to forgive is our attempt to make the other person pay.
When Jesus died on the cross, in no way did his forgiveness minimize what we did. He saw our sins, every one of them, and still chose to be the sacrifice that satisfied God's heart. God hates sin. We can hate what was done to us but love the person anyway. Who they are matters more than what they did.
Forgiveness Does Not Give the Offender Power
While we may think that forgiving someone gives them power, the opposite is true. We become empowered when we decide to forgive someone who has hurt us. Our unwillingness or inability to forgive causes us to be stuck because of the resentment that seeps into us, making us hold them hostage. The problem is that we too are in that cell. While we try to convince ourselves that they intended to hurt us, the truth may be that they are not even aware of their actions and how they affected us. And even if they did intentionally hurt us, we can still forgive them.
Eventually we may realize that our past hurts have caused us to self-protect. When we try to protect ourselves, we prevent ourselves from seeing God as the all-sufficient one. It's God's job to protect us: he is our shepherd, our leader, our guide. When I protect myself, I leave him out.
Forgiveness Is Possible Even When the Offense is Continual
In Luke 6:29, Jesus says, "If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them." This is not possible without God giving us the ability to do it.
Maybe if we realized that God has something greater to show us in the situation we would not be so resistant. We might even see that forgiveness is possible when the pain is continual. And how many times should we forgive? Peter asked this question in Matthew 18, and Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (vv. 21-22).
We're afraid that if we continue to forgive, we are giving the person permission to hurt us again, much like an inflatable punching toy that keeps bouncing back when hit. Repeat offenders complicate things. Sometimes they hurt us and lightly apologize, as if it's no big deal. Their apologies have little worth. Or the offender may act as if nothing has happened.
Looking at why we hold grudges shows us something about what's going on inside of us. Once when I was hurt, I told the Lord, "Someone needs to pay." And in the quiet of my soul, I heard him respond, "I did."
Forgiving people means you no longer hold the offense against them. Their slate is wiped clean. No longer will you hold it to their account or keep talking about it.
Will you still hurt? You might, but regardless, you need to stop holding on to those grudges for the health of your soul and your relationships.
Open Your Hand
I wrote this poem to remind me to not hold grudges. Perhaps it will help you too.
What is that you are holding in your hand,
in your fist that is closed ever tight?
What is that you are purposely keeping from me,
for you feel that you have that right?
Don't you know as you grow in your walk with me,
I can see even things that you hide?
Oh, if you only knew what's in store for you,
You would open your hand so wide.
—Anne Peterson is a poet, speaker, and freelance author. Visit Anne at Facebook or at annepeterson.com, where you can read her blog and listen to her poetry. Copyright 2013 by Christianity Today.