The first time I heard this sentence:
“Jesus talked about hell more than anything else,”
I knew it was inaccurate, but hadn’t read the Bible enough to say so with confidence. Now that I have grown up, as a Christian, and started chewing meat, I read very little about hell, and much, much more about love.
Another favorite topic of Jesus’s, but not necessarily ours, is forgiveness.
We all know we’re supposed to do it, we feel bad when we don’t, and sometimes it’s easier to just not think about it. But forgiveness is such a crucial element to Christianity — because it’s a major factor in love — that it’s worth asking God to help us successfully accomplish it:
1) Forgiveness isn’t easy.
While this sounds ridiculously obvious, it’s worth mentioning because, within some Christian circles, there is this idea that we are patient, holy, even-tempered beings, and if we’re not, then the Holy Spirit is not living in us.
But Ecclesiastes 7:20 quite practically reminds us,
“There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”
And 1 John 1:8 says,
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
When someone hurts us or someone we love, we hit, and hate, back — this is a natural, normal response, and to deny it is to deny our humanity. When we place unrealistic expectations upon our goodness — goodness that we pressure ourselves to generate from within and not rely upon God to give and nurture — then we will be disappointed.
It is better to acknowledge the difficulty of the forgiveness process to God and ask Him to help us with it, then plow ahead and slap ourselves because we don’t feel loving and kind.
2) Forgiveness isn’t quick.
Galatians 6:1 tells us,
“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”
It takes time for a person repenting of a sin to change; and it takes time for the person against whom he has sinned to work through the matter. The process of “restoring someone gently” is just that — a process — and it may take days, weeks, and sometimes years to finish it.
There are people in all our lives who did damage years ago — damage so significant that it caused scars — and the wound repairs slowly, but it does have the potential to repair. Forgiveness is the act of not picking at the scab.
3) Forgiveness is not always accompanied by positive, glowing feelings.
“Do not hate your brother in your heart,” Leviticus 19:17 commands. “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so that you will not share in his guilt.”
When someone hurts us, there’s nothing wrong with standing up and telling them so (this is honesty; not bitterness). Afterwards, part of the process of forgiveness is releasing the angry feelings — which are often entirely justifiable — so that we don’t become ugly and foul within our soul.
It’s important to note that there is a distinct difference between absence of negative feelings and the presence of positive ones — success with Part A does not ensure instant success with Part B, and indeed, with some people, the best way we can love them is to consciously agree to not hate them.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.
4) Forgiveness is a process, not a one-time thing.
The apostle Peter, always one of my favorites because he’s so refreshingly honest, once asked Jesus:
“‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’
“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” (Matthew 18:21-22)
Obviously, Peter thought that seven times was fairly generous, but Jesus – whose ways are not our ways, as anyone who has read through the Sermon on the Mount begins to realize — has a different idea.
While this passage implies that we are forgiving multiple sins from the same person, forgiving seventy-seven times may also mean that we are returning to the forgiveness of the same initial sin, multiple times, because we just can’t give up our feelings of bitterness toward this person.
Many, many years ago, there was a person in my life who was exceptionally difficult to forgive, but after a significant amount of time, I consciously chose to do so, and told the person this in conversation. However, thoughts of this person continued to annoy me, and I repeatedly stood before God, requesting help with these feelings. One day, to my surprise, when I thought of this person I found that they no longer bothered me, and while I’ll probably never put them on the list for my next birthday party, I can hear their name without rancor.
For me, that’s progress.
5) Forgiveness takes practice, and we get lots of it.
The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) revolves around a father whose love for his child is so strong, it eclipses the pain that his son caused. In our own lives, we are given family and friends who mean so much to us, we forgive because we know that holding in the grudge, and nursing the hate, will destroy the relationship.
The very feelings of love enable us to do something that intellectually seems impossible, and while it’s difficult to generate these feelings for strangers, the very act of forgiving our own shows us what it looks like, and makes it easier (but not easy!) to do with others to whom we are less close.
Ultimately, Christ is our example, and we forgive, because He first forgave us (Ephesians 4:32). As in all things where we seek to imitate God, we don’t do it on our own, but under His guidance, and patient teaching.
And, Thank God, He’s patient.
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