To forgive is to let go.
To fail to forgive is to hold on.
It is interesting to think about all the reasons why we might hold on to something that hurt us rather than to let it go. One reason is a desire for justice. We want the other person, the one who hurt us, to be held responsible. We might want reparations or some sort of action to be taken that attempts to right the wrong. We also want to hear the other person admit what they did and to show remorse. We want to know they â€œgetâ€ what they did to us.
Sometimes the wrongdoing hurts so much that it takes time to get past the pain. And sometimes we are just so angry that anyone could do such a thing to us that we canâ€™t get past that. We want to talk about it, again and again and again. It is just that horrible, egregious, and glaringly wrong. And so we hold on.
The problem with holding on is that it does not really get us anywhere. It keeps our anger and grievance alive. We are held in the grip of these things and these things are not life-giving for us. Holding on to and rehearsing toxic memories actually harms us. It robs us of joy and distorts our perspective on life. It sucks up all the oxygen for other things in my life and makes me resentful and bitter. Now I think of myself as a victim and that is the narrative I cling to and it becomes the only narrative that really animates me.
Anne Lamott has famously said: not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.
Yes. The rat does not die and meanwhile I have something very toxic roiling around in my system.
If, on the other hand, I can let go of the terrible wrongdoing, I can then be free. I can breathe and stop being angry.
I am not suggesting I then become best friends again with the person who hurt me. I am not even saying I will trust that person very much, going forward. Or spend time with them much.
I am saying I will stop holding on to my active anger and hurt and I will stop holding it against them.
How is it possible to do this?
The Bible teaches (and I think life bears this out) that when I focus on the forgiveness and grace I have received for myself, I can then turn around and give away some grace towards others. Resting in the love of God for me, which is undeserved but something I depend on, and recognizing that I am no flawless saint myself, I can have the generosity of spirit needed to forgive the other. At least enough generosity of spirit to not cling to my anger about the wrongdoing.
I want to note here that though it is so important for me to have generosity of spirit so that I am not holding on to something toxic, my letting go of the wrong does not mean somebody got away with anything and what they did does not matter. It matters very much. And it does not cease to be wrong. But this is not mine to settle, this is something that unfolds between God, who is always consistent and perfect regarding justice, and the wrongdoer. What God intends for me is freedom from toxicity and a clean heart that is not carrying a grudge.
This is how the gospel works. We are forgiven so that we can turn around and offer forgiveness, also.
So, both receiving forgiveness (from God) and granting forgiveness (for others) are important in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus says some things about forgiveness that I sometimes find annoying and hard to bear:
When asked how many times we must forgive people who keep doing wrong he basically said as many times as it takes (not seven, but seventy times seven, which is a way of saying, every time it happens).
When teaching how we should pray he said that we need to ask God to forgive us our sins as we as we forgive those who sin against us. It seems to be one fluid action and prayer that Jesus is suggesting. And then he further says, â€œbut if you do not forgive other people when they sin against you, your father will not forgive your sins.â€
What?! Like many, I find this a bit confusing, a bit troubling and a bit frustrating since I am accustomed to thinking of Godâ€™s forgiveness as unconditional and I have been taught that we live by faith and grace alone, not by some act of human agency. In other words, why canâ€™t I get Godâ€™s forgiveness for myself without having to forgive others? I want the first part, not the second part!
Yet it seems in some way our ability to receive the forgiveness that God offers (and that we so badly need) is somehow tied to our ability to let go of the wrong in others that we are holding on to. Apparently, we cannot ask God to let go of our wrong while holding tightly to the wrong of others. We must release all the wrong, all at once and allow Godâ€™s grace to flow to us and to others.
Similarly, in one of Johnâ€™s letters he says: the person who does not love, does not know God, for God is love. (1st John 4:8) Somehow, our knowing and embracing God and Godâ€™s love is tied up with our ability and willingness to give love to others.
In the mind of God we are all, apparently, connected to one another and he is not in the business of doing individualized transactions regarding forgiveness and love, but rather sees us as inter-connected beings whose interactions with one another matter so much that they cannot be separated from interactions with him.
In Ephesians 3:18-19 Paul prays that we would know and understand how high and long and deep and wide Godâ€™s love is. I think this is what we are talking about here—God wants us to be remade into people of grace (who can forgive, who can let go) and love as he pours out grace and love on us. He wants us to be givers, like him. That is how his love works in the world. And Paul is praying the Ephesians will get this, awaken to it, and embrace it fully.
May we do the same.
About the author:
Carrie Bare is married to a pastor and mother of two grown sons. Though she is permanently based in Spokane, Washington, she is currently dividing her time between Spokane and Boulder. Carrie has been with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship since 1975, currently serving as a spiritual director, while also serving on the Faculty Ministry Team and as chaplain to the national leadership team for Grad Student and Faculty Ministry in Inter Varsity. She has always loved reading, especially fiction.