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The Hardest Thing God Makes us Do

Updated: Jul 11, 2021


My son Elliott committed suicide when he was in high school.

After his death, church people told me he was in hell because of the way he died. Others told me I lacked faith because I cried at his funeral. Still others said God was punishing me for my sins. Rumors and slander ripped through the town.

How can I forgive my son for killing himself? How can I forgive the cruel things people said to and about me?

How can an abused child forgive the stepfather who assaulted her?

How does a 62-year-old forgive the corporation that fired him to make room for a younger employee on a lower salary?

Can a survivor of the killing fields forgive the Khmer Rouge?

Can a Native American forgive the illegal immigrants who stole his land and destroyed his nation and culture?

Does anyone have the right to demand that an African-American forgive those who enslaved her ancestors?

How about the victim of human trafficking, the sex slave, the child soldier, or the sweatshop worker?

Can a parent forgive the person who murdered her son?

How does a woman forgive her rapist?

How does the husband forgive his cheating spouse?

Why should a businessperson forgive the people who cheated her out of her intellectual property?

It is both natural and healthy to be angry at injustice.

Must we forgive?

Can we forgive?

Should we even try to forgive?

Are there not some things that are simply unforgivable?

Personally, I don’t think I have any right to demand forgiveness from anyone.

I cannot tell the Jew to forgive the Nazi, or the slave to forgive the overseer, or the abused to forgive the perpetrator.

I am not the Jew, nor the slave, nor the victim of abuse. I can only forgive those who have sinned against me.

As one who is trying to follow Jesus, forgiveness is not an option for me.

Jesus said, “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14,15)

I don’t think God wants me to forgive merely to test my obedience.

Instead, because God loves me, God wants what is best for me.

Forgiveness is psychologically healthy. Unforgiveness will eat us alive. It will poison our relationships, dehumanize us, make us unable to be fully human, fully alive. The psychological literature is filled with evidence.

Unforgiveness dumps chemicals into our blood streams that compromise our immune systems and make us vulnerable to illness.

The best thing we can do for ourselves is to forgive others.

Unforgiveness hurts us; it has no effect on the one who hurt us.

The scripture I hold sacred indicates that it is God’s nature to forgive. With unforgiveness in my heart, my fellowship with God is disturbed. Forgiveness joins us to God’s nature, makes us more like God.

God commands me to forgive.

Daily, I pray, “Forgive us our trespasses (sins, debts) as (in the same manner in which) we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Peter, ever the impetuous representative for the apostles, most likely thought himself highly magnanimous when he asked Jesus (in Matthew 18): “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

While secular society, then as now, teaches us to preëmptively strike out and eliminate our enemies before they can harm us, the Hebrew Scriptures teach regulated retaliation. “[Only] an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” thus limiting revenge to justice. Only one eye for an eye, only one tooth for a tooth. That itself contradicts instinct – unbridled human nature would respond to a gouged-out eye by killing the offender, and perhaps his family as well.

Because of the influence of the Hebrew prophets, many of the rabbis of Peter’s time went beyond justice and taught that believers should freely forgive the same offense against them three times.

Few Christians today rise even to the older standard, much less to the rabbinical one.

How many of us would forgive someone who did the same evil thing to us three times?

Having just heard Jesus teach that his followers were to carefully attempt to win back an offending sister, Peter took the rabbinical standard, doubled it and added one, then asked: “Lord, how often shall my brother or sister sin against me, and I forgive them? Up to seven times?”

Rather than praise his magnanimity, however, Jesus responded (I imagine gently and with a smile), “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”

Jesus’ obvious point is that forgiveness must be unending and infinite – no one could possibly forgive another person (the same person each time) for the same offense 490 times without completely and eternally forgiving her.

Not only is forgiveness to be never ending, it is essential, and to prove its essential quality, Jesus told a story:

23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. 35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” [1]

The lesson is clear and unmistakable – if we want God to forgive us, we must forgive others.

We owe God an enormous debt. God created and redeemed us at great cost. The ten thousand talents of verse 24 was the equivalent of millions of dollars, yet when the man could not pay his obligation, he was not simply given more time, the master discharged the debt entirely – it was forgiven, erased off the books, expunged from the ledger.

Later, when the man who had been so graciously forgiven was confronted by another who owed him the equivalent of 10 or 20 dollars, he refused to forgive, and took all the available legal avenues at his disposal to punish the man for his failure to meet his small obligation.

His act of unkindness and refusal to forgive was reported to the master, who then revoked his previous decision, and had the man cast in to prison. Lest we somehow miss the point, Jesus added: “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

Forgiveness is vital for me as someone trying to follow Jesus because it opens up the channel for God to forgive me, and forgiveness from God is my fundamental and most basic need.

Forgiveness is essential because unless I forgive, unforgiveness and bitterness will eat away at my heart and destroy my character and essence as a human being.

Forgiveness is not optional because forgiveness is an essential characteristic of God, and I cannot fellowship with God without sharing that characteristic.

I feel I must forgive – but how do I do so?

Before answering that question, let’s first define what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness is not to be wasted on everyday slights.

Some things do not need to be forgiven – they simply need to be ignored. We shouldn’t wear our feelings on our sleeves, nor go through life being offended at simple rudeness. I don’t need to forgive the rude clerk; I just need to forget it. As Lyndon Johnson said, “Sometimes you have to be a jackass in a hail storm – just hump over and take it.”

Forgiveness must be reserved for real sin; forgiveness is necessary when someone has truly hurt us, when they have really done something wrong.

When you have been fired from your job without sufficient cause, deserted by your spouse for another paramour, sexually assaulted, physically abused, severely neglected by a parent, deserted by a parent, blatantly cheated in a business deal, or jealously persecuted by a colleague, you have been sinned against. What Elliott did, and what some people said to me after his death, was sinful, wrong.

Forgiveness is not ignoring the wrong.

Some people, usually the those who seek to keep the peace at any cost, are too quick to say, “I forgive you, now drop it.” That is cheap; it accomplishes nothing other than whitewashing over the wrong.

Saying to ourselves, “Oh, well, he couldn’t help it,” or, “it doesn’t matter,” when you are really hurt is disingenuous to self and others.

Forgiveness is not making excuses for the wrong done to you.

Forgiveness is not blaming yourself for the wrongs another has done.

“It must be my fault he abandoned me,” is to take responsibility for the wrong actions of another person and to simultaneously reinforce your own low esteem.

It is not your fault that you were assaulted, abused, attacked, victimized, unprotected, slandered, abandoned, fired unjustly, cheated, lied to, taken advantage of, targeted by a criminal, or squeezed out of what was rightfully yours. Forgiveness is not blaming yourself for someone else’s evil.

Conversely, forgiveness cannot begin until we admit honestly and openly that we have indeed been wronged. What that other person did was wrong, it was sinful, and it was contrary to God’s will.

Too often we blame ourselves instead of the perpetrator – the abused child blames himself for the abuse, the battered spouse blames herself for her injuries, the abandoned spouse blames himself for the divorce, the cheated employee sinks into the conclusion that she is worthless.

When someone (or some corporation or institution) has done something evil that has adversely affected and hurt us, we must begin by admitting that it really was wrong and we really are hurt.

That is not to imply that we sometimes have some responsibility in the hurtful situation. Often, interpersonal conflict involves responsibility on both sides. The mature person learns from the mistakes of the past, owns what is rightfully hers, accepts responsibility, and seeks to change. She does not, however, take responsibility for that which is not rightfully hers.

Forgiveness involves the realization and admission that we are hurting. We are not forgiving others if we pretend we are not hurt by what they did to us. Saying, “It's no big deal” is not being fully honest, and we must be fully honest before true forgiveness can occur. We must own the hurt.

In other words, we must admit openly that what happened to us was wrong, and that what the other person did to us or to our loved one hurt us deeply. When a drunk driver kills your child, or your family is suffering because of an unscrupulous business deal, or you were a victim of child abuse or some other crime, you are hurting deeply inside.

Forgiveness is not making excuses for the wrong another person did to me.

Forgiveness is also not being naïve and putting self or loved ones in danger.

It is not being forgiving to live with an abuser; it is foolish. You can forgive a person while simultaneously keeping yourself and those you care about, especially your minor children, in a safe environment. You can forgive an unscrupulous businessperson, and simultaneously exercise wisdom and not do business with him in the future.

We are not to be judgmental in the sense of pronouncing final judgment on anyone – only God can do that – but we must be discerning – “wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves.”

Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is not an emotion. It has nothing to do with feeling warm and affectionate toward another person.

You will probably never feel warm and affectionate toward the drunk who killed your spouse, nor toward the corporation that used you and tossed you aside before retirement age, nor toward the criminal who attacked you.

Many of us never forgive because we are waiting to feel like forgiving.

Forgiveness is not a feeling – it is a decision – a conscious intellectual decision that you reiterate repeatedly by an act of your will.

Time will not automatically heal our inner wounds and produce forgiveness. Simply letting time go by does not produce forgiveness. The pain of the situation will probably fade with time, but deep within there will still be the bitterness.

Forgiveness is not forgetting.

It is humanly impossible to forget some things. Traumatic, hurtful events are seared into memory. Simply forgetting may be a defense mechanism or an effort at denial to avoid the painful hard work of forgiveness, and, where possible, reconciliation. The goal is not forgetfulness; it is forgiveness.

Finally, forgiveness must not be confused with reconciliation.

Although it is God’s will that there be reconciliation if possible, and reconciliation should be the goal toward which we strive, sometimes reconciliation is not possible, but we can still be forgiving.

Narcissists and sociopaths don’t care that they have hurt you and have no desire to take any responsibility. Others are mere objects to them.

Dead people can’t sit down with you and work out reconciliation.

A huge corporation will not likely apologize to you.

Reconciliation is not always possible because it requires assent by both parties. Sometimes, your efforts at reconciliation are rebuffed – the offending person does not want to be reconciled with you, and does not care whether she hurt you. But you can still forgive her.

The person who hurt you may be dead. I cannot sit down and talk to Elliott face to face regarding his decision to kill himself, which hurt me deeply, but I can still forgive him.

Reconciliation should always be our ultimate goal as followers of Jesus.

In some instances, perhaps in most, I can seek reconciliation.

"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Jesus – Matthew 5:23,24)

Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela led an entire nation in forgiving those who had abused and suppressed them.

To bring about reconciliation, I go to the one who hurt me and openly, honestly, lovingly and without blame or accusations, confront them.

I explain what happened, I share the hurt I feel and I ask if we can reconcile.

In many cases, the offender apologizes, takes responsibility and makes a genuine effort to understand the pain he caused. At that point, the reconciliation process begins.

If the person with whom I am seeking to reconcile is my spouse, marital therapy can help us put our marriage back together.

If it is someone else, a spiritual life coach, spiritual director, pastoral counselor, or psychotherapist can help.

I cannot reconcile with everyone, but I can forgive everyone.

Forgiveness is the essential message of Christianity.

N. T. Wright, wrote:

“This is the heart of the ongoing revolution: that a new way of being human has been launched, a way that starts with forgiveness (God’s forgiveness of those who turn from their now defeated idols) and continues with forgiveness (the forgiveness offered by Jesus’s followers in his name and by his Spirit to all who have wronged them). This is why forgiveness, in both senses, looms large in the prayer Jesus taught his followers. This is what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like when heaven comes to earth, when God’s kingdom comes and his will is done in the world of humans as it is in the world of angels. Forgiveness is the new reality. It is the power of the revolution. Praying the Lord’s prayer and believing in Jesus’s resurrection turn out ultimately to be all about the same thing.” (Emphasis his.)[2]

Forgiveness is not only not optional; it is the essential means by which God’s Kingdom comes. By forgiving, we have the privilege of participating in that Kingdom.

So, how to I do it? How do I forgive? I am convinced that God wants me to be forgiving and that doing so is beneficial for my spiritual, mental and physical health.

But, how?

I have found that it is usually helpful to begin by identifying specifically who hurt me. Sometimes that is obvious and easy. It is obvious for a rape victim to say, “I am hurting because I was sexually assaulted by a guy with a knife. He sinned against me; what he did to me was evil and wrong in God’s eyes; it is not my fault or responsibility; he’s the bad guy in this scenario, and I hurt deeply as a result.”

It is more difficult to pinpoint someone to forgive when a corporation or other impersonal entity has wronged you. Sometimes the system itself is racist or evil. In some instances, there may not be any face you can put with the blame, but it makes forgiveness a bit easier if you can.

It is also helpful in the process of forgiveness (and it is a process, usually a long one) if you can come to understand some of what motivated the action.

If you can realize that you were abused by someone who was himself abused, while not excusing his behavior (many people were abused yet never abuse others), it can make it easier for you to understand and forgive. If you can, delve a bit into why the person who harmed you did so, not to excuse them, but to understand human weaknesses and human sinfulness, and therefore make forgiving a little easier for yourself.

Sometimes, however, that is not possible because the act against you was senseless and brutal and there is no discernible reason for it to have occurred.

So, then, if forgiveness is not reconciliation, not a feeling, not ignoring the hurt, and not making excuses for the sin of others, what is it?

Forgiveness is a decision – a calculated, conscious intellectual decision that you reiterate by an act of your will.

You take responsibility for your failings; you clearly recognize the failings of those who hurt you.

Having admitted to yourself and others that you were wronged, and that you are deeply hurt as a result of being wronged, you begin the real and difficult work of forgiveness by making a conscious intellectual decision to forgive.

You say to yourself and God: “So and so sinned against me; what he did to me was wrong; as a result of what he did, I hurt deeply; but I choose right now by an act of my free will to forgive him.”

Then, and here’s the key, you repeat that decision out loud every time any ill feelings, any hurt, any anger, any sorrow comes into your mind over the situation.

As a Christ follower, I ask God to enable me to forgive by the power of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe I can forgive deep wrongs without God’s help.

Hundreds of times daily, each time the hurt feelings or the anger rise up in my emotions, I stop and say to God, “I choose to forgive Elliott for killing himself because God has forgiven me. God help me to forgive with all my heart for Jesus’ sake.”

Hundreds of times daily, each time the painful feelings arise, I repeat my decision to forgive for Jesus’ sake and ask God for help in doing so.

Asking God’s help is vital because there are many instances that we humanly cannot forgive without the supernatural assistance of God’s Holy Spirit to enable us.

As I repeat the process of choosing to make the conscious intellectual decision to forgive, I ultimately discover that I am not as aware of the hurt as I once was.

Gradually what happened to me doesn’t bother me like it once did.

Eventually, I come to the place where I simply do not think about the bad thing that happened to me much at all – that bad thing is no longer controlling my life and influencing my daily thoughts.

I can never forget, but what happened no longer has power over me.

Eventually, I find myself spontaneously wishing the person who hurt me well.

When I find myself spontaneously wishing blessings upon those who did evil, I know that the long and difficult work of forgiveness is finally completed and I am free.

Free to fully love God.

Free to fully love myself.

Free to fully love others.

Free to fully love life.

I am, at last, fully human and fully alive.

[1] [Matthew, chapter 18, The New King James Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers), © 1982] [2] N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, Harper-Collins, 2016, Frist Edition, page 385

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