Last month the world mourned the death of Nelson Mandela, a man known for his understanding and practice of forgiveness in the face of injustice.
In 2010 I finished a three year dissertation research project on the topic of forgiveness. I subsequently authored a book (including much of that research) on the topic (see Escaping the Pain of Offense: Empowered to Forgive from the Heart). In addition to these academic pursuits I have wrestled with this topic in my personal experiences both on the offending side and as one who has been offended. Through counseling ministry I have also walked with many other people on their personal journeys of being victimized and having been in a victimizing role. Having said this, even with my extensive knowledge of the topic, I still consider myself a learner in the midst of an inexhaustible subject. In my estimation dealing with offense and forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood and mal-practiced of human experiences.
How can forgiveness be so frequently talked about, read about, studied, and attempted while at the same time the actual fruit of forgiveness (joy and peace of heart) so often seems to slip out of reach? I'll share a few thoughts here about why this is true, but my book does a more thorough job helping readers discover paths to true peace and joy in their lives.
Racial equality advocate Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner over 2 decades in South Africa. His heart attitude led to actions which made a huge difference not only for him but numerous people following his lead. He is quoted as saying, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.” He understood how bitter roots are formed from the seed of nursing wounds and grudges that grow in the human heart. Left unchecked, bitterness will inevitably turn to resentment. Mandela also says, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” That is very true in a figurative sense, but it also holds true literally. Research points to the connection between unforgiving emotions and the development and spread of bodily diseases like cancer.
Furthermore, resentment often moves down the slippery slope to create an atmosphere of revenge. Josh Billings turns this around when he says, "There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness." When someone intentionally tries to cause harm but is answered with forgiveness instead of retaliation, a cycle of hurt and harm is immediately broken. Abraham Lincoln once asked, " Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?" Oscar Wilde remarks, " Always forgive your enemies--nothing annoys them so much."
So you genuinely want to forgive someone for the hurt they have caused you in the past. Maybe you've already tried to forgive but it doesn't seem to work. Lack of results is usually not caused by failure of forgiveness, but failure to understand what forgiveness really is. Contrary to what many believe, forgiveness is not simply a choice. It is not simply forgetting. Author Louis Smedes writes, "Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future." Forgiveness is not an exercise of the mind using willpower to shut off the emotions. The lasting fruit of forgiveness requires a person's heart to be involved.
Forgiveness begins with love. Love is more than having feelings toward another. It is more than making a decision to care. Love is an action. True love is acting in the best interest of the other person. "Forgiveness is choosing to love. It is the first skill of self-giving love," says Mahatma Gandhi. In a book called Sonship: A Journey into Father's Heart, James Jordan writes a chapter entitled "Forgiving from the Heart." I highly recommend his book for further reading. Jordan explains how human beings are "wired" by their Creator for love and forgiveness. Jordan writes, " He wants us to progress from choosing to forgive, to forgiving with love, and then to the place where we love to forgive. Moving far beyond forgiving as an act of the will, to forgiving endlessly from a heart that loves to forgive."
If you believe in God and you want a deeper relationship with Father, surrendering your heart to His love and forgiveness is essential. Father God is the source of all truth. The fact of the matter is, no human being will ever fully be able to grasp how huge this topic is from God's perspective. At some point, forgiveness comes down to trusting Father and His ways as totally right and just. Forgiveness is surrendering to God the ultimate rights of judgment on whatever matter is in question.
Many believe they are justified in holding anger against someone who does them wrong. "After all," they say, "If I forgive him, he would get off too easy," or, "He will just do it over again." Again, this thinking stems from a misbelief about forgiveness. Feeling anger is not wrong, but allowing anger to turn into hatred creates the bitterness that causes wrong. Forgiveness does not mean you are giving up your right to hope for justice to be served, but it means you are giving up your right to be the "executor" of judgment.
I believe that a casual attitude towards unfounded anger (bitterness and resentment) is the primary root that keeps most people locked in their prison of unforgiveness. A person holding unforgiveness in their heart generally falls into one of two categories. The first is one who recognizes the bitterness or resentment he or she feels and knows s/he has to decide whether to take forgiving action or try to go on pretending things are okay. The second is more difficult. In this case, a person may have no immediate awareness of a wound or wrong done to him or her, but symptoms hint of a problem. These symptoms may include troublesome moods like nagging frustration, irritation, annoyance, disappointment, discouragement, or depression. It may take the form of physical symptoms like persistent sleeplessness, loss of appetite, or body aches and pains. This second category is quite common and not to be despised or feared. The sooner you try to discover the root and take action towards forgiveness, the sooner new freedom can be found.
If you wish to change the atmosphere of your home, work place, church, and community, dare to lead in the practice of forgiveness and positive results you will see. The ancient Proverb states, "A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, And it is his glory to overlook a transgression" (Proverbs 19:11; NASB).
Note: The book Escaping the Pain of Offense: Empowered to Forgive from the Heart discusses themes of dealing with disappointments, offense and finding freedom in forgiveness. This book is designed to help people (especially in the Christian faith) to discover and dislodge things in life that lead to defeat. Don't miss out on your chance to use this book as a helpful tool in discovering Refuge in Christ. It can be purchased by clicking here: http://bluerockbnb.com/healing/book_main.htm . If you get anywhere near Pennsylvania for vacation or on business, be sure to look us up for lodging at http://bluerockbnb.com
by Ed Hersh, Blue Rock BnB Healing Ministry