I’ve struggled with forgiveness—or the lack thereof—for many years.
I’m not referring to the everyday little things: someone cuts me off in traffic; the slow text response to an urgent question; the neighbor kid practicing his trumpet at odd hours on his back porch. No, I mean the really big ones. The hurts that were inflicted without an apology, without acknowledgment, and without accountability. I struggled to choose to forgive the pain that changed the course of my life forever.
My pastor said that the bitterness I held on to was like drinking poison and waiting for my offenders to die—but I just couldn’t let it go. The Bible tells us to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:31, 32).* How is this possible when the pains from the past still hurt so intensely?
Become Like Little Children
I was taught about forgiveness from a very early age by my family and in Sabbath School. In turn, I teach this important value throughout my day working with toddlers at my day-care center. One child might take a toy from another, and then the offended child will cry loudly and then dramatically collapse, mortally wounded at this insult. The culprit is quickly made aware of their wrong choices and is led to repent and apologize and return the toy with a hug. The scene of hysteria ends as quickly as it began, and both children toddle away, usually leaving the toy on the floor and laughing and playing together as if nothing had happened.
How do we become like these little children in our grown-up world? How can forgiveness be this simple? Jesus explains it this way, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
On some level everyone can empathize with being hurt, and I’m certainly no exception. When I was one of these innocent children, some things happened to turn my perception of love upside down. Always taught to forgive, I struggled to understand why I couldn’t let the pain go. For many years I beat myself up. I was angry. I was very angry. In my situation there would be no apology, no explanation, no restitution or amends. I was left with this ugly bitterness and the guilt of not being able to let it go. So it continued to hurt.
Along with my anger I also experienced depression, and this hardened my heart. It changed me into a person I didn’t like. It kept me from being able to serve God in the way He created me to serve.
Some people might say, “Well, if you had handed it to Jesus, He could have healed your pain.” That wasn’t my experience. Being “told” to forgive isn’t comforting and sometimes makes the pain even worse. Those words can make you feel condemned for having unprocessed emotions.
I did, in fact, pray to God and handed my pain to Him, but nothing happened. I took it back and sulked and pouted. After a while I would give it to Him again, and I begged God to take the bitterness and despair away. But every time I threw my suffering to heaven, it boomeranged back to me, darker and more hopeless. Something had to change.
Lessons From the Lord’s Prayer
Several years ago I heard a sermon about the Lord’s Prayer. The pastor gently and clearly explained the mystery of forgiveness. God forgives my sins as I open myself to forgiveness—and also to those who are in need of my forgiveness. If I choose not to forgive, I’m choosing to not be forgiven (see Matt. 6:14, 15). And my sins are not judged on a scale different from anyone else’s. It was clear that I had to figure this forgiveness thing out.
Jesus also said to love your enemies and to pray for those who hurt you (see Matt. 5:44). Pray for the bad guys? These people hurt me, but now I’m wondering how they became so emotionally damaged, and I’m thinking that maybe they don’t even realize the damage they’ve done. Praying for them was changing my heart, and my healing began. Possibly their hearts would be healed as well.
I had prayed in the past for those who had hurt me (not very nice prayers), but now I began earnestly asking God to heal them, to open their eyes and their hearts, to take away the infection of sinful generations, and to give them a new life. And as I prayed for them, my own heart began to slowly soften. Instead of asking God to take away the pain, I asked Him to help me to forgive the people who’d hurt me. To help me understand, learn, and grow.
Acknowledging the Pain
We can’t forgive what we don’t acknowledge. When Joseph recognized his brothers, who had been so cruel to him in his youth, he asked his attendants to leave before he made himself known to them. “And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it” (Gen. 45:2). Then he revealed his identity to his brothers. He faced the pain they had caused and chose to forgive them.
This experience of Joseph permitted me to feel the full extent of sadness that I’d tried so hard to handle for so many years. Like Joseph, I wept uncontrollably as I replayed the scenes in my memories. I sifted through them with more honesty and less hysteria. The truth is, bad things happened, life got messy. It was hard to go back to those dark places, but as I examined the memories more closely, I slowly began to see that my monsters were actually just broken people living in a sinful world. I began to think about why they had made the choices they had, and how their own lives had taken a terrible turn that caused such anguish. I changed from feeling terribly hurt and angry to feeling pity and compassion.
My earlier vengeful prayers changed into sympathetic prayers. When I thought of how Jesus loved and prayed for forgiveness, for the very people who were nailing Him to the cross, how could I compare my moments of suffering to His? So I gave up my desire for retribution. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:17-19).
I’m not letting anyone off the moral or legal hook. Everyone is accountable to God and to our laws for their choices. And I encourage those who have been abused to seek professional counseling. This isn’t about letting criminals remain in a position to harm another innocent victim. Three times the Bible tells us God’s thoughts on people who hurt children, repeating that it would be “better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6; see also Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2).
A Changed Life
So you might be asking, “Did your life change? Are you completely healed from your anger and bitterness? Did you choose to completely forgive?” The short answer is yes. I still have bad memories that surface from time to time, and I’m reminded to pray for healing and understanding. But every day I can choose to forgive. This is about my freedom. Forgiveness provides tremendously empowering freedom.
Forgiveness is not justice; it’s not reconciliation; nor is it a happily-ever-after guarantee. I’m simply handing over my heart to God. I trust that He knows every tiny detail involving all of humanity and will sort it all out with incredible love and decisive judgment.
I’ve been reminded that God has given me a beautiful gift throughout this long process. It’s my honor to help those who are lonely and scared, those who have been in very difficult situations. I can tell them how God helped me choose freedom and peace.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor. 13:11).
* All Bible texts are from the New International Version.