If you grew up in a religious family like I did, you’re probably familiar with Matthew 6:9-13. Even if the passage location doesn’t ring a bell, the words themselves most likely will. It’s often been referred to as “The Lord’s Prayer”:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
I've heard and read this passage numerous times in my life, and probably will continue to. However, it was a while before I ever realized the true significance of verse 12. Jesus instructs us, in our prayers to God, to ask him to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. In Luke 11, Jesus gives similar instructions to his disciples in response to their request to teach them how to pray. He uses “sins” in place of “debts,” but the point is pretty much the same: to forgive as we are forgiven. Once I took time to think about it, I realized just how convicting that statement is. Verses 14-15 drive the point of verse 12 home even further:
14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Basically, God is going to forgive us to the same degree that we forgive others. That is a very convicting and scary thought, once you really think about it, especially due to the fact that most of us humans aren’t too good at forgiving. Sure, it sounds easy enough, but there’s a reason why God commands us to forgive others (Matt 18:20-22, Mark 11:25, Luke 17:4, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13). Of all the commands that I’ve read in the Bible, very rarely have I seen God command us to do something that comes easy or natural to us. It is the things that seem unnatural to us that he commands us to do. This makes sense to me, though. There’d be no need to command people to do things that they’d do anyway. Again, anyone could sit here and say that they don’t find it hard to forgive others. When it comes down to it, however, most of us fail at forgiving during those times when it really matters. It’s no big deal if your friend “borrows” loose change out of the change tray in your car, but what if they stole your rent money? It’s easy to forgive your spouse for a “little white lie,” but what if you caught him or her cheating on you with your best friend? In other words, it is those offenses that hurt the most that are the hardest to forgive, but these situations are the reasons that God gave us this command in the first place.
Just like any other command God gives us, I truly believe that he knew exactly what he was doing when he gave it. Not only did he realize that it would be something we’d have to learn to do, he also knew that not forgiving comes with many consequences. When we choose not to forgive, it is usually because we are either angry, bitter, or both. I recall seeing a couple of interesting quotes on these two feelings:
Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured – Mark TwainBitterness: Drinking poison and hoping the other person dies – Unknown, paraphrased
See, God knew that if we chose not to forgive, we would actually do harm to ourselves. Anxiety, stress, high blood pressure… the list could go on. The ironic thing is, not forgiving someone rarely does any harm to the person that needs to be forgiven. Heck, that person usually doesn’t even know that he or she did anything wrong, much to the chagrin of the offended person.
I used to be one of the people I described earlier; someone who didn't find forgiving to be such a hard thing to do. Then again, I probably don’t need all ten of my fingers to count the amount of grievous offenses that have been committed against me. On top of that, I've always been very easy-going and have a long, damp fuse. Add all of that together, and you have a young man who hasn't been burned much in his life. If I do want to consider myself having been “burned”, my burns are probably cigarette lighter burns as opposed to the 3rd degree burns of others. It’s so few and far in between when I hold grudges (I’m too lazy for that) or am embittered that I guess it was hard for me to realize when I actually did feel bitterness in my heart. I’ll share with you all one of my rare cases of bitterness:
Several years ago, I was in L.A. for my first salsa congress. That weekend, I met a young lady from my Church’s sister congregation there. She was beautiful, sweet and loved salsa just as much as I did, so naturally I developed a crush on her. I wasn't too fired up about the possibility of a long-distance relationship, but I was open to it. We swapped info and, at least at the moment, there seemed to be a mutual desire to keep in touch. Unfortunately for me, she began dating someone else only a few weeks after I returned to Atlanta. I still remember the day I saw her Myspace profile pic change from a solo shot of her to one of her and some other dude. I already knew what was up, but I still went to her page and checked the relationship status to confirm. Anyway, I kept in contact with her. I tried to keep the contact as light as possible, as I didn't want to disrespect her boyfriend, but I didn't want her to think that I just dismissed her because she had a boyfriend, either.
A little over half a year later, I caught wind that she and her boyfriend parted ways. I began to gradually increase my attempts at contacting her so as to not come on too strong. She would respond back, and seemed at least a slight bit upbeat when she did, but to my frustration, I could only get her to respond via Facebook, Myspace, or text. As a matter of fact, I hadn't been able to reach her on the phone since the weekend that we met, and I had never received a return phone call from her. All of our communication was online. Needless to say, I was annoyed by this. “She’ll Facebook or Myscpace message me all day long but can’t call me?" I thought to myself. "Can’t even call me back once? She can’t be that busy. There’s no way she’s missed all my calls and voicemails. What’s the deal?”
I had all but given up on contacting her. By this point, it wasn't about me liking her anymore (ok, maybe a little. I can’t say that I wouldn't have been all smiles to see her name on the caller ID); it was about me wanting her to know how I felt. I felt disrespected and ignored. (Of course, had she been someone I didn't like, you’re probably not reading this blog right now.) However, I felt that what I had to say to her was better said at least over the phone, if not completely in person. Given her current track record of not picking up or returning my calls and the fact that I probably wasn't going to L.A. anytime soon, I figured it was pointless to try anymore. However, one night I was chatting with a mutual friend who also lived in L.A. at that time. Lo and behold, she asked me about her and I gave her the whole story. She encouraged me to try to reach out to her again, possibly by sending her an email. I wasn't too fired up about that, but I figured, “Eh, what the heck. Maybe she knows something I don’t know.”
It was at this point that I began to realize just how bitter I really was about the situation. As I began to type my email to her, I realized my statements were filled with attacking words and resentment, not with compassion. I had no idea why she hadn't returned my calls, or why she would only respond to me online. As much as I doubted it, she really may have been just that busy. Maybe she doesn't like talking on the phone. Maybe she has trust issues. Maybe I came across as a creeper to her, despite my efforts not to. While all these things were definitely tell-tale signs that she was just not that into me, I realized that I was holding a grudge against her over a bunch of uncertainty. I've always believed that you shouldn't fill in holes of unknowns with negatives, but I was doing just that. No matter what the reasons were for her lack of contact, she didn't deserve all that negativity from me. So, I started my message over. In it, I expressed an interest in getting to know her, and that I had been trying to call but couldn't seem to reach her or get a call back from her. I also asked if there was a good time to call her. To my dismay, she somehow was weirded-out by my message and misinterpreted it as me wanting to start a relationship with her (not that this wasn't true, but that wasn't the point I was trying to get across to her). Just to make sure I wasn't trippin’, I had other close friends of mine read the letter I wrote, and none of them came to the conclusion that she did. We were able to diffuse the situation through our mutual friend, but that was the last straw for me. I wasn't angry at her anymore (or so I thought), but I was done trying to contact her, let alone resolve anything with her.
As much as I told myself I had put the situation behind me, I realized I really hadn't. I couldn't see her profile pic randomly pop up in my Facebook news feed without having to fight thoughts of resentment. I eventually had to think to myself: “Have I really forgiven her if all I've done is just choose to not think about her?” I considered how it would be if she lived in the same city. If I had a problem with a brother or sister at my church and simply chose to not speak, say hi or give a hug, could I really consider myself having forgiven them? I couldn't bring myself to say yes. I wasn't sure how to proceed, but I knew that I hadn't truly forgiven her. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how petty my beef with her was, and the more I was upset at myself for having been so upset over something so trivial.
One day, we had a guest speaker at Church whose sermon was on this very same subject. The whole message had my attention. He expressed to us that forgiveness has everything to do with yourself and nothing to do with the other person and, contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with an apology, either. Regardless of what the other person did or whether or not the person even knows or acknowledges their wrongdoing, our forgiving is completely on us. We have to “take the needle off the record” and choose not to continue to entertain the thoughts that caused us that pain in the first place. Of course, there will always be those moments that trigger that pain for us again, but that is why forgiveness is not a one-time thing. You have to decide that you won’t continue to treat that person based on their actions. What stuck out to me most, though, was his explanation of the differences between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. (Below is a great video I found explaining many things that forgiveness is not. This may help point those who are confused in the right direction.)
Reconciliation involves both parties working towards a resolution. Reconciliation is good if you can accomplish it, but that’s not what is commanded of us. God commands us to forgive. I realized that I had been looking for reconciliation the whole time, not working towards forgiving her. I didn’t care if she apologized or not, but I wanted her to know how she made me feel. I felt that if I could just get it off my chest, I’d be ok. But what if I never got to talk to her again? What if I never got the opportunity to express to her how she made me feel? Would I be willing to hold on to all of that and decline to forgive her because of that? Was I willing to go to hell over something so small? I had to realize that when I’m judged at the end of all this, God isn’t going to ask me about her lack of returned phone calls. God is going to ask me why I wasn’t willing to let go. God allowed his son to die for all of our sins, and both of them forgive us for repeated sins every day. Jesus lived his whole life as a human with full knowledge of the fact that his best friends would betray him, and still treated them as his beloved brothers. He did this not only to save us from our sins, but also so that we would have no excuses when it comes to forgiving.
I won’t say that I’ve completely mastered the art of forgiveness, but I’m much, much closer than I once was. I’ve realized why it is so very important to learn to forgive, especially in those painful moments. Some of you reading this may have had experiences that were much more painful than mine, both emotionally and physically. Whether it’s something petty and trivial or something that most would regard as unforgivable, we must all realize that none of us are in a position to refuse forgiveness to another, and doing so only hurts ourselves.