My heart goes out to the family that is in a downward spiral. You know what I mean. Whether they live in the same house or come from the same parents or worship at the same church, ‘families’ can fall into bad patterns that become very hard to break. Where every step forward is quickly met by two steps back. Where bad times and lonely times overwhelmingly outnumber the times of true joy. Where it seems like no matter how hard you try, the pain of failures past and the wounds of family conflict are just too close to the surface to get anything good going in a consistent way.
Do you feel like that? Do you find it hard to believe that your family can really begin to work well, because your mind is filled with vivid pictures of times when it hasn’t?
If so, you may have wondered to yourself, What exactly can turn the corner for my family? What can break the cycle of neglect, confrontation, injury, and withdrawal, followed by even greater neglect? If you’re wondering how to heal the past and get some forward momentum going, the answer is without a doubt, forgiveness!
I know you’ve heard that word before, but don’t knock it until you have really tried it according to the principles of God’s Word. Forgiveness is much easier to say than to accomplish, yet it is a God-given mandate that brings incredible healing. Please remember, we are not the People for the American Way; we are not the Rotary Club; and we are not the John Birch Society. We are the followers of Jesus Christ, and our Lord has commanded us to stay busy in this matter of forgiveness. How about a quick review of Jesus’ teaching on the subject?
Jesus on Forgiveness
In Mark 11:25, Jesus said, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.” In Luke 6:37, He stated, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven”. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Wow! Are you ready for that? Those are some pretty significant statements. Where would you be if the Lord chose to forgive you as you forgive others? Somehow God is keeping track of the way that we forgive and the degree to which we forgive, and He is measuring His forgiveness back to us in the same portion. Yikes!
But Jesus didn’t simply talk about forgiveness. He modeled it in His everyday life. From the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11) to His final words on the cross—“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)—Jesus was and is all about forgiveness.
How about you? If you profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ, are you all about forgiveness? No doubt there are countless people who have injured you; they have said false things about you; they have wounded you with their actions and reactions. Maybe the hardship came from a supervisor at work, or a neighbor across the street, or a teacher in school, but regardless of where it came from, the fallout from unforgiveness is huge. It’s huge, and nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the home. So much of the anger and strife that exists in the family today is rooted in people’s unwillingness to forgive.
I want to be really clear about what I mean by forgiveness. It’s important for us to be on the same page if we’re going to get anywhere, so here’s our working definition. Forgiveness is a decision to release a person from the obligation that resulted when they injured you. Imagine for a moment that I dumped a bowl of breakfast cereal in my son’s lap for no other reason than to aggravate him. Of course that would be wrong, and as a result of my choice to injure my son, there would be an existing obligation—in a sense I would owe him. I did something that was not right, and now I am in debt to him. Of course the matters that separate in families are much more serious than a cereal spill, but the silliness shows the simplicity of the choice we must make in matters more severe.
My son would be faced with two choices: Either he could become bitter and suffer over the wrong done against him, or he could release me from the obligation that resulted when I injured him. That is the essence of forgiveness—a decision to release a person from the obligation that resulted when they injured you.
My prayer is that, as you read this, God will reveal whom you need to forgive, the specifics of that forgiveness, and that you will then make a choice to forgive them. Are you up for the challenge?
In the past thirty years I have frequently faced the fact that the only way forward is forgiveness. Waiting for the person to figure it out has produced only silence and greater tension between us. Demanding that I be heard or heeded in a matter of injustice has only made things worse. Appealing to third parties for sympathy and affirmation of my just cause has taken me further into self-pity and self-justification (we are not without fault in most matters needing our forgiveness). The only thing, and I mean the ONLY thing that has promised and actually provided a way forward is forgiveness. Up, out of bitterness, on past regret and resentment, through the tangled mess of memories and specific moments where we were wronged—forgiveness is the only way to freedom.
Until they see their sin it remains between me and God, but in heartfelt recognition of my own need for grace I say: “You don’t owe me. You don’t have to come back or make it right, or even hear my offense. If you come to see it I will treat you with kindness, but if you never do I will think of you with appreciation where possible, or at least acceptance. I have been forgiven much, and I choose to forgive you. You may have meant it for evil; God knows your heart, and He meant it for good. He has used you in my life to show my faults, grow my character and increase my faith. I forgive you, I release you, and I am cultivating a heart of love toward you. I pray for God to bless you and encourage you and show you favor. I don’t need to be best friends, I’m not ready to trust you completely or expose myself again to your selfish conduct, but I do forgive you. I won’t bring these matters up to you, or to others, or with God’s help, to myself. I am walking out of this prison of imagining you’re paying for what you have done, and I am not coming back. I am rejoicing today that your sin is under the same Savior as mine and that you are no more undeserving of God’s forgiveness than I. I pray for the opportunity to relate to you in a matter reflective of this decision. Tonight at dinner, tomorrow as the day begins, wherever and as often as our paths may cross, I will see and speak to you as God does to me, forgiven.”