This has been a frequently asked question recently. Can you relate?
Question: Andrea, I could use some advice. I want to know how to forgive someone that wronged me for many things. But I’m not really sure how I can. All I think about is that I hope someone treats her the same way she treated me. I know that’s not right though. I know that to heal I have to forgive her, but how?
(I am going to give some ideas over the next couple of posts based on how God healed me when I was seeking understanding on this matter, but I hope some others will leave comments of what God has taught them in similar situations.)
I struggled with the same thing you are struggling with for quite a while. I believe my struggle was partially because I was never taught a complete definition of forgiveness and the greater framework in which it works. But before I get into how forgiveness plays a role in the bigger picture of what the Bible calls reconciliation, I want to take you “back in time” a bit in your relationship with this person who has wronged you.
How the Problem Begins
I am guessing after the offenses initially occurred in this relationship, your mind did not start with thoughts of wanting someone to treat her the same way she has treated you. If you are anything like I was in a similar situation, you initially just wanted to have a good relationship with this person. You wanted her to be someone you could trust because you desired to enjoy the blessing of reciprocity without the destructive behavior patterns that kill relationships.
I believe early on you simply wanted her to do what the Lord asks all of us to do when we have hurt or harmed another person. Is it fair to say you wanted her to take responsibility for her offenses by doing the following two things?
1. Confess that what she did or said was wrong, and
2. Turn from making those choices by beginning (and maintaining) a pattern of doing what is right before the Lord.
The good news is that if you desired these two things, your expectations were reasonable. In fact, what you desired is the same as what God wants to see happen when someone wrongs another individual . . .
People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy. (Proverbs 28:13, emphasis added)
I imagine it is safe to assume that your initial desire was not that she would have to “learn her lesson the hard way” by having someone do to her what she did to you. No, I believe you just wanted her heart to be soft before you and before the Lord so that she would desire to do what’s right in your relationship.
But humans are not always tenderhearted and wise in the way we handle our relational faults, are we?
Some people REALLY don’t want to confess their sin and faults.
They ignore it. Deny it. Excuse it. Downplay it. Cover it. Or attempt to blame-shift it away.
So, guess what . . . they repeat it.
And a vicious cycle begins.
How does the Bible illustrate this? It says . . .
As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. (Proverbs 26:11)
How the Problem Develops
The struggle you are dealing with in your thoughts does not occur in a vacuum. In fact, it usually occurs most in the minds of people who themselves are tenderhearted and willing to seek forgiveness and make personal changes to better relationships where trust needs to be rebuilt. Does this describe your character?
When those character traits are not reciprocated in close relationships, you end up feeling very discouraged and hurt. Exponentially hurt. I say “exponentially” because the original offense is painful, but it’s the offender’s lack of concern for the damage they have caused you (and/or someone you love) that can be so destructive to your soul if you do not know how to process the hurt.
The problem progresses like this: When the relationship is so broken down because of the hard heartedness of the other party, you may not know what to do with the hurt feelings you are left with. When someone causes that much pain and won’t humbly and honestly confess and/or take the steps toward changing AND you don’t know what to do with the unresolved hurt, you are at risk for allowing your emotions of sadness to mutate into the poison of unresolved anger and bitterness in your heart.
At that point, you may not even have regular contact with this person anymore, but you are still allowing residual pain to chip away tiny pieces of your heart.
Anger and bitterness typically are not primary emotions. They present in our hearts and minds secondary to feelings of hurt and sadness that are not processed through God’s filter.
So, the question is this: If you have already confessed anything that would be considered your wrong doing and have committed to never repeat it but the other party in the relationship has refused to do their part in reconciling, how can you guard your heart from becoming bitter as you deal with the lingering hurt apart from the benefit of being able to be reconciled with this person?
The good news: It can be done.
The not-so-appealing news: It can be a lot of “work.”
Here’s an illustration to think about when you are considering your desire to heal from this pain and to get past the anger and bitterness:
When I began college, I went to the registrar’s office to get some advice on how to be able to earn a degree in the major I had selected. The lady who worked with me laid out a plan. She showed me a list of all of the courses I would need to take and she showed me how I could organize my schedule each semester to be able to accomplish my goals.
I liked her plan. It seemed overwhelming, yet doable all at that same time. But just listening to her advice and seeing her plan did not earn me a degree. I only received the reward of my degree by doing the hard work of day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year going to class, studying, and taking tests. There were days that the attainment of my goal seemed so far away, but one day I graduated. I met my goal.
The degree didn’t mean that I would never need to learn anything ever again, but I was able to say I had satisfied a desire that was lacking in my life. Learning to forgive is similar. We need to learn what God wants us to do in order to heal, but we can’t stop at making a plan and wonder why nothing seems to change. We must be proactive with our healing. We must go to the Source of healing – the One who created forgiveness. We need to daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly pursue Christ and His heart and mind for us through Scripture.
We also need the benefit of others who will encourage us in this area. Seek friends who will encourage your healing (not someone who will just tell you to “get over it”). Ask for prayer and suggestions for studying Scripture. But it can’t stop with carefully reading the Bible. We need to take the baby steps of putting His Word into practice. God’s Word tells us:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. (Matthew 7:24-25)
After consistently learning and applying Scripture, one day you will be able to say, “I am healed.” This doesn’t mean that you will not need to continue learning and growing in your relationship with the Lord to stay healthy, but there will come a day that the pieces of your heart will be joined back together and you will know what Joseph knew after he had overcome the pain of his past as he was finally able to say to his brothers who had wronged him:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20)
Between now and my next post, I recommend the book, When You’ve Been Wronged by Erwin Lutzer. As you read it, take the extra time to read the Scripture references from your Bible. God likes to teach us through telling stories from the pages of history past, plus many of us learn better when someone shows us instead of just telling us how this thing called forgiveness works. Look at this as the first of several “classes” on your road toward healing. Don’t give up. Press on toward your goal.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
To be continued . . .