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How to Forgive What You Can’t Forget

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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A woman was dragged from a Southwest Airlines flight on September 26, 2017. Though the passenger reportedly refused to cooperate with officers, the airline stated, “We publicly offer our apologies to this Customer for her experience and we will be contacting her directly to address her concerns.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis was the target of a failed rocket attack in Afghanistan on September 27, 2017. Rockets were fired at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport from an unknown location. They landed in an open area; no one was injured. The Taliban claimed responsibility and said Mattis’s plane was the target of their attack.

Not a day goes by without news reports illustrating the topic of forgiveness. When Christians are attacked, how should we respond? What does biblical forgiveness look like? How do we forgive what we can’t forget?

Lewis Smedes wrote the wonderful book titled Forgive and Forget. Here’s how it begins:

“Somebody hurt you, maybe yesterday, maybe a lifetime ago, and you cannot forget it. You did not deserve the hurt. It went deep, deep enough to lodge itself in your memory. And it keeps on hurting you now.

“You are not alone. We all muddle our way through a world where even well-meaning people hurt each other. When we invest ourselves in deep personal relationships, we open our souls to the wounds of another’s disloyalty or even betrayal.

“There are some hurts that we can all ignore. Not every slight sticks with us, thank God. But some old pains do not wash out so easily; they remain like stubborn stains in the fabric of our own memory.

“Deep hurts we never deserved flow from a dead past into our living present. A friend betrays us; a parent abuses us; a spouse leaves us in the cold—these hurts do not heal with the coming of the sun. . . .

“Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which, despite their best intentions, people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.”

How? Where do we begin? Let’s follow Jesus’ wisdom on the subject, for the sake of our relationships and our hearts.

What is forgiveness?

We begin with the logical first question: What is forgiveness? What does this mean? What is it? Listen to Jesus’ answer: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23–24).

Let’s understand what Jesus is saying.

“If you are offering your gift at the altar”—this is the act of worship, in the context of the Temple sacrifices. We would say, “If you are about to put money in the offering plate.”

“And there remember that your brother has something against you”—not just that you have something against him, but he has something against you.

“Leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother”—we would say, “Get up from church, go make things right with him, then come back and put money in the offering plate.”

And so biblical forgiveness is reconciliation—it is “making things right” with someone with whom things are wrong. The most common Greek word translated “forgiveness” is aphiami, which means to wipe away, to remove, to let go, to release. This can be a legal word, meaning to release from a debt or punishment, to pardon.

Here’s what forgiveness is not:

• Biblical forgiveness is not forgetting the pain. You do not have the human ability to do this. God can “remember our sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34), but we cannot.
• Biblical forgiveness is not excusing the person, pretending the pain did not happen.
• It is not ignoring the conflict, as though it will go away; it will not.
• It is not tolerating the person, merely accepting that this is the way he or she is. Then nothing is solved or resolved.

Biblical forgiveness is to pardon. When the governor pardons a criminal, he does not forget the crime, or excuse the criminal, or ignore the situation, or tolerate the problem. He chooses not to punish the criminal, even though he could. To forgive someone is to choose not to punish them.

You may be thinking that you cannot do this. That the pain is too great, the hurt too deep, their spirit too unrepentant. That this is beyond you. You’re right. But it’s not beyond the God in you.

Think of all Jacob did to his brother Esau, stealing his birthright and family position. But there came a time, years later, when “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

Think of all Joseph’s brothers did to him—selling him into slavery, stealing years from his life, separating him from his father and family for multiplied years of imprisonment and suffering. But at the end of it all, Genesis 45:15 says “And [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept over them.”

Stephen was the first Christian martyr. As the religious authorities were stoning him to death, the Bible says, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59–60).

If they did this, so can we, with God’s help.

How do we forgive?

So, how do we do this? Counselors describe stages in this process.

First, we are hurt, so deeply that we cannot forget the pain. Next, we hate: we want to strike back, so that the person hurts as deeply as we do. Then we begin to heal: we see the person who hurt us in a new light. Finally, we help: we invite the person who has hurt us back into our life. Sometimes he or she won’t, but we’ve done what we can.

Now, let’s examine these steps in light of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. Think right now of a hurt you cannot forget, and be as specific and recent as possible.

Even now, do you feel the hurt welling up inside and with it the desire to hurt back? Are you feeling hate, the second step in this process? Here’s what Jesus says to do: choose not to retaliate. Even though you hurt and are tempted to hurt back, choose not to. This is the essence of pardon, of biblical forgiveness. Do not punish, even when you could. Choose not to hurt the one who has hurt you.

The Master says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (Matthew 5:38). This is the oldest law in the world, known as the Lex Talionis. It appears in the earliest known code of laws, the Code of Hammurabi (Babylon, 2242 BC). This is the Old Testament law as well (Exodus 21:23–25).

Its original purpose was to limit vengeance, not to command it—to limit revenge to the injury caused to us, and not to seek further retribution. Of course, it soon became a means for all sorts of vengeance and pain-giving, the opposite of forgiveness.

So Jesus says, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). For a right-handed man to strike another on the right cheek would be to slap him with the back of the hand. In other words, this was an insult, not a life-threatening situation.

Here’s the principle: choose not to retaliate. When someone hits you, or hurts you, or insults you, ask God to help you, and pardon them. Determine right now that you will not seek the vengeance you could.

From hating we come to healing. How? Jesus says we are to repay evil with good. This is how you begin to heal, to see the person differently. Act into feeling. Repay evil with good, and good begins to grow.

Jesus continues: “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (v. 41). The Romans gave their soldiers the right to force any subject to carry their pack, up to one mile; this was an act of servitude and oppression. Jesus says to double the insult.

In other words, repay their evil with good. Give love for hate, help for pain. Give better than you receive. Find a way to help those who hurt you.

Jesus further amplifies in the next verse: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42). Give whatever you can, no matter what the person has done to you. Repay evil with good, and your own heart will begin to heal as well.

During the Cold War, some sympathetic West Germans threw food and clothes across the Berlin Wall to their starving, shivering neighbors in the East. The Communist government was enraged and threw mounds of trash across the Wall to the West. The West Germans put a sign on the trash which read, “Each gives what he has.”

Choose to repay evil with good.

Last, we move from healing to helping. How? Jesus says we are to pray for those who hurt us (Matthew 5:43–48). This is the best way you can help the one who hurt you. Here is how you begin to reconcile, to come together. Pray for this to happen, with the help of God’s Spirit.

The religious authorities said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (v. 43). But Jesus says, “Love your enemies” (v. 44). The word is agape, which means selfless, sacrificial, spiritual love. How? “Pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44). When? At the very time they’re persecuting you, as Jesus did at the cross and Stephen at his martyrdom.

You are hurt, as we all are. You want to hate, but you choose, with God’s help, to pardon, to refuse to punish. You heal by giving good for evil, and you help by praying for the one who hurt you. This is how Jesus says we can forgive what we cannot forget.

Conclusion

God’s word calls us to pardon the hurts we cannot forget again and again:

• “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him” (Mark 11:25).
• “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:4).
• “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
• “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

Pardoning the person who has hurt you is essential for their health, their future, their soul. In his classic book The Singer, Calvin Miller noted that “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” is “a fair, satisfying and rapid way to a sightless, toothless world.”

And pardoning the hurts you cannot forget is essential to your soul’s health as well.

Frederick Buechner defined anger this way: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Who needs your pardon? To whom will you give this gift today?