There’s an adage that goes, “To err is human.” Indeed, human beings aren’t perfect, and we make all kinds of mistakes. These can range from something small and accidental like adding two pinches of salt to a recipe that requires only one, to more egregious and intentional things like lying about an affair or embezzling money from a charity. The damage that is caused by our errors can similarly be minuscule and limited, or catastrophic and widespread, affecting a lot of people.
Of course, it may be better a certain mistake hadn’t been made, but often that’s not where we find ourselves. Where we do find ourselves is often needing a way to move on and be better. Forgiveness, whether it’s receiving it, extending it to or seeking it from others gives us a way to begin healing from past mistakes.
What is forgiveness?
What is going on exactly when forgiveness is being extended or received? One thing that may help us is to understand what forgiveness is or is not. C.S. Lewis once famously wrote that forgiveness is not the same thing as excusing.
He wrote: “Many people seem to think… that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or no bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive.”
What he means is that when you’re forgiving someone, you’re in no way saying that what they did was okay, or that nothing happened, and all is well. Forgiveness means looking at whatever has happened in all its inexcusable ugliness and making the effort to “kill every trace of resentment in your own heart – every wish to humiliate or hurt them or to pay them out.”
This does not mean you need to trust that person the next time, nor does it mean there shouldn’t be consequences for their actions.
The grounding of this understanding of forgiveness for Christians comes from how God has related to us and forgiven us. As God has forgiven the inexcusable in us through Jesus, we are to grow in imitating God by becoming the kind of people that can extend forgiveness to others.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). This is a huge ask. Christians, however, can lean on the strength that God provides to do the impossible.
When you make a terrible mistake, it can often be hard to come to terms with what you’ve done. That difficulty with coming to terms with our actions can be paralyzing – it locks us into unhealthy remorse which can end up affecting our mental health and overall well-being.
Being able to receive forgiveness is an important step towards healing and learning to do better. If we remain trapped in our past mistakes, we can limit our ability to venture out again and take risks for fear of failure or disappointing others and ourselves.
Being able to receive forgiveness requires us to look beyond ourselves and our feelings of guilt. “If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart”, says St John. Our mistakes and our guilt can never be bigger than God; they can never be so bad as to be beyond God’s grace.
This is where we first learn what true forgiveness and acceptance are. As C.S. Lewis said elsewhere, “To please God… to be a real ingredient in the Divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”
Forgiving those who’ve hurt us
It’s one this to receive forgiveness for the things we have done, but quite another to extend forgiveness to someone for something they have done to you. The pain and the memory of the pain of a wrong inflicted upon you or a loved one can be overwhelming.
It can be even worse if that pain is ongoing or recurs often. Forgiveness, however, is one way to find closure and not stay trapped in feelings of resentment. It allows you to reclaim power and move on with your life.
One example of this is in the life of the author Corrie ten Boom. During the second world war, she and her family hid Jews from the Nazis, and when they were discovered they were sent from their home in the Netherlands to a concentration camp. While there, she lost several family members, including her sister Betsie.
Later, after the war and when she was older, Corrie became an itinerant evangelist – she traveled around sharing the good news about Jesus. At one event where she had finished speaking, she was greeting some of the attendees when she saw a man who had been a guard at the Ravensbruck concentration camp she had been held at.
The man asked for her forgiveness. She writes, “And I stood there – I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven – and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?”
Corrie struggled. She could not bring herself to shake this man’s proffered hand. “And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion – I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’ And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother! I cried. ‘with all my heart.’”
Corrie’s isn’t everyone’s story. Your path may be quite different and take more than an instant to happen. The pains and burdens we carry aren’t the same. I relate this story, though, to illustrate how in this one woman’s life being able to forgive the inexcusable through the power God provides brought her to a place of peace.
Seeking forgiveness from those we’ve hurt
When we hurt someone, often that pain is compounded by our lack of acknowledgment of it. When we ask for forgiveness for something we have done, it has at least two effects – one, in acknowledging our mistakes, we exercise moral courage and step toward continued personal growth; second, it can potentially provide the other person with closure when we acknowledge what we’ve done and face the consequences of our action.
In some 12-step and other programs that help people rebuild their lives after addiction and substance abuse, seeking forgiveness and making amends for the harm our actions caused to others is a crucial part of the recovery process. A biblical exemplar of this is the story of the prodigal son, who broke ties with his father and was consumed by his lifestyle.
He came to his senses and decided to go home, make amends, and be reconciled with his father. He goes home expecting rebuke and to be welcomed only as a servant, but his father welcomes him with open arms (Luke 15). The story is told to show the warm welcome we will receive from God when we seek God’s forgiveness.
It also shows us the courage it takes to come to our senses and seek to make right with others we have hurt. The people we seek forgiveness from may or may not welcome it, and they may or may not grant forgiveness, but the very fact of knowing you need to ask for forgiveness and acting on that knowledge is itself important.
We are all in need of either seeking the forgiveness of others or receiving and extending forgiveness. Living in unforgiveness can be a weight on your soul. When you’ve been wronged, forgiveness seems impossible, like it’s giving up too much.
We need to understand what forgiveness is and isn’t. It doesn’t minimize or erase what happened, nor does it take away the consequences for the other person’s actions, but it is a process whereby you relinquish the feelings of anger and the desire for revenge.
It may not happen overnight but letting go of those feelings is taking a step toward moving on with your life in a healthy and positive direction. If we have done wrong towards someone else, acknowledging it, asking for forgiveness, and receiving forgiveness are courageous and necessary steps in the right direction.
“Hands and Flower”, Courtesy of Lina Trochez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Escape”, Courtesy of Charles Deluvio, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Barbed Wire Crown”, Courtesy of Jclk888, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “A Hand Up”, Courtesy of Austin Kehmeier, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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