How easy is it for me to forgive?

After a long shift at the fire department, Matt Swatzell fell asleep while driving and crashed into another vehicle, taking the life of pregnant mother June Fitzgerald and injuring her 19-month-old daughter. According to ‘Today magazine’, Fitzgerald’s husband, a full-time pastor, asked for the man’s diminished sentence—and began meeting with Swatzell for coffee and conversation. Many years later, the two men remain close. “You forgive as you’ve been forgiven,” Fitzgerald told Today.

So, how do we handle forgiveness? Have you ever listened to a story of loss or injustice and come away from the conversation feeling the emotional pain of it all? It’s happened to me a few times over the last few weeks. Someone else’s story can cause me to feel disappointment, sadness and even resentment toward someone, that I may not even know!

How often have you been hurt in some way through someone’s attitudes, behaviour or communication? It’s so easy to go over the story again and again in our minds and somehow want the person to pay in some way for what they have done. We can punish them by accusing, blaming, judging, withdrawing, stonewalling, and holding back from forgiving them to make them feel our pain. How important it is for us to go to the person and talk it through or have someone come with us to help in the mediation process.

Forgiveness: While on the cross, Jesus, who had been treated abominably, had lies told about him, endured false accusations, experienced beatings and cruel treatment and his response – ‘forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.’ So how do we respond to being offended and hurt by others. Jesus told us to forgive seventy times seven. That means keep on forgiving – forever.

It’s a common feeling that arises in us, that we want them to pay for what they have done. There may be some actions for them to put things right where possible and perhaps have a season where they don’t continue in the same role, and in the above case to serve a sentence, but forgiveness needs to be the overall attitude.  Jesus said, ‘Forgive your enemies – those that accuse you, those that hurt you.’

Definition of forgiveness: Psychologists define forgiveness as a deliberate decision to release feelings of anger, resentment, or vengeance toward someone who has hurt you. In contrast, “unforgiveness” is marked by a mix of bitterness, hostility, anger, and fear. Holding a grudge or aiming for revenge can sap our ability to find peace and happiness, but finding a way to forgive without giving up our principles is no easy task. However, if we can find a way to do so, we will reap many benefits. Studies have found that those who score higher on measures of forgiveness are less depressed, sleep better, use less medicine, have more energy, and enjoy improved cardiovascular health and better life satisfaction.

So, forgiveness is always good for the person who has caused harm, to be released and potentially to be invited back into relationships. However, it’s also a gift to ourselves to be set free from all the emotional turmoil that unforgiveness can bring and to be able to receive peace in our heart knowing that this is what Jesus would want us to do.

Dr. Stephen Marmer of UCLA Medical School identifies three levels of forgiveness – Exoneration where there is apology and we forgive, forget and reconcile; Forbearance where the person doesn’t fully apologise and puts some of the blame on us; and Release, where there is no apology or even awareness of wrong doing. The following examples divide forbearance into two points:

  1. Forgive and Forget: I remember traveling down to England with Rite and our base leader years ago, where we were attending a leadership conference with Loren Cunningham, our YWAM founder. When we arrived, our leader shared with us that actually the conference was only for base leaders and so unfortunately, we weren’t invited. So being the only ones not to go the meeting, we sat outside feeling sorry for ourselves. After the first session, the host of the conference saw us and asked us why we weren’t in the meeting. Hearing our situation, he immediately invited us into the rest of the conference.      

    This was a misunderstanding, a mistake, an unintentional action that made us feel bad but nevertheless was easy for us to forgive and forget and move on (although I just remembered it right now, so it obviously left a mark).  These kind of mistakes and accidents happen in life and we have to learn to forgive and forget.
  2. Meet Them Halfway: I rarely missed leadership meetings but on this occasion I was away and the leaders who met, decided to cancel an event that we were putting on over Christmas. They assessed the situation and everyone was busy and stressed and their conclusion was to cancel it. When I received the minutes of the meeting I was annoyed. One of my values is to follow through on what I have committed to and cancelling appointments and events was the last resort in my mind. So in the next meeting I raised the issue and shared that I personally would like to continue with the event planned. As we dialogued, I realised that I hadn’t set any guidelines for what decisions could be made in my absence or without a quorum. They assumed they could make the decision but obviously could have recommended a decision for the next meeting when I would be present. We met in the middle and did follow through with the event but with learning taking place for all of us.

Please, do not confuse meet me halfway with ignoring the problem. If someone intends to hurt you, they are in the wrong. But when mistakes are made, often everyone concerned can recognise what they could have done to improve their behaviour or communication. The best case would be that both parties realize their mistakes, apologize, and grant forgiveness.       

  • Forgiveness with Conditions: Sometimes you want to forgive someone but you don’t want to get hurt again. So it is wise in these circumstances to set some boundaries. Years ago, one of the leaders I was overseeing took on a base leadership role. I assumed a certain level of common sense that you don’t spend money when you don’t have it in your budget. I quicky learned that common sense isn’t so common. Unfortunately, this leader simply saw a need and spent money to fix it. The problem was that he spent money that wasn’t his to spend. £10,000 later, after a number of crucial conversations, we established a condition – no credit card authority. These boundaries are set to help the person with their accountability and to enable trust to grow again. Forgiveness does not take place in a day. Sometimes when we say we forgive someone, it takes time to feel the resentment fade and then time for trust to be built again. The best way to help emotions fade away is through forgiveness with conditions.   
  • Letting Go: Life can be unfair. There will be times when you get hurt, and there is no apology. Often, people do not take responsibility for their actions, or have big blind spots or actually don’t care how you feel. There is only one way to deal with anger, hurt, and resentment… by letting go. Many people have difficulty apologizing, whether it’s from pride, or inability to face the truth. How can you forgive someone who is not even sorry about what they did to you? One of the hardest things to do is forgive them by letting go of your own emotions. Trying to find an apology from someone who believes they did nothing wrong is useless.

    You may feel that you need to follow it through and confront the person to help bring a stop to their negative behaviour. If they remain strong in their position, it calls for a mediation where you take someone with you to guide you through the dialogue. But forgiveness on your part is a first step in this process otherwise it can be prolonged and messy and at the end of the day it is stressful for everyone concerned. This is especially important if the person is hurting other people as well as yourself. 

Forgiveness isn’t easy but it is a vital aspect of our living in community in the kingdom of God. May you find the grace to forgive and keep on forgiving.    Until next month,     

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