The Act of Forgiving

In my first blog on forgiveness, I shared a story from Corrie Ten Boon’s life. Continuing the theme of forgiveness is a story from my time working at the Department of Juvenile Justice.

I was sitting in a Juvenile Court hearing room waiting to appear before the Judge to present my evaluation on a youth in an upcoming delinquency case. The judge was in the process of sentencing an 18-yr-old standing before him. He looked over at the two men seated in the front row of the court and asked they had anything they wanted to say prior to sentencing. One man had lost his wife, the other his elder father as a result of the reckless driving of the 18-year-old standing in the court room.

The two men stood looking at the youth, when each man, one at a time said, “I forgive you.” Under such grievous circumstances, how were they able to do that? I reflected for a moment, could I have been able to forgive. Honestly, I didn’t know. Forgiving others is a difficult task under. Under these circumstances it would seem to be an impossible task. And yet these two men forgave.

I am aware of many people who have held onto unforgiveness for long periods of time, even decades, for very minor violations, sometimes for perceived grievances that may not have actually happened. Family and friends have been separated for years because of unforgiveness. I believe the aggrieved person always feels justified in holding onto unforgiveness. They reason the other party does not deserve to be forgiven.

I have worked with victims of sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence victims abused by their spouses, and men and women betrayed by a spouse by an adulterous affair. They have wrestle with the issue of forgiving those who have victimized them or choose to hold onto unforgiveness. I am sure the two men in front of me wrestled with forgiving the young man who had taken the life of their family member.

As a Marriage-Family Therapist who has counseled in all of these different circumstances, I understand the pain they feel. Forgiveness comes frequently in counseling; husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and those who were victimized by someone no longer in their life. I also understand how forgiveness would be difficult for any one of them.

So then, what is the purpose for forgiveness? Is it necessary? Are their consequences for not forgiving? The Greek word for forgive is related to debt. It is seen in the often-recited Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Debt is also translated as sins or trespasses. All these are related to the need for forgiveness. The concept of personal harm becoming a debt that is owed and must be paid may explain why people hold onto unforgiveness.

Jesus uses forgiveness of debt in the parable of the man who owes an insurmountable amount of money to the king and cannot pay. Matthew 18. The king forgives the man his debt, then expects this man to forgive the debt of someone who owes him money and cannot pay. In explaining this parable Jesus connects our forgiveness with forgiving others, “…if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother from his trespasses, neither will my Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” Two principles emerge in this parable. 1. Unforgiveness has consequences. 2. Debt must be forgiven.

   The purpose of forgiveness is to release the debt without payment being made by the one who owes it. To forgive without getting nothing in return from the person who caused harm makes forgiveness difficult, especially if we feel you are owed something. But forgiveness is for our benefit, not for the one we are forgiving.

Working with adult victims who were sexually abused as children, many of whom the perpetrator had died, meant the debt owed could never be paid to them. They were left with two choices, hold onto the unforgiveness and pain they felt, or to forgive the person that had caused that pain. Those that were able to forgive were able to move on in their life and heal. Those that could not, continued to struggle. This truth applies to all. It is a choice to forgive the person who harmed you without getting nothing in return.

Which leads us to is forgiveness necessary? I will leave that to you to decide. I can say by experience that there are consequences for unforgiveness. Not wanting to go thru a full list here, I will only generalize the effects of unforgiveness. It can affect your mental, emotional, and physical health, harm relationships and divide families, and for Christians put a roadblock in your relationship with God.

Forgiveness is a choice, a healthy choice. Releasing the debt will lift a weight off of your life and allow you to heal.