I don’t think I normally have a lot of trouble forgiving people and moving on with life. I know people make mistakes and I make mistakes and you just have to deal with it and let go. Lately though, something that happened years ago has kept coming to the forefront of my mind. Every time I think about it, I think I will never forgive that person, I will never love them, I will never let go. I know bitterness destroys people. I know refusing to forgive hurts me more than it will ever hurt the other person because it will eat away at me without them ever knowing. Still I felt what this person did was unforgivable and I also felt very strongly that forgiving meant letting what they did be okay. It meant letting them off the hook and acting like nothing ever happened. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t pretend everything was okay and just go on with life like nothing ever happened.
Then earlier this week I read a blog post by Don Miller that got me thinking. Miller talked about playing the victim and using unforgiveness to control and hurt people. Miller’s words made me realize I was telling myself that if I just keep this anger hot and fresh inside of me then that person will never be able to get close enough to hurt me again. If I keep this wound open then I will always remember why this person is unforgivable and so deserving of my anger. Miller’s post bothered me but it didn’t bother me enough to make me change anything; it just got me thinking in the right direction.
Then today I was reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and the chapter I opened up to was called “Forgiveness.” Great. The chapter after that was called “The Great Sin” (referring to pride). Fantastic. And finally the next chapter was called “Charity” (referring to love of course). Super. There I was snuggled up on the couch with a big mug of hot tea ready for an afternoon of encouraging words from one of my favorite authors–that is not what I got. What I got was a heart and soul on fire with conviction. What a got were hard answers to the hard questions I have been asking God (How can I forgive this person? Followed by I will not forgive this person. How can I love this person? Followed by I will not love this person). I have noticed lately when I ask God a question that I think doesn’t have an answer, he answers me anyway whether I like or not.
In the chapter about forgiveness, Lewis says the following: “‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven (Mere Christianity, p.116). These words shook me up a little bit. It bothered me to think that if I can’t get past this anger inside of me then God is by no means obligated to forgive my sins either.
Lewis goes on to say: “We might try to understand exactly what loving your neighbour as yourself means. I have to love him as I love myself. Well, how exactly do I love myself? Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently ‘Love your neighbour’ does not mean ‘feel fond of him’ or ‘find him attractive’. …So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either. That is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are. Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. … For a long time I used to think this was a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life–namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. … In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said need be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again. …Now a step further. Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment–even to death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed. I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible. … That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not” (Mere Christianity, pp. 116-118 & 120, italics mine).
As I said before, my big hang-up with forgiving this particular person was the idea of pretending what they did was okay and acting like I’m just going to forget about it. What they did will never be okay, and unfortunately, I’ll never be able to forget about it either. But Lewis made me realize forgetting and pretending everything is perfectly fine is not what God is asking me to do; that is not forgiveness. When I realized forgiveness is wanting good for the other person, well, that is still hard to do, but it doesn’t feel like a lie–it doesn’t feel impossible. When I was telling God I wouldn’t forgive this person, I kept telling him I wanted to but it just wasn’t possible. I told God he would have to forgive this person for me because I couldn’t do it or he would just have to forgive me for my own unforgiveness–I genuinely felt there was no other answer, no other way to solve the problem. I realize now there is a way but it required I first understand what forgiveness really is and what I must do to offer this forgiveness. I am so relieved to know that this anger, even though it will rear its head again, does not have to hang over and control me forever.
I am so thankful God not only forgives me but patiently teaches me how to offer that same forgiveness to others in the darkest hour.