I didn’t go to Bible college or Seminary. I don’t have any degrees in theology. I just have my own brain, Google, some books that smart people wrote, and the Holy Spirit. So this, and many of my other, posts on God and Christianity are just a product of those 4 tools being wielded by a dumbass aka me. So if you get something out of this, it either means I’m smarter than I look or… you’re a dumbass too. Let’s hope it’s the former. If you don’t get anything out of this, be assured that it was written by a dumbass and mosey on down the road.
Being me, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering forgiveness. I’m a rule keeper by nature. (First born child here.) So when the Bible says we have to forgive, I take it pretty seriously.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
This verse always scared the piss out of me. I want to be forgiven! I’m not always the nice person most people assume I am. (I’m such a good faker.) I have shit that needs to be forgiven. (Like including the words dumbass and shit in this post, knowing it will probably offend some people. Sorry.)
So if I have to forgive people in order to be forgiven myself, I want to know exactly what forgiveness is so I can make sure I’m doing it right. Now, I know I’m not the only one out there who thinks this way. I’m sure all you other rule keepers are just like me (and the other Pharisees) who want to honor the letter of the law but not the spirit of it.
The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote
Dang, this verse makes that sound bad…. Oh well….
I wish knowing this verse had stopped me from trying to forgive “perfectly” but it didn’t. I’ve read a lot of verses on forgiveness and reconciliation. I’ve even written a blog post on reconciliation. (I’d like to say I went back and read it before writing this one but I’m far too lazy for that.)
As I tried to dissect forgiveness, I used all the tools available to me. I did word studies on forgiveness, forgive, forgiving. I used the Greek Lexicons available online to help me really get down to the definition of the word so that I’d know if I was doing it right. I thought of different parables and teachings of Jesus and tried to apply them.
And finally, after much thought and study, a new understanding of forgiveness came to me and it’s this understanding that I’d like to share with you. I should note here that I don’t feel this is a complete understanding of forgiveness. It’s just where I’ve landed on the subject for now and I thought it might be useful to someone else besides myself.
(Or you can skip this lengthy post and just read the summary at the end. Your call.)
Let me start by sharing what I always believed forgiveness to be for much of my life.
Forgiveness meant not being angry anymore and acting as if nothing had ever happened. It also definitely meant continuing in relationship with the person who hurt you. Someone wrongs you, you say “that’s ok”, smile and move on. The offending party might have to apologize to get the ball rolling but that’s the extent of their involvement in the process. Forgiveness, to me, was really about corralling my own feelings and making them stay in line.
But what happens when the offending party does something a lot more heinous than accidentally smashing your toe or yelling at you when they’re in a bad mood? What happens when they repeatedly belittle you, gaslighting you for years or try to break up your marriage? What happens when they spread lies about you or steal from you?
A big part of me believed for a long time that I had to swallow all of my hurt and anger, push it down, say “that’s ok, what they did was wrong but I’m going to forgive them”, smile and then keep having a relationship with that person. Wasn’t that what forgiveness meant?
Forgiveness seemed supernatural to me and nearly impossible to achieve. Every time I started to think I wasn’t angry about something anymore, I’d remember what happened and all the feelings of hurt and anger would resurface. Then the guilt would come because if I was still hurt and angry then I clearly hadn’t forgiven. It was a terribly vicious cycle of pain.
But being hurt many times in my life offered me many chances to try to learn how to forgive. And the last 2 years have been wonderful instructors on how to forgive in the midst of hurt and pain.
So what have I learned the last two years that changed my view on forgiveness?
It’s less “something I learned” and more “something I didn’t know I already knew”. But God is good (all the time) and the Holy Spirit knows when to lay an egg in your brain and heart. And I can honestly say these last 2 years have been full of learning eggs dropped into my soul.
I no longer think of forgiveness as an emotion corral. I see it a lot more as a financial transaction now.
Remember the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant? I’m going to put all the verses right here in their entirety but if you’re anything like me you’ll skip the verses and continue reading. That’s fine. I’ll summarize.
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
If you skipped the verses and need the summary, here it is:
Basically there was a servant who owed a boat load of money to his king. He couldn’t pay the king so the king ordered him to be sold as a slave to try to recoup some of his money. But the servant fell on his knees and begged the king, promising to pay him back. The king relented but instead of making the servant pay him back he just forgave the whole debt.
After leaving the king’s pad, the servant runs into his fellow servant who owes him like $30. He flips out on the guy. Of course, the second servant begs the first servant to have patience with him, promising to pay him back. But the first servant is a royal douche and throws the guy in prison instead of having mercy.
The king gets wind of all this and calls the first servant back into his royal chambers and says, “WTF, bro?!? I forgave your debt, why didn’t you forgive your fellow servant’s debt?” And then in his kingly anger, he hands the first servant over to be tortured until he could pay back his original debt.
It’s pretty heavy stuff. But this parable really got my mind revving about debt and forgiveness.
I grew up saying the Lord’s prayer. Not often but often enough to have it memorized. And when I said the Lord’s prayer I always said, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Did you know that many of the translations of Matthew 6:12 (that part in the Lord’s prayer where we ask for forgiveness), don’t use the words trespass and trespasses but translate “opheilema” as debts.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Opheilema is a Greek word that actually means, “that which is owed, that which is justly or legally due, a debt; metaphorically, an offense or sin”.
And so I thought, what if forgiveness simply means, “you don’t owe me anything, your debt is paid”. What if instead of being a pushing down of anger, it is actually a releasing of debt? That seems to fit with the parable, doesn’t it?
This led me to another thought: if forgiveness is about releasing emotional debt, then what was owed? If someone owes me a debt, a debt that I then forgive, what did I lend them in the first place?
And so we arrive here.
What if every time you have contact with someone, you are actually loaning them a small piece of yourself? Here is a little part of me, it might be small and almost insignificant but it’s a part of me and it is fragile. Please treat it with kindness.
We don’t just give away a part of ourselves to our friends and family. But to strangers as well. We present ourselves to the cashier behind the counter or to customers at our job or to the receptionist at the doctor’s office. Our interactions may be brief but still there is a small part of us left unarmored that has the potential to be damaged. All we ask of the people we encounter is that they treat us with kindness. In most casual encounters, we receive that little piece of ourselves back undamaged and we go on with our lives.
But with friends and family we give more and more unguarded pieces of ourselves. Pieces we cannot hope to have returned to us quickly. We loan them these fragile, quivering pieces of ourselves and ask only that they be gentle and return them as undamaged as possible.
But no one is infallible and damage happens all too often and all too easily. So we look to our friend or our family member and say, “I loaned you a piece of myself but you’ve damaged it and you are unable to return it to me whole. You owe me a debt.”
A debt of what? A debt of repair to the damaged piece of self? A debt of repentance and apology? Should the one who did the damaging offer a piece of themselves as payment? Only the damaged one knows what would satisfy the debt. But a debt is owed. And only the damaged one can say when the debt has been paid.
In most healthy relationships, there doesn’t really need to be a wrestling of conscience and a quibbling over forgiveness. One person says, “You’ve hurt me.” And the other person says, “I’m so sorry. Let me make repairs.” A give and take ensues and the two repair the damage and nothing more needs to be said.
But in unhealthy relationships, when one party is hurt, the offending party often does nothing to help repair the damage and may even insist they did no damage. It is then left to the hurting person to resolve the problem on their own. This is where the hemming and hawing and quibbling comes in. How do you know if you’ve forgiven someone if they make no effort at all to apologize, repent, change and help heal the damage?
Thankfully, you don’t have to do this alone. You have the Holy Spirit and hopefully a friend or two that can help you with the healing process. As you heal you must then ask yourself, “What do I need from ‘so and so’ in order to be healed?” If the answer is “nothing”, I believe you have released them from their debt to you. When the memory resurfaces, bringing the pain afresh, don’t believe you didn’t forgive them. Instead, take the time to assess yourself and ask, “What do I need from them to be healed?” If they still owe you nothing, you have forgiven them.
But just because you forgave them doesn’t mean you have to trust them.
Forgiveness is free but trust has to be earned.
24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
I bring you now to a parable that I never connected to forgiveness until recently.
The Parable of the Talents.
Again, I’ll quote all of the verses here but you can totally skip over them and head straight for the summary. (That’s what I would do.)
14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
As quickly as I can: a wealthy landowner was going on a journey and he called 3 servants to him before he left. He gave them each a crap load of $$$. One servant received 5 talents (some say a talent was about a year’s worth of pay, others estimate it was considerably more than that), one received 2 talents and the third received 1 talent. In the parable he gives no instruction on what to do with the money, he just leaves. But still the first servant invests the money and receives a return of 5 more talents so that he has 10 talents (math) when his master returns. Similarly, the second servant invests his 2 talents and doubles his money as well. But the third servant was afraid of his master, so he decided to bury the one talent to keep it safe.
When the master returns, he is, of course, delighted with the first two servants and gives them both promotions in Wealthy Landowner Ventures LLC. But when the third servant shows the boss what he did with the talent, boss gets pissed. He’s like, “Bro, why didn’t you at least put it in the bank so it could draw interest? Why bury it?” After that, he takes the talent from him and gives it to the first servant with the 10 talents.
But informative. If someone is being a good steward over the piece of you that you gave to them, go on and give them more. But if someone is an unfit steward over that piece of you, release them from their debt to you but don’t give them any more.
What I’m saying is: you can forgive someone but you don’t have to trust them again. Forgiveness and trust are not interchangeable. Though I grew up believing that to forgive someone meant that I also must give them my trust once again, I no longer believe this. I can forgive, release them from their debt to me and also discontinue the relationship. Remove the talent from them and give it to someone who has earned it.
Some people are not good stewards of other people’s hearts and emotions. Recognizing that someone is a toxic element in your life does not mean that you hold unforgiveness toward them. It means you recognize that they cannot handle your fragile, quivering pieces with the care, kindness and gentleness that you need and you distance yourself from the harm.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Maybe like me you were taught that guarding your heart meant trying to keep it pure and unstained from sin. But I posit that guarding your heart means rescuing it from the ones who would do it harm. Not entrusting ourselves to them.
So what is unforgiveness then?
If forgiveness is letting go, then unforgiveness is holding on. I do think unforgiveness can be both accidental and deliberate. But I think the only unforgiveness we should be worried about is the deliberate kind.
Deliberately choosing to not forgive looks like making a conscious choice to remain wounded by the transgression and allowing the wound to fester and poison us. It means choosing to let the transgression have so much power over us that we cannot let it go, we are bound to it and it to us.
It looks like Bowler Hat Guy from Meet The Robinsons.
He was once the adorable and lovable Mike Yagoobian. But he let the wound in his soul fester and rot him from the inside out. It destroyed his life and every relationship he ever had. His inability to forgive nearly destroyed him.
This was a deliberate choice. Here is a clip of him talking to himself. (Time travel.)
Choosing not to forgive does more damage to ourselves than it does to the person we are holding a grudge against. In fact, the person we’re not forgiving may not even know that we have a grudge against them. And our plot to destroy them by hurting ourselves doesn’t ever really work out the way we thought it would. (Seriously, just watch Meet The Robinsons.)
But accidental unforgiveness is different. The wounds are still there. They are still festering. But the difference is, you are actually trying to heal and let go, not stay wounded and hold on.
Anyone who has suffered a serious injury knows that even when the injury seems to be healed, even something minor can set back the healing process. I’m actually experiencing this right now with an achilles tendon injury that just won’t seem to heal completely. But I’ve decided I need to head back to the doctor as soon as possible to have it looked at again. Because that’s what you do when you have an injury. You see the doctors and you do the exercises and the physical therapy or the mental therapy. I bought expensive hiking boots a while back just because I wanted to help the healing process along. It’s not completely healed but the boots have helped.
When we are dealing with emotional wounds that just won’t seem to heal, the process of forgiving might be a “more than once” process. And that’s ok. We may think we’ve forgiven it all and then something minor sets us back again and we have to go another round with the healing process. This doesn’t make us like the wicked servant who wouldn’t forgive his brother’s debt. This doesn’t make us Mike Yagoobian aka Bowler Hat Guy. This makes us humans who are fragile and sometimes take longer to heal than we would like.
If you find yourself having to revisit a past wound and deal with it all over again, don’t beat yourself up. Remember that you have the Holy Spirit who is your teacher and comforter to guide you back through the healing process again. And that healing process should ultimately lead to letting go of that emotional debt/baggage. Don’t be surprised if it takes more time than you thought it would to let it all go. And don’t worry that you’ll be thrown out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Stop worrying if you’re getting forgiveness “right”. Instead, focus on the healing process. Focus on the Holy Spirit.
- Forgiveness is not about corralling our emotions and pretending everything is fine.
- Forgiveness is more akin to an emotional financial transaction.
- We loan pieces of ourselves out hoping to receive kindness and gentleness.
- But sometimes the piece we give to others becomes damaged.
- When damage occurs, a debt is owed by the one who did the damaging.
- When we release that person from their debt, we are forgiving them.
- Forgiveness is, therefore, a release, a letting go.
- There are times when the person who does the damaging is not able or interested in helping to repair the damage.
- It’s then left to the damaged person to work on the healing process on their own with the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit.
- Forgiveness and trust are not interchangeable.
- Just because you forgive someone and release them does not mean you have to trust them.
- If someone is a poor steward of you heart and mind, sever ties and move on.
- Deliberate unforgiveness can be more damaging than the initial wound.
- Don’t be Bowler Hat Guy, be Elsa. Let it go.
- Accidental unforgiveness is more like an injury that just won’t heal.
- Don’t give up on the healing process. Keep up the work to bring about the healing.