One of the unfortunate realities of the Christian faith is that there is no shortage of people in the faith who are always willing and ready to point out the obvious and somehow try to make us feel guilty enough to do what we are supposed to do out of guilt. This seems to be especially true in terms of forgiveness–there are lots and lots of people writing, preaching and telling about the need to forgive.
But I have a basic question that I want to look at in this and the next couple of posts. I know that I should forgive people–that is rather obvious. But what if I can’t bring myself to forgive? I have been asked that question in many places by many people and have struggled with it myself at various times when I have felt wronged. There are all sorts of reasons attached to the inability to forgive but they really aren’t the issue for me at this point. I want to look at the realities of an inability or unwillingness to forgive.
And I think the first reality that comes the inability or unwillingness to forgive is the burden that it produces. In general, something that we find ourselves unable to forgive is pretty traumatic and major. Spill my coffee and I will probably forgive you. Kidnap and harm my child and I will likely struggle with forgiving–more than likely, I will wish for revenge, for you to suffer as much as I am.
Being unable to forgive is tied to the severity of the offence–the more serious the issue, the more we struggle with forgiveness. Or maybe I had better say, the more serious the offence, the more I struggle with forgiveness. Ultimately, I carry the burden of that inability to forgive. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the person who committed the offence may not even care if they are forgiven or not–my lack of forgiveness isn’t a burden to them.
I suffer when I won’t forgive. I keep playing the events and words and situation over and over in my mind and often in my contacts with others. I might want revenge–sometimes wishing for it privately and other times openly seeking it through legitimate and illegitimate means. In some cases, my whole life can begin to revolve around the offence and its consequences and my desire for the offender not to be forgiven.
I tie myself into knots over it; I damage my ability to carry on a “normal” life; I alienate friends and family; I can cause damage to my emotional, physical and spiritual health; I can even limit my ability to relate to God. I can end up bitter, angry, anti-social, becoming that person that everyone pities but hates to come in contact with. Certainly, not everyone who can’t forgive does all of this–but the truth is that an inability to forgive does open us up to serious and long term consequences that can affect much of our life.
Now, this is the point in the sermon where I am supposed to say, “So, it’s better to forgive than not so go forgive the offender.” But since I rarely listen to such simplistic sermons, I can’t and won’t say that.
I will say that we do need to understand the practical implications of being unable to forgive. We probably need to spend some serious time looking at our reasons for not being able to forgive–rather than focus all our time and energy on the offender and the offence, we need to use some time and energy to look at ourselves and our reasoning and our feelings and understand better just what it is that we are doing and why we are doing it. Sometimes, we are going to find that our inability to forgive provides us with a convenient distraction from having to deal with the messy and painful feelings associated with the offence–as long as we can keep the focus on not forgiving, we don’t have to deal with our real pain.
If we can’t forgive, we should at least know the real reason why we can’t (or won’t) forgive. Knowing this may or may not lead us to being able to forgive but we will at least have a much better idea of the burden we are shackling ourselves to by our inability to forgive. Knowing the truth may not exactly set us free, but it will help us know better why we are in the state we are.
May the peace of God be with you.