I don’t remember the day well. In fact, it is a day I’d soon forget. What I do remember is looking out my window from my office in San Diego and seeing Interstate 5 at a complete standstill. Within minutes I began hearing the wails of sirens. One policeman frantically skirted vehicles stopped on I-5 by driving on the shoulder next to the guardrail in a frantic effort to get southbound.
I wondered, “What was it? A fiery wreck? A bank robbery? Had an illegal alien been struck trying to cross the border?” No. What brought traffic to a halt in one of the largest cities on the west coast, what made police, ambulances and even SWAT teams converge in haste was, quite simply, a man who had not learned to forgive.
Jim grew up in a respectable and religious home in the rural farmlands of Ohio. There was nothing spectacular about him. He wore a flattop and glasses, and to most who knew him, Jim appeared to be a pretty quiet kind of guy. But underneath that placid exterior churned the resentment and hatred of four decades.
People always seemed to get in his way and do him wrong. In high school, though he stood six feet tall, he didn’t make the cut for the basketball team. He couldn’t let it go, but remembered it, and repeatedly brought it up years later. He nurture the hurt.
As time passed, Jim grew more distant, inward, and seething. He earned a college degree in sociology, but never pursued a teaching position because he didn’t like interacting with people. He planned to be an embalmer, and though he mastered the techniques, he couldn’t handle the public, and so never landed a position. He finally found work as a welder, but when his employer, the Babcock and Wilcox power plant in Canton, Ohio was closed, he was laid off.
It was always someone else’s fault: he blamed everyone around him––his bosses, the company, his co-workers, his family, even the government for his troubles. When he would explode in one of his verbal tirades, his co-workers would laugh, not taking his anger or threats very seriously.
Jim eventually moved his family to San Diego in 1983 where he was turned down for a job as a security guard because of his anger. Even at home, his loss of temper led to his abusing his wife and children. Finally, on that humid July afternoon, the frustration and rage he had so long allowed to simmer under the surface erupted.
Having been at the San Diego zoo that afternoon, the family returned home. When his wife and daughters decided to take naps, he darkly mumbled something about “going to hunt humans.” To his wife, it seemed to be just another inappropriate and angry comment so common in Jim’s mouth. But when the house was quiet, he pulled on a black short-sleeved T-shirt, camouflage pants and boots, and dark sunglasses, loaded the car with a handgun, a pump-action 12 gauge shotgun, a 9 mm Uzi semi-automatic and drove to MacDonald’s. At 4 p.m., he entered the lobby, and before anyone knew what was happening, Jim began spraying the crowed of forty patrons and employees with a shower of bullets. He was finally making “them” pay.
After the first volley, survivors say he demanded that “everyone get down on the floor.” When those left living did so, he proceeded to systematically execute them, one by one. Of those who fled in terror, only a few escaped. A 74 year old grandfather lay sprawled at the main door, doughnuts scattered next to him. Just outside, two seven year old boys lay crumpled by the bicycles. An eighteen year old mother with her eight month old son were found in a booth, shot at close range.
Seventy-seven minutes and twenty-one bodies later, a single bullet from a SWAT team sharpshooter brought the rampage to a halt. James Oliver Huberty joined the ranks of the dead. The bullet ended it, but it was his resentment that killed him. He had never learned how to forgive anyone.
The more I learned about Jim, the more I’m convinced that he wasn’t some crazy nut case with an attitude and a gun, but a person like any of us, who neglected to take care of a what was churning around inside of him, until it was too late. Every day, many of us practice some of the same inner responses that drove this man to MacDonald’s that afternoon. Granted, we may show it in less dramatic circumstances with less devilish evil, but like Jim, we cling to our hatred and contempt. We coddle and nurture our hurt, blaming others and refusing to forgive. We want others to pay.
Why is it so hard to forgive? To forgive your husband who has betrayed you by sharing intimacies with another woman? To forgive your wife who has ridiculed you in front of friends? To forgive your boss who has taken adavantage of you? To forgive your co-worker for uncaring, cynical comments? To forgive your friends who have excluded you? Why is it so difficult to do, and how can we find in ourselves what is necessary to let an offense go?
Jesus himself commands us to forgive, and instructs us to pray, “Father, forgive us our debts in the same measure that we forgive others’ debts” (Matt. 6:12). But simply knowing that we should, or must doesn’t make it easier. What has helped me is a clear understanding of what forgiveness is and isn’t, knowing how best to ask for it, and what kinds of disciplines to practice that will increase our willingness to do it.
What is this thing called forgiveness?
I have found that many of us tend to confuse forgiving with other responses. These responses are not necessarily wrong, but they clearly are not the same as forgiving. If we are to clearly understand what forgiveness is, we must grasp what it isn’t.
It isn’t explaining.
As a pastor, I often have discovered that what I have done or said has hurt another person, even though my words or actions were not wrong. In such cases, I often explain, “I really didn’t mean to hurt you…This was a terrible misunderstanding, a big mix-up. I said this and did that, but you thought…” In such cases, explaining has a place, and when it does, understanding is in order. But explaining is not confessing, and understanding is not forgiving.
It isn’t rationalizing.
When feeling hurt, we might whisper to ourselves healing thoughts: “It’s not so bad. It could have been a lot worse. Think of what others have done or gone through. Get some perspective.” The response that rationalizing seeks is, “That’s OK. It’s no big deal. It happens to everyone. Forget it.” We want to minimize the problem until it vanishes into insignificance. But rationalizing isn’t forgiving.
It isn’t excusing.
When we excuse another, we overlook an offense or fault due to the circumstances or intent of the offender. I don’t blame a person for rear-ending my car if his brakes fail or he hit a patch of ice. I may excuse a grocery store checker’s harsh demeanor if I understand that she has had a very bad day. Excusing has a place, especially if we are dealing with cultural faux pas. Burping loudly at a formal affair is certainly no sin against God, and the appropriate response is, “Please excuse me!” But as historian George Marsden observed, “Grace is not cheap, and forgiveness is more than good manners.” Excusing has a legitimate place, but it is hardly forgiveness.
It isn’t bargaining:.
Family squabbles often end with an intervening parent (also known as “The Referee”) striking this bargain: “Billy, next time, share the cookie with your sister, and Janie, next time, ask before you grab. OK?” Bargaining often passes for forgiving, but they aren’t the same. Though forgiving may or may not be mutual, bargaining must be. You can forgive all alone, but a bargain requires two.
It isn’t blaming.
When our bad behavior is spotlighted, we may point fingers elsewhere: “It wasn’t my fault! It was HIM! HE’S the reason I did what I did. Don’t blame me!” Yet, shifting the blame to the more deserving doesn’t absolve me, and it isn’t forgiveness.
It isn’t ignoring.
When we are really hurt, pretending rarely helps. Trying to forget a wrong without forgiving is like trying to ignore a toothache, or attempting to walk on an infected toe: for a time you may try to forget, but the slightest jar revives the sharp pains. Ignoring or forgetting eventually may be the result of forgiving, but it isn’t the same as forgiving.
It isn’t feeling bad or better.
When we are needing forgiveness, we may be tempted to try to feel badly enough to merit it. “I feel so badly. I’m an idiot. You should hate me for what I did.” On the other hand, when we are offended, we may announce, “I’ll forgive when I feel better about the situation,” as if when we feel good enough, we’ll be able to overlook the wrong. Unfortunately, those who most need to forgive usually feel so miserable that time in itself will never bring them to a place where they’ll feel good enough to let it go. Surprisingly, forgiveness has nothing to do with our feelings, whether good or bad. Forgiveness is focused on one’s will, one’s choices, not on one’s feelings. Forgiving may make you feel better, but feeling bad or better is not the same as forgiving.
What then, does it mean to forgive? I have found this simple definition helpful:
Forgiveness is not making you pay for what you did, to my satisfaction at my hands.
Embedded in this simple definition are three stark requirements. First, forgiveness involves not making you pay. We instinctively know that a wrong has been committed, so we want a payback. We long for justice to be done. Forgiveness does not let go of justice, but forgoes the demand to be the one who establishes justice as judge, jury and executioner.
Next, forgiveness is not making you pay for what you did––but not necessarily to me. Regrettably, we can take up the offense of another (usually someone we love), as if it were our own, as if we ourselves were sinned against. Years ago, one of my son’s teachers said some unkind, untrue, and very unmotivating things to him. When I heard what had been said, I responded with a less than Christlike response. In fact, long after my son forgave the man, I fought with feeling ill toward him, though he had never wronged me personally. I needed to forgive.
Third, forgiveness is not making you pay to my satisfaction. I must let go of the notion that as the hurt party, I must be the one who decides who has suffered enough, paid enough, and that I am entitled to participate in the extraction of payment. Some who have done wrong suffer greatly as a consequence, but often a victim who watches from a distance does not see the offender’s suffering as connected to that offense, unless the victim has a hand in the administering of the sentence. We may try to control some of the consequences by withholding love, respect or relationship, or by bringing up the offense to everyone who cares to listen, years later. Forgiveness releases that expectation.
All biblical forgiveness makes a crucial assumption: it assumes that a wrong has been committed. Whatever was said or done wasn’t simple a slight, a foible or mistake, but a sin. For forgiveness to be solicited or offered, those involved must agree that the act was wrong. In Christian terms, it violated God’s law or character. We simply cannot forgive what we don’t admit is sin. If it really isn’t a sin, but simply a mistake or misunderstanding, other responses are appropriate. If the perceived offense against you is really nothing more than the product of your own narrow, bigoted perspective or offended selfishness, then you may need to ask God for forgiveness, and plead that He mature you. But if you have been sinned against, then forgiveness is in order.
How then do I forgive? Looking at it from the perspective of the one who needs to ask for forgiveness, there are three steps.
Step One: Admit your wrong.
Forgiveness assume a wrong, a sin has been committed, something more than a mistake. Call the act that you committed sin. Admit that you’ve been wrong according to God’s law. You can’t be forgiven of what isn’t a sin. So be specific and humble.
As our children were growing up in the Walker household, we insisted that we always deal with our sins against others by naming them. Our kids all too often were quick to say, “Sorry.”
“But for what? Precisely what wrong did you commit?” we’d press.
After a particularly troubling day at the church, I sat in front of a troubling computer, begging it to do a simple task and growing increasingly frustrated by it’s seeming resistance. Melissa, our daughter, plopped herself down at my side and offered several suggestions. “Dad, have you tried…” to which I responded, “If I needed help, I’d ask for it.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and she escaped quickly down the hall to her room. I knew I had done wrong and treated her badly; within a minute of gaining some composure, I knocked on her door, entered to see her crying softly, and said, “Honey, I’m sorry.” She glanced up and ask, “For what? What exactly did you do?” Exactly.
For the hurt party, hearing vague generalities doesn’t inspire much confidence. “Well, if I did do anything to hurt you, I’m sorry.” That’s like saying, “If I asked you to marry me, would you?” (“Uh, I don’t know. Are you asking?”) Instead, we should say, “I was wrong when I spoke harshly with you.” Or, “I lied.” Or, “I let you down by not doing what I said I’d do.”
Sometimes we aren’t certain what we have done wrong. In such cases, we may need to ask “What have I done?”—and listen to the hurt party respond before making this first step.
Step Two: Express your regret.
In our culture, “sorry” is a perfectly good word, but has become dull with overuse. It actually means, “to express sorrow or regret,” though the way its often used expresses nothing of the kind. It often is stated as the one word, sterile response to a perceived offense:
“Hey––you took the last cherry Danish!”
In fact, much of what passes for repentance these days is nothing more than a calculated attempt to get out of trouble. You get the sense that some people are simply saying “sorry” so you can get lost and they can get on with their lives. In Bill Watterson’s cartoon, “Calvin and Hobbes,” Calvin makes a confession, but patently just going through the motions:
Most of us have felt reluctant to forgive another who has hurt us because we perceive he has little or no sense of the impact of what he has done. What may escape his mouth (“I’m sorry”) may be lacking any real meaning (“I regret what I’ve done”).
But what if you don’t feel regret? Then you may need to think through the implications of your words or actions. Ponder the damages. How has what you have done hurt others? How has it damaged another’s trust in you, or compromised your character, or dishonored Christ? Also, consider the alternatives. If you could re-live the situation, knowing what I know now, what would I do differently? The answers may not be quick or easy to come by, but they are indispensable to creating a true sense of regret.
Once remorse is born in you, expressing it to the one to whom you are asking forgiveness is crucial. “If I offended you, I’m sorry” simply doesn’t move us. On the other hand, “It was wrong to lie to you. It has undermined your trust in me and makes anything else I say suspect in your ears. If I could do it over, I’d have swallowed hard and told you the truth.” Most of us are more likely to be moved to forgive is we sense the offender knows what he has done, has a grasp of how it has hurt us, and wishes he could have a second run at the situation. Express your regret.
Step Three: Ask the question.
“Will you forgive me?” Don’t make it a demand (“forgive me”) and then walk away without response. Don’t force it: “I’m not leaving until you forgive me.” As those who have injured another, we do not have the right to impose a deadline on the hurt person’s healing. Instead, we should let the question hang in the air. You may need to let them think it through. They may quickly offer forgiveness: “Yes, I forgive you.” They may need time (“I can’t now” or “I need to think about it”), or may even refuse (“No, I won’t”). God only expects you to ask, not manipulate the response.
If they do forgive you, accept it humbly. Remember, you are the debtor.
We may hope and expect the other to follow our lead and ask for our forgiveness for what they did; if they do (and it is very common), forgive them. But what if they don’t? Our pride may flare up in such a moment, arguing percentages with us: “I was only half the problem. She contributed as much as I did to the ugly situation!” In such cases, we need to be prepared to embrace whatever we have done wrong without trying to assess and manage whatever anyone else has done wrong. If my sin was 20% of the situation, God expects me to take 100% responsibility for my 20% of the situation, without announcing who the other 80% belongs to.
Asking to be forgiven is difficult; it taxes our honesty, transparency, and humility. But granting forgiveness is also demanding, and the more deeply we are hurt, the more difficult is it to let it go. How can I find in myself what I need to forgive?
How can I bring myself to grant forgiveness?
If repentance is really a matter of the heart and mind, so granting forgiveness is not merely words, but also must come from deep inside of us, where our convictions and compassion swirl together. I have discovered three disciplines that soften my heart to forgive.
1. Reflect on how God has forgiven me.
When the Bible describes how God has dealt with our sins, it uses a number of telling words. In the Greek language (in which the New Testament was written), one of the words for forgiveness (charizomai) emphasizes the manner of how He forgives: graciously, freely, undeservingly. God forgave us even when we didn’t merit it, or weren’t promising candidates for better behavior. He forgave us completely and unconditionally. Passages in the New Testament underscore how graciously God forgave us:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,
just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32)
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature,
God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins…” (Col. 2:13)
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Col. 3:13)
Clearly, the Bible expects us to see how God has forgiven us, and mimic Him in our forgiving others. Our temptation is to offer “parachute forgiveness”––with lots of strings attached. In other words, I’ll forgive you IF you come to me first and IF I’m satisfied that you are sufficiently penitent, and IF you have suffered to my satisfaction, and IF I’m convinced you feel the depth of my hurt, and IF I think you’ve learned your lesson and IF you promise never to do it again.” All those things might make us more willing to forgive, but God forgave us graciously. And so should we.
A second word for forgiveness in the New Testament refers to the result of forgiveness (apoluo). It describes being set free, released or unshackled.
“The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” (Mt. 18:26)
“To him (Jesus) who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood…” (Rev. 1:5)
In God’s mind, He released us from dragging around our failures, mistakes and blatant disobedience of our past. Our sins are no longer a weight chained to us, nor a debt outstanding on the ledgers, or an unpaid ticket to be settled before a judge in the future. We’re free. It is a shame that we often don’t take our cue from God who forgave us, but instead refuse to release others of their past, and tattoo them with their failures, complete with names, dates, and offenses.
A third word describing how God has forgiven us (aphiami) means to separate: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”(1John 1:9) The word also is used to describe a divorce (1Cor. 7:11). The point is that in forgiving us, God has separated us from our sins. They are no longer in the shadows of my life, darkening my path. I can go forward without having those things define who I am. As God has done for me, so I should to others: as I forgive another, I must see him not as an object of continued hate and contempt, but as one who is no longer defined by what he has said and done against me. The offense has been addressed, dealt with, and as far as it concerns me, it no longer dogs his steps.
Reflecting on how God has forgiven us moves us to act in the same way toward others. We can graciously take the initiative and release another from their, separating them from the guilt of what they have done. Of what has God forgiven me? All of us as sinful people have hurt and offended other sinful people; and rare it is that one side bears 100% of the blame. But all of us sinful people have offended God who has done nothing wrong and is both innocent and holy; yet He has forgiven us. How can I not forgive another when I so undeservedly have been completely forgiven by God?
Henry Ward Beecher said it well: “We are most like beasts when we kill, most like men when we judge, and most like God when we forgive.” Pondering how God has forgiven us moves us to forgive others in the same way.
2. Give it time to heal.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32)
Commentators have pointed out that forgiving in this command is in the present tense, and have suggested that it therefore infers a continual process. Forgiveness is rarely like the delete key on a computer, which, if you push it erases the data stored in the memory. Lewis Smedes compares forgiveness to a clean bandage that protects and allows the hurt to heal in time. All the pain may not vanish the instant forgiveness is willed, but it will heal in time providing I don’t grow impatient and pick at the scab or nurse new wounds. In giving it time to heal, I am not waiting for my emotions to feel better; instead, I am deciding not to hold another’s neck to the blade of my own justice. My emotions will follow if I daily decide to keep the forgiveness in effect.
3. Consider the alternative.
There can be no debate that Scriptures command us to forgive one another (Eph. 4:32). But even if you do not like the idea of forgiving another, the alternative is even worse: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. (Prov. 14:12) Refusing to forgive, trying to make another pay for what they did may seem right to us. In fact, forgiving may seem unfair, or allowing the offender to escape. But the only alternative to forgiveness is revenge and bitterness. “I will not forgive him” may seem like punishment to the offender, but it serves only to poison the one already injured. With every passing day, as a scab is picked to fresh rawness, his soul becomes infected and eventually gangrenous. The one who fails or refuses to forgive replays his hurts again and again in graphic detail. He is stung afresh with the sin against him, until it consumes his thinking and blinds his seeing.
He who makes another pay will himself eventually pay. Forgiveness frees not only the offender, but the offended. Resentment and bitterness, on the other hand, kills everyone.
Ask Jim. Even though he is dead, his day still speaks.