In our hurt and anger after someone wounds us, showing forgiveness is the last thing we want to do. Give them love before they deserve it? No! Chose to let go of any payback? No! Our natural reaction is anger and retaliation, even if the one hurting us is a close friend or family member.
Yet most of us admire those who follow Jesus in loving and forgiving and doing good to those who hurt and offend us (Matt. 5:43-45, Luke 6:27-28). We are drawn toward these persons as we see lives filled with a sense of peace rather than bitterness and hatred. Further, we see their inner calm and love making them more productive as they work at nudging the wrongdoer to turn from their behavior.
For those of you who want to be able to forgive, I have a tip: do it as the Bible prescribes: forgive out of the knowledge that God in Christ has forgiven you (Eph. 4:32-5:2, Col. 3:13). Sometimes we can’t forgive others until we are forgiven. Or love until we are first loved (1 John 4:19).
Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy (p. 323-324) has an analogy that helps us see this. What’s it like when someone steals a hundred dollars from us when we only have two hundred dollars to our name? In contrast, what’s it like if someone picks our pocket of a hundred dollars and we have a billion in the bank?! The same crime feels like a knife in the heart in one situation and like a prick in the finger in the other.
Now imagine two Christians, both feeling offended by unfair criticism. As we watch them, it is clear that one is able to sort through what is said and admit to what is true and patiently explain what may be unfair; the critical remarks are little more than a prick in the finger. In contrast, that same criticism leads the other person to sink into depression or to respond with anger and blame-shifting. The words of disapproval feel to them like a knife in the heart.
Why? Willard suggests that the one person may know how rich they are in God’s love through Christ, whereas the other may not have yet had that truth sink deep within them.
When we begin to see and feel how much we are loved in Christ in spite of our flaws and how fully he can fill us, we develop the same inner resilience and healthy confidence that a child enjoys when growing up in a family that gives unconditional love. When we are forgiven by God—and when the truth about the riches of love and grace that is ours in Christ Jesus begins to permeate us deeply—then unfair criticism or some other hurt begins to feel less like a knife to the heart.
One caution: don’t wait to forgive an offense until it feels easy to do so (i.e., until it feels like we’re only forgiving a mere irritation or finger prick). Yes, our ability to forgive depends on our experience of being forgiven. But the opposite is also true: our experience of feeling God’s love and forgiveness depends on us showing whatever love and forgiveness we can. Until we forgive another, we will have a hard time believing that God is forgiving us. Why? It’s because we instinctively assume others do what we would do if we were in their position. Consequently we do not fully believe that God forgives us until we forgive another. Somehow us choosing to forgive someone else sends God’s forgiveness deep into our heart. In fact, Jesus implies that us-forgiving-others happens before God-forgiving-us: “If you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15). When we don’t forgive others, it reveals that we probably haven’t really believed God’s forgiveness of us (Matthew 18:21-35).