Forgiveness isn’t an art. It’s a skill. It’s an essential skill for your mental wellbeing and your spiritual growth.
If you don’t learn to forgive, you will stunt your spiritual growth – you’ll stay prisoner to resentment or ill feeling. When you learn to forgive, you experience deep growth in grace and you get a taste the abundant life that Christ promises.
Awareness of the Need to Forgive
First, you need to be aware when you’re holding on to a lack of forgiveness. Sometimes this awareness catches you by surprise – you’re driving down the road and you realize that you’ve been holding an argument or debate in your mind with an imaginary partner. Sometimes you get a glimmer of insight, realizing that your thoughts have been consumed with “that person” and what they did or what they might do. Sometimes you catch yourself playing the “if only” game: if only this had happened or if only that hadn’t happened, then my life would be completely different. If any of these things happen to you, they may indicate a need to forgive.
A regular practice of stillness is a deliberate means to discover resentments long before they create wreckage in our lives. When you sit still, just you and the Lord, you quickly become aware of your inner thought life. You have to confront and acknowledge the litany of grumbles that play in the back of your head like background music. In those intentional moments of stillness, God directly confronts you with the need to forgive.
Getting Unstuck From Resentment
Second, realize that a lack of forgiveness often arises from our minds and emotions getting stuck on the wrong things – or more particularly, getting stuck on the wrong people: “them” (whoever “they” are). Once you recognize that your mind is fixed on people, you can more helpfully turn your thoughts to God in prayer. Pray. Honestly acknowledge your hurt. The Lord will respond.
Praying the Psalms has been an invaluable help to me. One time, long ago, I had suffered a betrayal from someone I felt quite close to, I was consumed with my hurt and woundedness. God led me to Psalm 55, which spoke powerfully to my situation:
If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it;
if a foe were rising against me, I could hide.
But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God,
as we walked about among the worshipers.
This psalm perfectly expressed my ache and anguish. I found that praying this psalm took my mind off the one who wounded me and fixed my attention on God. This change of focus alleviated the inner pain and led me to forgive and be free.
Another scripture that has shaped my thinking is Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In order to forgive, I need to pray for blessing for those who have hurt me. I don’t need to cry out for vengeance, wrath, and destruction. God is working to bring me to a place where I can ask for those who have hurt me to grow in love and joy and peace (and all the other fruit of the spirit).
Those who go about carelessly wounding others are those who have been deeply hurt themselves. Hurting people thrash about in their hurt and then hurt others. They don’t need my enmity, they need my compassion, and they need the healing that only Christ can bring. The best thing that can happen in any situation is for Christ to heal them. So I pray for Christ’s work in their lives.
It’s a simple change of focus: from “them” to Christ. That makes all the difference.
Forgiveness as a Habit
Finally, like grieving, forgiveness is not a one-time act. It is something that needs to be returned to again and again. Whenever you feel that inner burn of unwelcome memory, turn to the Lord in prayer, confess your feelings, and persist in praying for blessing in the life of the one who wounded you. When I acknowledge my feelings this way, God helps me get unstuck. God frees me and free from the prison of my own lack of forgiveness. I pray that you will have that same experience.
Now go be free, and be a blessing.
About the cover art: This photo is of Auguste Rodin’s “The Shade” – I found this statue outside the High Museum in Atlanta back in 2008. I was struck by the melancholy and the pained, almost despairing feel to this giant statue. I discovered later that this was but part of the larger work called “The Gates of Hell” (of which the famous “Thinker” is a part). In that context, it was a powerful reflection on mortality. Here, I thought the downcast visage of the shade was a fine representation of the depression and imprisonment that comes with unforgiveness.