Lewis Smedes wrote in 1984 the best book I know on the subject of forgiveness: Forgive & Forget: Healing The Hurts We Don't Deserve. 400,000 people have bought his book and been helped by its profound insights. For years it has been crucial to my life and ministry.
Here's the parable with which Dr. Smedes begins his classic:
In the village of Faken in innermost Friesland there lived a long thin baker named Fouke, a righteous man, with a long thin chin and a long thin nose. Fouke was so upright that he seemed to spray righteousness from his thin lips over everyone who came near him; so the people of Faken preferred to stay away.
Fouke's wife, Hilda, was short and round. . . . Hilda did not keep people at bay with righteousness; her soft roundness seemed to invite them to come close to her in order to share the warm cheer of her open heart.
Hilda respected her righteous husband, and loved him too, as much as he allowed her; but her heart ached for something more from him than his worthy righteousness.
And there, in the bed of her need, lay the seed of sadness.
One morning, having worked since dawn to knead his dough for the ovens, Fouke came home and found a stranger in his bedroom. . . . Hilda's adultery soon became the talk of the tavern and the scandal of the Faken congregation. Everyone assumed that Fouke would cast Hilda out of his house, so righteous was he. But he surprised everyone by keeping Hilda as his wife, saying that he forgave her as the Good Book said he should.
In his heart of hearts, however, Fouke could not forgive Hilda for bringing shame to his name. Whenever he thought about her, his feelings toward her were angry and hard; he despised her. . . . When it came right down to it, he hated her for betraying him after he had been so good and so faithful a husband to her.
He only pretended to forgive Hilda so that he could punish her with his righteous mercy.
But Fouke's fakery did not sit well in heaven.
So each time that Fouke would feel his secret hate toward Hilda, an angel came to him and dropped a small pebble, hardly the size of a shirt button, into Fouke's heart. Each time a pebble dropped, Fouke would feel a stab of pain like the pain he felt the moment he came on Hilda feeding her hungry heart from a stranger's larder.
Thus he hated her the more; his hate brought him pain and his pain made him hate.
The pebbles multiplied. And Fouke's heart grew very heavy with the weight of them. . . Weary with hurt, Fouke began to wish he were dead.
The angel who dropped the pebbles into his heart came to Fouke one night and told him how he could be healed of his hurt.
There was one remedy, he said, only one, for the hurt of the wounded heart. Fouke would need the miracle of the magic eyes. He would need eyes that would look back to the beginning of his hurt and see his Hilda, not as a wife who betrayed him, but as a weak woman who needed him. Only a new way of looking at things through the magic eyes could heal the hurt flowing from the wounds of yesterday.
Fouke protested. "Nothing can change the past," he said. "Hilda is guilty, a fact that not even an angel can change."
"Yes, poor hurting man, you are right," the angel said. "You cannot change the past, you can only heal the hurt that comes to you from the past. And you can heal it only with the vision of the magic eyes."
"And how can I get your magic eyes?" pouted Fouke.
"Only ask, desiring as you ask, and they will be given you. And each time you see Hilda through your new eyes, one pebble will be lifted from your aching heart."
Fouke could not ask at once, for he had grown to love his hatred. But the pain of his heart finally drove him to want and to ask for the magic eyes that the angel had promised. So he asked. And the angel gave.
Soon Hilda began to change in front of Fouke's eyes, wonderfully and mysteriously. He began to see her as a needy woman who loved him instead of a wicked woman who betrayed him.
The angel kept his promise; he lifted the pebbles from Fouke's heart, one by one, though it took a long time to take them all away. Fouke gradually felt his heart grow lighter; he began to walk straight again, and somehow his nose and his chin seemed less thin and sharp than before. He invited Hilda to come into his heart again, and she came, and together they began a journey into their second season of humble joy
Who is your Hilda? Who is the person who has hurt you most deeply or recently? Who is the person you think of first when I ask you for someone you need to forgive? As Christians face a rising tide of persecution in our culture, how can we forgive in the spirit of Jesus?
What is forgiveness?
What is forgiveness? Let's begin with what it is not. Smedes offers these answers:
- Forgiving is not forgetting. God can forgive our confessed sins and forget them. In fact, he does: Isaiah 43:25 promises that he "remembers them no more." But you and I cannot do this. Human beings cannot simply reformat the disk or erase the tape. You can pull the nail out of your soul, but the hole remains.
- Forgiving is not excusing the behavior that hurt you. The person chose to do that which hurts you today.
- Forgiving is not pretending that you're not hurt. You can carry on, but the pain remains and often grows.
- Forgiving is not tolerating. You may have to tolerate your employer, or your sibling, or your son-in-law. That doesn't mean that you've forgiven him.
To forgive is to pardon. It is to refuse to punish, even though you have every right to do so. It is the governor pardoning the criminal—he doesn't forget about the crime, or excuse it, or pretend it didn't occur, or tolerate the behavior. He simply chooses not to punish, though he could.
So who needs your pardon today? As Smedes observes, you may need today to pardon a parent who died and left you. The birth mother who gave you away. The "invisible ghost" in the organization who fired you, or mismanaged your investments, or cut your son from the squad or your daughter from the drill team. Someone who appears not to care if you forgive them or not. God. Yourself. Who most needs your pardon today?
Why should you forgive?
Why issue it? First, to stop your personal cycle of pain.
Jesus promised that the merciful will be "blessed" by God (Matthew 5:7). This "blessing" transcends your pain. God offers you a ticket off the roller coaster of hurt. But you must extend mercy to receive it.
You see, if you give back what others give to you, you are constantly their victim. They pitch—you catch. You're trapped by your circumstances. Your soul is a genie in their bottle—how they rub it determines who you are.
If you refuse to pardon the person who hurt you, he hurts you still. Every time you plot your revenge you feel again your pain. Every time you nurse your pain you increase it. The person who hurt you may not even know you're harboring your grudge and wounding your soul. He or she may have gone on with life. You're hurting no one more than yourself. But you can stop today.
The second reason follows the first: pardon to receive mercy. Jesus promises the merciful that "they will be shown mercy."
This is not a transaction, a legal arrangement, as though my mercy obligates you and God to be merciful to me. Pardon is not a means to your end, but a free gift you choose to give.
But when you give it, a miraculous thing happens: you put yourself in position to receive mercy from God and others. Not because you earned it, but simply because now you're willing to receive it. The most legalistic people with others are equally legalistic with themselves. If I won't forgive you until you're punished, I won't forgive myself until I'm punished. If I won't show mercy to you, I won't receive it myself.
I was once hurt by a deacon and his family in a church I pastored. The pain was real and deep. Every time I saw him in worship I felt my anger well up in my soul. I became short, irritated, on edge with others—and especially with myself. Intolerant of my own mistakes and failures. But the day I released my anger and chose to pardon that man, I found a new freedom with myself. A new willingness to be loved and forgiven by God. If life must be fair, every injustice punished, we cannot forgive others. Or ourselves.
Here's a third reason: pardon to break the circle of revenge.
If I must return your hurt, then you must return mine. And I must return yours. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is a rapid way to a sightless, toothless world. It must stop somewhere. It has been truly said: you can no more win a war than win a fire.
But when you pardon me, the cycle stops. There's nothing left for me to do but to receive or reject your pardon. I have no cause to hurt you, and abundant reason to love you and learn to love myself as well.
Here's a fourth reason: to show others the love of Christ.
Jesus identified one characteristic as a guarantee that others will know we love him: "By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Forgiving, pardoning, releasing love proves that God's love in us is real.
During the depths of the Cold War, people in a particular East German town began throwing their trash over the Berlin Wall into the West German town on the other side. The West Germans, for their part, responded by tossing food and clothes to the East Germans. With this note: "Each gives what he has."
How can you forgive?
Let's close with the practical question: how can you pardon those who hurt you? How can you stop your pain, experience mercy, break the cycle of revenge, and show others his love? What practical steps can you take today to offer forgiveness to the person who most needs it from you?
First, admit the reality of your hurt.
Name it honestly and specifically. Describe in words how you feel about it and the person who caused it. Describe even what you would like to do in revenge. Get your feelings out, as openly and transparently as possible.
You may want to put them on paper. Write a letter to the one who hurt you, then tear it up. You may want to talk to a friend you trust, or a Christian counselor. Most of all, admit it to God. As someone said, "Tell God on them." Pour out your pain and hurt. You must admit the cancer exists before the surgeon can help you.
Second, ask God to help you pardon the one who hurt you.
You are not expected to be "merciful" without Jesus' help. That's why his beatitude was addressed to believers, followers of Christ. Turn to the Holy Spirit who dwells in your heart and soul. Ask him for the power and pardon of God.
Ask him for the "magic eyes" to see this person as he does. And to see yourself as he does—both of you redeemed sinners. Ask him to help you give to your enemy the mercy God has given to you.
And act as though he has. Don't feel yourself into a new way of acting—act yourself into a new way of feeling. Step out by faith. Every time the pain wells up inside your heart again, tell yourself again that you have released this person from the prison of their sin. That the ink on the pardon is dry, the deed is done, the forgiveness made.
Third, initiate restoration.
With God's help, act in courage. Tell the person honestly what they did to you, and how much this pain has hurt you. They may not even know their injustice, or comprehend its severity. If I hurt you, I want to know it. I want you to talk to me, not about me. And I to you. Go to the person in question, with honesty. Jesus was clear on the significant of such initiative (Matthew 18:15–17).
If possible, tell this person that you have pardoned him. He may not understand what you mean, or believe it, or accept it. She may never reciprocate what you have done. This is not yours to decide. You must begin the process of healing the relationship, whatever your partner in restoration decides to do.
And find an honest way to a new relationship. To forgive is not to be naïve. It is not to allow an unrepentant, unchanged person to hurt you yet again. Neither is it to assume that they will never change. Seek a wise balance with the wisdom God gives to know what and where you can trust. You may never have the old relationship, but you can have a new one by the mercy of God.
Fourth, be realistic.
We humans forgive slowly, a little at a time, usually with anger left over. One day at a time. Remind yourself that you have forgiven as many times as the pain comes back. And over time, it will come back less. And one day, perhaps, not at all.
Take a little quiz with me: Name the wealthiest person in the world. Name the last Heisman trophy winner, or last winner of the Miss America pageant, or last recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now name the last person who forgave you. Remember the way their forgiveness changed your life. Is anyone remembering you right now? Will they tomorrow?