The Power of Forgiveness


As evidenced, of late, in the courtroom and in the psychological counseling arena, there's a noteworthy embracing of the concept of forgiveness for various reasons. For emotional health, for peaceful co-existence, etc. We are beginning to understand that the "natural" responses to injury of revenge, avenging, retaliation, getting even, feeling rejected and wounded, giving in to self-pity, etc. are neither satisfying nor productive. And, indeed, as your newspaper article reads: "is not the refuge of cowards". Forgiveness is not for wimps. It requires strong resolve and determination to not allow situations or events to decline into barbarism, anarchy, and victimizing just to assuage an injury.

Forgiveness, however, is an ancient concept which was strongly promoted by Jesus Christ over two thousand years ago. I believe the clearest instruction to walk in an attitude of forgiveness and the dire consequences for not doing so can be found in the Bible's book of Matthew, chapter 18. In verses 21 and 22, we note a question from the disciple, Peter, asking Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who has offended him. Peter suggests, "should I forgive him seven times?" (Thinking himself quite magnanimous.) But Jesus shockingly replies, "seventy times seven"! (forgive a person who offends me 490 times!)

What must Jesus have meant by that? He intends for the reader (his disciple) to cultivate an attitude of forgiveness, to lose count of the number of times a person insults us.

To drive the point home, in verses 23 to the end of the chapter (verse 35) Jesus uses an illustration to demonstrate the concept. He speaks of a king who is looking over his accounts and discovers that a certain servant owes him a huge amount of money. He sends for that servant in order to collect the debt. The servant finds himself unable to pay and asks for an extension. The king, truly magnanimous, cancels the debt.

That servant comes upon a servant of his own who owes a small amount to him and demands payment. The second servant is unable to pay up. Servant number one, grabs servant two by the neck and throws him and his family into prison until the whole debt is paid.

When others saw the way servant one treated servant two, they reported it to the king. The king sent for servant one again. When he appeared, the king severely rebuked him saying I had mercy on you and forgave a huge debt, could you not have mercy on your fellow servant? The king then, ordered that servant one should be imprisoned (delivered to the tormentors) until his whole debt was paid.

Jesus concludes this lesson by saying "so will my father do to those if they do not from their heart forgive others their trespasses".

This illustration shows us exactly what forgiveness is. It is canceling a debt. Saying, in effect, you were in debt to me, you owed me, but I am forgiving it, wiping it out. You don't owe me anything anymore. The balance on your account is zero.

Forgiveness is not denial or saying it doesn't matter. It is not negating the offense in any way nor condoning it or overlooking it. An offense matters, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Forgiveness has nothing to do with understanding WHY a person offended you. (he was having a bad day, or he was raised in poverty and outraged at the unfairness) Or, I deserved it, or I set myself up for this.

There is a need for forgiveness when we find ourselves feeling offended, humiliated, rejected, or emotionally or physically hurt no matter what the intent of the offender was. Sometimes the offense was unintentional, sometimes not. Sometimes it was that our expectations were unmet. Those expectations may have been valid or invalid. We are disappointed and feel let down. What matters is: I am hurt. How do I deal with this? I have discovered that we can't just glibly say, Oh, I forgive them. When we have successfully forgiven a person, in our understanding, they owe us zero, we are back to square one, just as if the infraction never happened, (the debt is canceled) we are able to trust them and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. This is the quality of forgiveness which the king, in the illustration, extended.

In order to get there we need to:
a. recognize that we have sustained an injury
**b. calculate the value (or depth) of the injury
c. be willing to release the offender from the debt that I have assigned to this injury

If we look again at the illustration, we'll note the consequences. Jesus said that servant one was imprisoned or turned over to the tormentors. And that would be the fate of those who refuse to cancel the debt of those who have offended them. We have a choice to remain angry, ticked-off, bruised, wounded, mean, have a chip on the shoulder, etc., etc. or release the offender from the debt and sleep soundly again.

People who hold on to offenses are tormented. The ramifications of this are too numerous to list.

I, painfully, have learned and am still learning how to live and walk in an attitude of forgiveness. I once sustained an emotional injury that was excruciatingly painful. Every time I remembered this injury, it was as if I received a fresh slap in the face. It was just as painful in memory as it was when it first occurred. I kept forgiving, I thought, but the painful memory wouldn't go away. I finally realized that I wasn't going deep enough in my assessment of how profoundly I was wounded by this offense. My forgiveness was superficial because my perception of the depth of the emotional injury was superficial. I needed to examine and visit exactly how this insult made me feel. Unaware, I was in denial, not in touch with my own emotions. I knew I was hurt, I didn't know what hurt though or why it hurt. We need to come to grips with what, in us, was injured and how it made us feel. I came to realize that this insult made me feel unloved, unprotected, vulnerable, uncherished, stupid, unintelligent, rejected, embarrassed, humiliated, suicidal, sad, sorrowful, useless, backward, uneducated, low…………….. My self-worth was injured, my pride, my assessment of how this other person felt about me was rocked, my credibility was injured. If there could be a monetary settlement for this injury, it would have to be a million dollars. What freedom came when I had the pleasure of canceling this million dollar debt and making this person's account, on my books, have a zero, zero balance. Of course I still remember the event, but there is no pain. I am no longer tormented by the memory. I have totally released the offender from the million dollar debt, cancelled it, wiped it out. Their account is clean.

There have been other offenses, of course. We are human and we live among imperfect people, so we are going to be offended. Some are so slight, little snubs. But they have to be addressed the same way. How much of a financial settlement would be awarded for not getting an invite to an event that "everybody" else I know is invited to? $100.00 perhaps, maybe $500.00. Be sure to address the depth of the injury. You don't want only the top of the wound to heal but the whole wound so there won't be any festering infection to deal with. When you have assessed the value of the injury, wipe it out, cancei it, make it null and void. Give the offender a zero, zero balance and free yourself from torment.

I have the privilege of helping others deal with their painful memories of offenses, as a lay counselor, at the Penfield Hope Center. I hope these insights will be helpful to the reader.


**note: calculating the value. We've all heard about insurance settlements for injuries suffered at work, or auto accidents. These cash awards can, in no way, replace or restore the loss but they are the attempt of justice to compensate for an injury or loss. Just as dollar amounts or settlements are assigned to various injuries in insurance or legal awards, so too, do we need to arrive at the cash amount that might be the settlement awarded which would equal or even surpass the amount of pain we have sustained. i.e. a small infraction might incur a $100 award and a deep, painful wound might have an award of a million dollars. This is exactly the amount of debt that I need to be willing to cancel and release the offender from. I am certain that is where our expressions, "I OWE you an apology" and "how can I make it up to you?" originate from.