Unforgiveness is far too costly — for us
It’s Monday again. Hope you all had a nice weekend, perhaps under lockdown but hopefully not. Monday means I’m as usual reprinting an article I originally published on Medium.com, hope you enjoy it.
Forgiveness. A powerful word. We often hear sayings on how great it is, like “forgiveness sets you free” or “forgiveness helps the one forgiving” and so on.
I used to get mad when I would see or hear things like that. What about when someone hurt you so badly that it traumatized you and disastrously affected your life afterwards? Some wounds hurt so intensely that it feels wrong to forgive them. These are the kinds of wounds that leave lifelong scars on you, scars that hurt every time you think of them. Can these trespasses be forgiven too?
Yes. It’s not easy, but yes they can. And it turns out the sayings on forgiveness are true, because forgiveness does free us from the pain of these scars.
The nasty thing about mental and emotional abuse is that the realization of it creeps up on you. The pain of it is always there, but you don’t see the full picture until later. My upbringing was constant psychological and emotional abuse and neglect (with some physical abuse thrown in there for good measure). It even continued into early adulthood, until I got away from my abusive parents and went my own way.
The pain I carried hurt me every day, at first without me consciously realizing it. I gravitated towards drugs early on, using them to numb my pain. I always sought out new types of “downers” to experience— that numbing sensation was what I wanted. And I usually had multiple addictions going on; drugs were not the only one.
All my relationships were disordered too. Without realizing it, and definitely without wanting it, I had grown up to become much like my abusive father. And when it came to romantic relationships, in particular, I was repeatedly putting myself into emotionally abusive situations where I would suffer the exact kind of abuse I had in childhood.
Turns out this is a subconscious behavior of people who are abused as children. They run to abusive situations because those are the most familiar to them. It’s terrible. When I saw how my abuse led to so many other problems in my later life, my reaction was “how can I ever forgive this?”
Worst of all, I didn’t have Jesus. Religion had been forced on me from an early age. So, in response, I hated my religion and anything connected with it. Since then, I’ve learned that Jesus can’t be forced on anyone. Abuse anyone enough, and they’ll finally confess faith in Christ to make it stop. But faith that’s forced isn’t genuine, and genuine faith isn’t forced.
In other words, I never had Jesus for real, despite how religious my parents were. Once I realized that, I also understood how Jesus Christ does not equal religion. Religion is a system of man-made rules that came later. Jesus is Jesus, and His message is very simple — but difficult to truly follow! You can definitely have a personal relationship with Jesus without being religious.
That might sound obvious to many, but in my family such an idea would have never been tolerated. My abusers didn’t raise me to have a true relationship with Jesus; they abused Him out of me. But Jesus came around for me one day, regardless, as He always does. He comes to save every one of the lost (and abused) sheep.
Forgiveness does not mean accepting abuse
Forgiving abusers doesn’t mean you must let them into your life. That depends on whether an abuser has changed. No one has any obligation, biblical or otherwise, to stay in an abusive situation. Aside from the abuse described in Matthew 24 (and elsewhere) that we, as Christians, will suffer from society in general for Christ’s name, Christ does not call anyone to be abused in their relationships.
Take the example of an abusive husband. Ephesians 5:22–33 outlines the biblical roles and qualities for a husband and wife. If a husband abuses his wife in any way, he’s violating Ephesians 5:25; 28–29. He’s not living up to the biblical role of a husband, and he’s violating the sacred marriage vow he made before God. Christ would not call anyone to stay with him as a result.
So, if letting a former abuser back into your life would put you in danger, Christ does not demand that of you, and forgiveness does not require that either. You can forgive a person for the pain they caused while keeping healthy boundaries in your life. What Jesus does call us all to do is forgive.
The unforgiving servant
Jesus used the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 to show what happens when we don’t forgive. This teaching is found in Matthew 18 verses 21 to 35, and it starts like this:
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21–22, CEB)
Jesus then speaks about a king who was settling accounts with his servants. One servant owed a debt of 10,000 “bags of gold” (CEB translation) he couldn’t repay. The king ordered that he be sold into slavery with his entire family and their possessions. But the servant begged for mercy, and the king forgave his entire debt.
Then this servant runs into a fellow servant who owes him “100 coins” (CEB). The unforgiving servant demanded the 100 coins and threw the poor servant in jail when he couldn’t pay.
When the king learned of this, he was furious and threw the unforgiving servant in jail (some translations say “to the tormentors”) until he paid his massive debt in full. Jesus ends the parable with this warning:
My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matthew 18:35, CEB)
Jesus also says in Matthew 6 that:
…if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:15, CEB)
This means we lose our salvation for refusing to forgive. That’s too high a price to pay. We have all sinned against God and others (Romans 3:23), so we all owe God a debt of 10,000 bags of gold we can’t repay. But our God forgives us (read my post on that here). That’s why we must forgive all others in return. Don’t be the unforgiving servant, demanding your 100 coins!
Vengeance is not ours
Something that stopped me from forgiving was a need for retaliation. I don’t know if we all have some sense of retribution and payback, but I wanted mine. But what would be sufficient payback for my abuse? I realized nothing would be enough for me, nothing would change what happened. So I had to let it go.
Retaliation is a “luxury” we can’t have. Even if we do take it, it won’t right the wrongs — won’t change the past. And it will anger God, since we aren’t the ones to judge.
As it says in Romans:
Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, “Revenge belongs to Me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19, CEB)
Everyone has to account for their lives before God once they physically die. If God judges that someone deserves punishment, then God will make that call. That’s not for us to decide.
I take comfort in knowing that God understands exactly how badly I was hurt, even if my abusers won’t. He knows the whole story and will judge accordingly. I’ll accept His judgment. Of course, I can do nothing else. Once I internalized this (which took time) it freed me from my need for retaliation. God will repay everything if it’s warranted. I don’t need to worry about that.
“Eye for an eye” was the old Jewish law (Exodus 21:24), but in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). Jesus taught the new way we’re to follow — He freed us from the old law. Good for us, because everyone sins against others a lot. Embrace Romans 12:19, and free yourself from the need for payback — a need we can never satisfy!
Get out of prison
A parable using jail is a great way to describe unforgiveness. Unforgiveness makes us hold on to the pain, allowing roots of resentment and anger to grow. Resenting the perpetrators for what they did does not help us to move on right now, the time in which we’re living. It keeps the memories fresh and the pain raw. It keeps our mind focused on the past, and our hearts full of anger. This anger can never be sated; it’s a lost cause. It keeps us in a prison of pain. The only way out is to let it all go. That’s the first step.
I’m under no delusions that forgiveness is easy. Just the opposite — I’ve found it to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For so long I thought I could never forgive my abusers, until the Holy Spirit moved within me and showed me that I needed to.
First, because of the parable of the unforgiving servant — I must forgive all debts as God has forgiven me, or I will not be forgiven. And my unforgiveness was stopping me from moving on. It was making me hold on to the pain. Maybe I was scared to let that pain go because it had been such a large part of my life for so long. But I let it go by praying to Jesus daily with forgiveness for my abusers while begging for healing for me. This was the key to getting out of the prison of anger, resentment, and pain. Jesus can, and will, help us do this.
It did take time to get to a place where I was able to forgive. Forgiveness isn’t easy and can’t be rushed. But forgiveness is worth it and necessary.
I already feel the difference. It’s true what they say about forgiveness — how it helps the person forgiving more, etc. Letting go of what happened also lets go of the pain and anger … slowly. It’s natural to think of our scars sometimes, and then the pain comes back and we grow angry again. That’s human nature. I call these “forgiveness relapses.” Keep working on this with Jesus, praying to Him with unconditional forgiveness for those who wronged you while pleading for healing miracles for yourself.
Also seek worldly help such as therapy if practical and helpful. Talk with others for support, and find outlets for expressing your feelings. This helps with the anger.
The next step
I suppose the next step after forgiveness is to love and bless your enemies and those who persecute you. In other words, love those who hurt you. Yes, I would also say that comes along with true forgiveness. But that’s another story for another day, and to be quite honest I’m not even there yet myself.
True forgiveness takes time when the wounds are deep. We have to take it step by step, and we must rely on Jesus to get us all the way there. But once we forgive and let ourselves out of our prison of anger and pain, it’s well worth it. Then the healing can begin, and we are free.
Until next time, be strong and do good!
Your new best friend in Christ,
<<<EXALT THE LORD OUR GOD AND WORSHIP AT HIS HOLY HILL; FOR THE LORD OUR GOD IS HOLY>>>
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