If you’ve known me for a while, you know I love to share stories about my family…I grew up all-Italian from New Jersey, and when it comes to speaking our minds, we got the double whammy: nobody’s more assertive than Italians, and nobody’s more assertive than people from Jersey. So we got it on both sides. It’s absolutely crazy!! I hear all the time from my friends on the west coast (where I live now) that being assertive is challenging to people. I’ve never thought of it that way because that’s not my background…I always speak my mind. But there’s one thing even I have a hard time speaking my mind about: I hate admitting when I’m wrong. So if it’s hard for me, I can only imagine how hard it is for others to admit to me (or you) when they have wronged us!
It makes total sense that when somebody hurts you, the only thing harder than standing up for yourself is telling someone you forgive them.
Forgiveness is hard work! Why? Because forgiving someone asks everyone in the situation to walk into the light. What I mean by that is, forgiveness exposes things, and sometimes it exposes things we don’t want to look at. Things that involve us, not just the person who offended us. But in the process of forgiveness, we can drag all our hurt and baggage from the past into today…and then God helps us let it go.
That’s the way it works when we forgive other people and when we forgive ourselves.
But we absolutely love to hang onto our baggage, don’t we? What’s crazy is that even though hanging onto that baggage keeps us trapped under the weight of our pasts, sometimes we don’t want to let it go. Our struggles have a tendency to become part of our identities. But when we forgive, we choose to allow God to heal us and renew our identities in Jesus. Every day that we extend and experience forgiveness, God gives us the opportunity to reformat our identity in Christ. Second Corinthians 5:17 says if you are in Christ, you are a new creation…the old things have passed away, and behold, all things are new.
In my personal life and as a pastor, I’ve learned that in these situations where we are hurt, everything hinges on how we respond to our pain. Depending on how we respond to it, we give it two opportunities to form our identities. Our pain can be destructive, undermining who we’re becoming. Or our pain can be constructive, building us into who we’re becoming as we simply respond to Jesus.
Forgiveness (or unforgiveness) determines where we will end up. When we forgive ourselves and others, we allow the pains of yesterday to be integrated into our hearts and lives in a way that makes us more like Jesus: kind, compassionate, gracious, loving, joyful, and peaceful.
Go back and re-read that last sentence. Go ahead. It’s a powerful reality…And so difficult at the same time. I mean, there’s no way for it not to be hard. When we forgive, we open ourselves back up to the pain we closed ourselves off to before….and we allow God the room to breathe into those places and heal us.
But listen…we can’t forgive unless we know, deeply, personally, and wholly, the grace of God in Jesus Christ. When we come to understand how profound a debt God has forgiven us, only then can we pass along forgiveness.
And keep this in mind: forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness means it is ok to remember the past, but without holding people’s mistakes against them and keeping them forever in a cycle of hatred and judgment. Forgiveness is remembering the past and still allowing love to conquer hate, grace to conquer flaws, peace to conquer division.
But it all happens first in our own hearts. And only God, through the Spirit can do that – all because of the finished work of Jesus.
So how do we begin? First, come to God. Identify those destructive areas of unforgiveness and bitterness holding onto your heart. Confess them to God, and ask Him to help you understand who you are in Christ and the depths of his forgiveness.
Then, by the Spirit, translate that to yourself and the other person. Let them off the hook like God has done for you. Yes, there are times when you will put them back on the hook…Sometimes we have to forgive again and again – it’s not a neat process. It’s never easy. Sometimes we have to do the dirty work of forgiveness.
Then, rejoice at the liberty you can live in now. Everything is becoming new through Jesus’s forgiveness for you and other people! And you don’t have to let that person hurt you again. Love them enough to establish the necessary boundaries that will protect both of you from further hurt. And above all, experience God’s amazing freedom to love again, in a whole new way.