Field Guide to Forgiveness

Forgiveness. It is at the center of what it means to live like Christ. Jesus’ instructions to his own disciples were myriad, including his famous command to Peter that he ought to forgive someone not just seven times, as though that would be generous, but seventy times seven times (Mt 18:22). That is, we are charged to forgive eternally. Forgiveness needs to be a way of life.

The Bible, however, gives little clear advice as to how to forgive. Sure, we are supposed to forgive, but how?

I like to follow five basic steps to forgive someone who has done me wrong. These are the steps I personally follow. I readily admit that I’m no professional counselor, and although I’m a pastor, I do not do much counseling with people. Nevertheless, I’ve found this process helpful.

1. Feel the Pain: I don’t want to run from a hurt, deny it, or ignore it. Denial of a hurt does me no good. I want to feel it. I want to describe it as precisely as I can. What was done to me? How did it affect me? What, exactly, was wrong about it? This is an important first step because I do not acknowledge the reality of a wrong or a hurt, I cannot deal with it.

2. Engage with God to Understand: Next, I start asking God questions. Why did this happen? How did this happen? What was my part, if any, in this offense taking place? I want to understand, as far as I’m able, the extent and circumstances of the offense from the offender’s side and from my side. I will never see the whole picture, but I cannot afford to be myopic about things. It’s too easy to perceive an offense where none existed, so I need to work to see as many sides of an issue as possible.

3. Forced Forgiveness: In a particularly hurtful incident, I find that I need to begin saying the words, “Lord, forgive them,” long before I feel ready to forgive. This isn’t just an academic exercise. I’m not trying to do this out of ritual. What I’m trying to do is to set myself in the place I know to be true. That is, I know that it’s God’s role to judge, not mine. I know that I cannot usurp His position. It won’t work out well. So, I start telling myself that I need to do this because it’s good and right. This is like the process of faith, generally–believing something the Lord says in Scripture even if you’ve never experienced it. You’ve got to start somewhere, and I start with “God said it, so I’m going to choose to believe it until I see it.”

4. Pity: Eventually, I’ll get to a point where I can have pity on my offender. They, like the rest of us, have been deceived about life. If they knew what God knows, I tell myself, they would not have done what they did. They simply didn’t know what they were doing. I’m echoing Jesus’ words on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

5. Blessing: Finally, the Lord will bring me to a place where I can genuinely bless the offender. I begin praying for them to be blessed because I can see the path they’re on and it’s going to lead to their and others’ destruction. When it comes down to it, I don’t want that for them. I want them to flourish and become the kind of person that would not commit the kind of wrong that was done in the first place.

As I said at the top, I’m no counselor. Take my method for what it’s worth, and, if you can fill in my gaps, please do.


2 thoughts on “Field Guide to Forgiveness

  1. Thanks, Mike, for your authenticity. What you’ve said is really important good stuff. For me personally, #2 is critical, but really really difficult and complex to resolve. And sometimes it’s easy enough to jump to #3, cuz you know that’s the obedient and even desired thing to do, only to realize later that if you haven’t fully reconciled #2, you’re gonna get stuck back there again. And there is definitely a big gap between #3 and #4, one that I couldn’t possibly even begin to articulate here. And sometimes we never even get to #4, we just assume that we were the ones at fault, that no one ever really offended us, we just felt an offense because of our own messed up stuff. And so the process of forgiveness may not be a dot-to-dot picture, but more of a childish scribble with a quagmire of lines and squiggles all over the place, but God is so incredibly good and brilliant that usually, if we let Him, He is able to coalesce the entire mess into a masterpiece of forgiveness, because He is so wonderfully merciful and patient and loving and caring. That’s how it all looks from my view, at least. Not pretty, but real.

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