Understanding, practicing forgiveness as Jesus would have us do

Understanding, practicing forgiveness as Jesus would have us do

Understanding the concept

In forgiveness you voluntarily embrace pain of your own anger instead of retaliating

By Arthur Freeman and Fisher Humphreys
Special to The Alabama Baptist

Forgiveness is a response you can make when someone wrongs and hurts you. You may have been hurt by an individual. Sometimes it is a group who hurts you; sadly, some people have been hurt by a church or a group within a church.

How do you respond to being hurt deeply and unfairly? We know the Lord calls us to forgive those who hurt us (scroll down to see the sidebar “Jesus and Forgiveness”). But what does that mean?

Forgiveness means suffering in a special sense. In order to forgive, you have to accept two kinds of pain. First comes the pain of being hurt by someone. That is a kind of pain that all of us experience, and there is no way to avoid it completely.

Our natural response

There also is another kind of pain. When you’re treated unfairly, you become angry. No one has to teach you to do this. It is a natural response.

And when you are angry because you have been hurt, you want to retaliate. This also is a natural response, and many things in our world reinforce it.

In a sense, you are entitled to retaliate. After all, it’s only fair — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That balances the scales. That’s justice.

But it’s not forgiveness. In forgiveness you do something that is even better than justice. You voluntarily embrace the pain of your own anger instead of retaliating.

By doing this, you neutralize your anger. You do not repress or deny your anger; you live into it and you live through it in such a way as to drain the violence from it.

Here then is our definition: Forgiveness is accepting the pain caused by people who hurt you — and also accepting the anger you naturally feel because you have been hurt — in such a way as to end their destructive power in your life and in the lives of others.

Of course, this is not fair. You didn’t hurt the other person. The other person hurt you. You shouldn’t have to suffer. The person who hurt you should have to suffer.

But in the real world of interpersonal relationships, it is the injured party alone who can forgive, and that means that it is the injured person who must suffer if forgiveness is to occur.

Forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to us. It is not easy and it may take time.

But it is worth doing. Why? Because if you don’t forgive, you will continue to carry around anger about the hurts others have caused you.

That will make you bitter and unhappy.

It may even make you sick. Bottling up your anger and resentment can lead to hypertension, ulcers, headaches, skin lesions and insomnia. In fact, according to one scientist engaged in cancer research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical School, failure to deal with anger can contribute to cancer. Forgiveness is something you need to do for yourself.

It also is something you need to do for others. If you don’t forgive, you will hurt those around you because they will be affected by your anger and resentment. They will be made unhappy by your unhappiness.


And there is something else too. Sometimes those who hurt you may realize what they have done and repent of it and ask for your forgiveness. When that happens, the fact that you have not forgiven them means you have no forgiveness to offer them. Then the two of you can’t be reconciled, not because of the wrong they did to you but because of your failure to forgive that wrong.

So we need to forgive, just as Jesus taught us to do.

There is one other important factor in understanding forgiveness. We need to distinguish forgiving those who hurt us from allowing them to continue to hurt us. There is a word for being hurt repeatedly by the same person — it is abuse.

Turn the other cheek

Jesus calls us to forgive those who hurt us, but He does not call us to continue to accept abuse. Of course, sometimes we can’t escape abuse. In Jesus’ lifetime, it was impossible for Jews to escape abuse at the hands of the Roman soldiers who occupied Israel. Under those circumstances, Jesus told His followers to shame the abusers by turning the other cheek and going the second mile (see Matt. 5:38–42). And that is still the best counsel under those circumstances.

But in many cases we are able to get out of harm’s way, and with rare exceptions that is what we should do. Certainly that is what Jesus did. He did not allow people to abuse Him whenever they pleased. He said, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it away from me” (John 10:17–18).

Following Jesus does not mean accepting abuse but it does mean forgiving those who abused us.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Arthur Freeman is clinical professor of psychiatry at Tulane University in New Orleans. Before he retired from psychiatric practice, he was recognized by the International Association of HealthCare Professionals as a Leading Physician of the World and also as Top Adult Psychiatrist in Birmingham. He is a member of Canterbury United Methodist Church in Mountain Brook. Fisher Humphreys is a Christian theologian and taught at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before retiring. Both men live in Birmingham.


Practically applying it

Ways you can open yourself up to extend grace to those who need it

By Arthur Freeman and Fisher Humphreys
Special to The Alabama Baptist

Wondering how to practice forgiveness? Here are some ways you can open yourself up to extending grace to those who need it.

4Participate in a community that supports you in forgiveness. We can choose inner circles within our communities. These smaller communities should hold values and Christian principles that are similar to ours. There are many Christians who do not practice forgiveness, so the division cannot be purely Christians versus secular communities. We must pray to God that we can choose those communities in which He wishes us to be.

Forgiving all

4Identify the persons or group you need to forgive. Certainly it is more difficult to forgive one person rather than several persons. Our forgiveness work will be incomplete if we do not forgive all. Archbishop Desmond Tutu believes that specificity in who the offenders are and what they have done is central to forgiveness and restoration of previous relationships. It may take gentle, persuasive discussions with the offenders to get this right.

4Try to see the humanity of those you need to forgive. All of us are mixtures of goodness and sin and in those who have offended us we must look deeper than the evil they have done. The offenders are children of God just as we are. Some of them may have supported their churches or given to charities. Nonetheless they have hurt us in some way and both of us have reparative work to do.

The French have a saying, “To understand is to forgive.” Understanding is very complex. We will have to empathize with someone. If we do, we may feel compassion for him. Empathy is imaginative reconstruction of the offender’s mental state at the time of his or her wrongdoing. This will not be a pleasant part of our forgiveness work, but it can be done, with rewards.

4Live in such a way as to do them no harm. Our first intention may be retribution. We want offenders to suffer as we have. We should slow down mounting rage and pray that we can address their offense with forgiveness. We must be sure that our anger and desire for revenge must give way to forgiveness. We can thus experience a powerful sense of our mission for God in this world.

4Do not stoke the fires of your anger. We can make a bad situation worse with vengefulness. It is important to put mental brakes on our mounting sense of hurt and wish for retribution. Meeting with trusted friends who are objective enough to help us may be a step to forgiving. Meditation and mindfulness of our own anger process may stem the rage we feel. Love, not an eye for an eye, is Jesus’ way.

Ask God to help

4Pray and ask God to help you forgive. Prayer is of foundational importance. As John Wesley said, “Pray ceaselessly.” Your work with God will take patience. Now is the time for humility. Being offended and sinned against should not be the time for righteous (egotistical) indignation. Pray for God’s help in this dilemma. You may have to see the offender in the light of his or her own distress. Forgiveness may occur earlier when we see the offender’s suffering.

4Pray for those whom you need to forgive. The likelihood is that prayer for those who have hurt you may bring you closer to understanding their misery. Pity for them may make you aware of their pain. Pity leads to empathy and even compassion for them. Praying for someone can help dissolve our hatred. Prayer can bring talks that lead to a deep awareness of the needs of those we have despised.


4Persevere until you are sure that you no longer want to hurt them. Images of wounding or even killing those who have wronged us are common. We must remember that forgiveness is an arduous process and we need all the help we can get. We may think we have forgiven someone, and then the next day the same aggressive thoughts and images return. This is why perseverance is much more important than we thought it would be.

4Allow yourself time to forgive. Forgiveness comes in stages and there is some backsliding. This is not an occasion for frustration but for increased effort with the help of God. Our prayers to Him must be sincere and frequent. When we are successful we will be rewarded many times over. We must be respectful also for how much time will be needed by the offender to accept our forgiveness.

In your forgiveness process, try to re-establish the relationship you had with the person who hurt you. This will be difficult on many occasions. You can help the offender accept the shame he or she may have experienced during the forgiveness. He or she may resent the attitude you are using in reminding him or her of the offense. Coach him or her through this with even more forgiveness. This part of the process may help re-establish the relationship and allow you both to know you are doing God’s will.


Jesus and forgiveness

By Arthur Freeman and Fisher Humphreys
Special to The Alabama Baptist

When the subject is Jesus and forgiveness, we are likely to think first of the fact that Jesus died to forgive our sins — that is the Christian gospel (see 1 Cor. 15:1–3). In unforgettable parables such as the prodigal son, Jesus emphasized that God forgives our sins (Luke 15:11–32).

But we also should remember that Jesus talked often about how important it is for His followers to forgive others.

For example, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught His followers to say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). To make sure they didn’t miss the point, He added: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15).

How often?

On one occasion Peter asked Jesus how often we ought to forgive our enemies — seven times? Jesus said, “I tell you, 77 times” (Matt. 18:21–22).

Jesus then told a parable about a king who forgave one of His slaves an enormous debt. That slave then turned around and refused to forgive one of his fellow slaves a small debt. The king told the wicked slave, “You should have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you,” and he punished him severely. Jesus added, “So will my heavenly Father also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brothers (or sisters) from your heart” (Matt. 18:23–35).

In the Beatitudes, Jesus summarized His teaching with these words: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7).

He intended for His followers to do a very daring thing — to imitate God by treating others the way God was treating them. He said, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Of course, Jesus did not mean that His followers would earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. It was the other way around. It is because your Father has forgiven you that you must forgive those who hurt you. Years later Paul expressed it this way to the Church at Ephesus: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
If we take seriously what Jesus took seriously, we will forgive those who hurt us.