I thought forgiveness was a safe topic for my small group to discuss. Boy was I wrong!
While serving as the college minister at my church several years ago, I chose the content for our large group gathering. We had come to the end of the curriculum we were using, so I found another series which included an extended discussion of forgiveness. I was not prepared for their response.
Every person in the discussion group I was leading (all of whom had been relatively quiet over the previous few weeks) became “passionately-engaged” in our conversation. Some of them were not happy with what they were hearing. One guy in particular was speechless when I described how God wanted us to let go of our desire to make things right, instead of get even with or injure those who had wounded us. It was like his brain got stuck—much the same way my MacBook does when it has a problem processing a command and starts displaying what I call the “spinning beach ball of death.”
The amount of unforgiveness and bitterness I’ve found bubbling just under the surface in many young adults has been shocking. People who seem to be loving and gracious turn into angry, frustrated, unmovable people when the subject of forgiveness surfaces. In some ways, the subject of forgiveness feels like a bomb just waiting to go off.
Sadly, I’ve also encountered a ridiculous amount of bad teaching regarding forgiveness in the Church. The myths we believe about forgiveness are a stumbling block to our ability to experience its real power. Over two posts, I’d like to bust 10 myths about forgiveness and help you experience the truth that can set you free from the bondage of bitterness and unforgiveness.
MYTH 1: The people in the Bible didn’t need a lot of forgiveness.
TRUTH: The people in the Bible were as dysfunctional then as we are now!
Moses was a murderer. David too. The Apostle Paul as a mass murderer and prosecutor of Christians. Jacob deceived his brother and father for selfish gain. For many of us, we have no problem with God redeeming and forgiving them. Yet, our favorite Bible characters were often the people most in need of forgiveness. Today, when we encounter people who sin and hurt others, do we allow God space to work today like He did with Moses, David and Paul?
MYTH 2: Forgiveness is about the other person.
TRUTH: Forgiveness is about you.
Anne Lammott has a famous quote (or at least I’ve heard this quote ascribed to her), “Refusing to forgive someone else is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die.” We often think that refusing to forgive will someone “shows” the other person how bad their actions were. We stay bitter at someone for playing with our heart in a dating relationship. We refuse to forgive a spiritual leader who betrayed our trust. We falsely believe that forgiveness is about how much they did to hurt us or whether they’ve done anything to rectify their actions. Truthfully, forgiveness is about wounded people moving on from an offesne and discovering freedom.
MYTH 3: If you forgive someone, you should forget it ever happened.
TRUTH: Forgiveness and forgetting are two very different things.
Forgetting what happened is not always possible, nor wise. You cannot make yourself forget something, especially a deep wound. Our hearts and minds do not have a “recycle bin” like our computers, where we can simply drag items over and watch them disappear. Also, forgetting something like abuse or deceit can often lead to dangerous consequences for a victim. Forgiving is something we must do for our own health and well-being. Forgetting is something separate and different; it’s something we can’t always control.
MYTH 4: I can forgive someone else, while not forgiving myself for my own failures.
TRUTH: Our ability to give forgiveness is connected to the depth of forgiveness we’ve received.
The Scriptures constantly reiterate one message about forgiveness – forgiven people can forgive. God forgives us in Jesus and enables us to forgive others.
Throughout the New Testament, we read passages like Matthew 5:7, Ephesians 4:29-32, Colossians 3:12-14 and Matthew 6:9-14, all linking God forgiving us and us forgiving others. Forgiving ourselves can be much harder than forgiving someone. We are often our worst critics, allowing the voice of shame and regret to dominate our inner monologue. If we want to experience the freedom that comes from forgiving someone else, we need to experience the forgiveness God wants to introduce into our lives.
MYTH 5: Forgiveness is a decision, an act of the will.
TRUTH: Forgiveness is a decision AND a process.
We cannot force ourselves to let go of something in a moment. Our hearts do not follow commands like the computer on which I’m typing this post. Richard Rohr wrote, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” While we may have thoughts and decisive moments of letting go, it is in the processing of letting go again and again that we experience God changing our hearts. This process is similar to how Paul described the ongoing work of our salvation in Philippians 2:12-13. He wrote, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (NIV). We make a decision and simultaneously God activates a process to transform our hearts.
Before we tackle the final five myths, stop and process what you’ve read today. Consider what myths you’ve accepted about forgiveness and how those might be holding you back from being transformed in the very place you were deeply wounded.
You’ll know Scott Savage has entered the building because his laugh always precedes his arrival. Scott lives in Phoenix, where he writes and serves as a pastor in a local church. Scott is married to Danalyn (a lawyer) and the father of 3 children, including a set of twins. He blogs at scottsavagelive.com, where you can get a free copy of his ebook, The Greater-Than Challenge: A Guide for Reframing Your Life. You can follow Scott on Twitter @scottsavagelive.