While meditating on what forgiveness means and what the benefits of forgiveness are to the human soul, I asked the Lord to give me an analogy that would help me understand the power of forgiveness in a very personal way. As I got into my car and headed for town to run some errands, this picture came.
What if…while driving to town, I came to a red light and waited for the light to change? Once the signal turned green, I proceeded into the intersection only to be t-boned by a speeding vehicle. Once the gnarled vehicles came to a stop and the dust began to clear, I realized that I had been severely wounded. I could not move either leg. My arms seemed to be broken and I had experienced very obvious head and internal injuries…yet I was wide awake and very ultra-aware of my surroundings.
Looking over to the other vehicle now enmeshed with my own, I saw the other driver calmly get out of his car and, obviously intoxicated, walk away without so much as even a scratch! As emergency personnel began to surround me and begin the extrication process, I became incredulous. “Why did he do that? Somebody stop him! He’s getting away! That man did this! Get him!”
But nobody seemed to be listening. Their only intent was in getting me out of that crushed car and getting me the help I needed. But there was a problem. Once they had freed my compacted legs, I refused to let go of the wreckage. “I am not leaving this car until that man pays for what he did!” Confused, the EMTs tried in vain to get me to understand that they could not help me if I would not let go of the wreckage.
As they pleaded with me to trust them, I became ultra-focused on the one who had injured me and not on my need to let go. The EMTs explained very clearly that if I would just let go they could get me to a very competent surgeon whose specialty was dealing with my particular injuries. In fact, they went on, this physician was the greatest in the world…and he was a short ambulance ride away…if I would only let go. Yet I would not let go.
Having no other recourse, the EMTs and the police had no other choice but to leave me there in my misery and go about their jobs of rescuing those who were willing to leave the wreckage of their lives behind and get help. Pushing my wreckage to the side of the road, seasons passed and months gave way to years, but I kept hanging on to that wreckage because the one that did this to me must pay!
Eventually, I simply learned how to move the wreckage wherever I went, often asking others to help me drag the wreckage along. Somehow, changing the location of the wreckage made it seem better for awhile. But reality was that even though I had changed my location and was feeling some relief, the injuries had never gotten the chance to heal…because I was unwilling to leave the wreckage behind and go to the doctor for help. I could say it like this: ‘Oh, my marriage is hurting...just put me in another marriage and I will be fine’…but all I’ve really done is to carry this stuff into other locations thinking that will heal me, while the truth is I carry it with me without the possibility of healing. In fact, I’ve moved my wreckage around so much that I don't even remember or know the root of my issues any more because I have carried it so long. I believe, incorrectly, that I have a current issue - when the truth is that a longstanding issue is the reality. I just refuse to look at it.
Reality was that the one who had hurt me had gone on with his life. Reality was that I had made the choice to stay with the wreckage rather than go on to healing…but everyone knew I was hurt because it was obvious to everyone who passed by. I was the victim. I was the hurt one. Didn’t anyone care?
Such a story would sound like foolishness if it were to happen in ‘real life’ wouldn’t it? Yet, the reality is that most of us live that way in relation to our ability to forgive others. Unforgiveness – resentment – is like that. Being unwilling to forgive those who hurt us is like staying with the wreckage after a bad accident. As long as we hang on to that resentment, we cannot receive the healing that the Great Physician offers. So how do we get there?
What, exactly, does forgiveness mean? Quite simply, it means to release. Unforgiveness or resentment means to re-think or to hold on to. As my friend, pastor Alex Himaya says, ‘Unforgiveness leaves you stuck in neutral’. How true! As long as we remain stuck in our resentment it’s like trying to get somewhere in a car that remains in neutral. Unforgiveness gets us absolutely nowhere but deeper in despair. As the movie 2009 ‘Medea Goes to Jail’ so eloquently and humorously puts it, forgiveness is not for the one that hurt you. It’s for you!
There have been so many times in my life in which I have been deeply hurt. A year ago I was hurt by someone I trusted deeply…resulting in a depth of hurt that sent me reeling for several months. Saying I forgave them and actually forgiving them were entirely two different matters! I did not want to forgive because the truth was I wanted them to pay for what they had done. Guess what happened? I began to have health issues that I could not attribute to anything but stress. And guess what I could trace most of my stress back to? That’s right. Resentment. Unforgiveness. Not letting go and going on.
After awhile, I began to listen to the promptings of the Lord and awakened to what I had been doing. I would never move on unless I let go of the wreckage. I could never receive healing as long as I remained at the debris pile. I could never move on to what God had for me as long as I chose to live in the ruins. Unforgiveness is nothing more than holding someone else in bondage in our hearts as a way to hurt them. The only problem with that is that we are only hurting ourselves and those we are in relationship with. Once I saw what I was doing I came to the realization that I had only one option. I must forgive.
While sitting under the teaching of Alex Himaya recently, my wife and I were very blessed to hear his thoughts on the subject of forgiveness. The next four points were gleaned from what I learned from him. If forgiveness is so good for us, what exactly are the benefits of forgiveness?
1. Emotional Benefit
Resentment kills a fool,
and envy slays the simple.
Job 5:2 NIV
Remember, resentment simply means to re-think an old hurt. When we constantly rethink an offense toward us, we continue to be enslaved to that person and that offense. We are the constant victim….and never get to the place of victory. Is that really where life is? Is that really where we want to live – always the whiner? Always the victim? Not I! As Job so eloquently put it, “Resentment kills a fool!” When we are constantly reliving the old offenses we naturally come to a place where we become numb emotionally. In the most real sense, that is when we are truly controlled by our emotions and held captive there by our stubborn refusal to let the other person go. I discovered that my ability to ‘feel’ alive had drastically diminished due to my inability to truly forgive and let the offending party go. Once I let go, life and my ability to feel again rushed in! Over the past few weeks of truly forgiving, I have been flooded with insight and music and creativity in general. It’s as if a dam had been broken in my heart. What a benefit!
2. Relational Benefit
Be kind and compassionate to one another,
forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:32 NIV
When did Jesus forgive us? Before we ever sinned! What was the cross all about? In a very real way, Jesus practiced preemptive forgiveness! What a way to live! He forgave us before we ever existed – and He knew we would reject Him! If I truly want to live the most abundant life possible, I must be prepared to forgive before the offenses of life ever occur! I know that sounds crazy, but it is a Scriptural principle. I do not plan to sin, but I do have a plan of attack when temptation comes. I immediately begin looking for the way of escape – because Jesus promised me He would have one for me! When I am hurt and tempted to be unforgiving, I need to be looking for the way of escape!
If you think about it, when we forgive someone we give them a gift by letting them go. And we give ourselves a gift by letting them go because this releases us to get the healing we need for the very real hurt we have experienced. Unforgiveness actually binds you to those you don’t forgive while forgiveness removes the last connection between you and the offense and frees you to move on with your life. Unforgiveness is like being on a treadmill. Resentment takes you absolutely nowhere just as walking on a treadmill.
One of the ways I know if I have not forgiven someone is if I constantly bring up the same old list of hurts whenever I think of them. If you have a mental offense list that you constantly default to you have not forgiven. You are on still on that treadmill that goes nowhere.
So, just how did Jesus prepare us to respond preemptively? Let’s look at the Word of God:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy‑seven times.
Matthew 18:21-22 NIV
This was not meant to be THE numerical standard of how many times we should forgive. I believe it was meant to be our attitude – that we are to forgive as many times as necessary. To me it means that I need to be prepared to forgive in an instant. Forgiving someone who has offended you puts the ball back in their court and relieves your burdened soul. Forgiveness does not lessen the hurt but it does hasten healing.
When we do not forgive, we effectively dam up our own hearts. Even if no one else can see the resentment, it is still there affecting our ability to relate to others in a healthy way. When we have a blockage in our physical heart, no one can necessarily see it but every part of our body is affected because the heart’s ability to pump life-giving blood is lessened. We may not see the lack of flow right away – but it is there. If we want full flowing relational life we must forgive.
3. Physical Benefit
A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy[resentment] rots the bones.
Proverbs 14:30 NIV
A study recently conducted at Stanford University has discovered what God’s Word has been saying all along: unforgiveness causes physical ailments. This study reveals that resentment and envy are toxic to the body and has also revealed that forgiving those who have offended you can cut stress by 50%! In addition, another study showed that women who had struggled with drug-dependency and subsequent relapse were drastically less likely to fall back into drug use when forgiveness was practiced!
Personally I can vouch for my own study! The more I forgive and go on with my life the less stress I have. The less stress I carry around, the more joy and contentment I feel in my life. The more joy and contentment I walk in, the less likely I am to fall into temptation. The more I let go the more freedom I have in relating in a healthy, productive way to my wife, my children, my friends, and all those I minister to! Forgiveness really is one of the keys to abundant life!
4. Spiritual Benefit
Jesus lived a lifestyle of forgiveness. I believe this was not only part of the plan for my salvation but part of the plan for me to be a conduit of the greatness of God to others. When I allow the blockage of unforogveiness to remain, I effectively cut off the flow of God’s power in my life. Think about it. He forgave me and saved me. I am created in His image for good works in His Kingdom…so if I want to be like Him I had better learn how to be a good forgiver! The greatness of God is hindered by my resentment!
Unforgiveness builds a dam to the flow of God. Jesus sets us free but we put ourselves back in prison when we choose to not forgive. Think about this as you read the following passage of Scripture.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Another Scriptural principle we can apply to the need to forgive is this: We reap what we sow. If we do not forgive, we will not receive forgiveness from others.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Matthew 6:12-15 NIV
You reap what you sow
Sow for yourselves righteousness,
reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
and showers righteousness on you.
Hosea 10:12 NIV
You reap what you sow
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.
2 Corinthians 9:6 NIV
You reap what you sow
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.
A man reaps what he sows.
The one who sows to please his sinful nature,
from that nature will reap destruction;
the one who sows to please the Spirit,
from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Let us not become weary in doing good,
for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Galatians 6:7-9 NIV
Quite simply put, when we do not forgive – when we continually bring up old offenses – we cut off the flow of God and we put ourselves right back in that mental prison where all we know is constant agony and despair. Do we really want to live there?
5. Clear Conscience Benefit
For far too many years, I could not move on with my healing because I could not forgive myself! Just as we forgive others, we must forgive ourselves or we will never move on to the deeper places in God or have that abundant life we talk so much about. To not forgive one’s self is to put yourself in the place of God. To not forgive yourself is not lofty spirituality. It is pride and misinterpretation of God’s forgiveness. To not forgive yourself is to place yourself on the throne of your heart…and you effectively cut off the flow of God in your life. To not forgive one’s self is to say to God, “I know better than you! My standards are higher than yours!” And that, my friend, is dangerous ground to walk…
One of the greatest benefits of forgiving others is a clear conscience. Think about it. Wouldn’t it be great to walk around with a clear conscience, able to hold our heads up high in the sheer joy of that freedom…to be able to look people right in the eye due to the fact that we have absolutely nothing to hide? God forgave me. I must humble myself to receive that forgiveness…and I must humble myself to forgive myself!
I love to read of Scriptural examples of men who were able to walk in a clear conscience. Paul the Apostle, while standing before the elders, chief priest, and governor said this:
So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
Acts 24:16 NIV
God’s Word also says this about a clear conscience:
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart
in full assurance of faith, having our hearts
sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience
and having our bodies washed with pure water.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,
for he who promised is faithful.
And let us consider how we may spur one
another on toward love and good deeds.
Hebrews 10:22-24 NIV
One very important aspect of forgiveness and maintaining a clear conscience is that not only should we forgive those who have offended us, but we must seek forgiveness from those we have offended. While this is not ever the most pleasant thing to have to do, it is one of the most healing things we can do for others. Look at what God’s Word says about this:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,
leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.
I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Matthew 5:23-26 NIV
One more thing: Be careful and don’t ask someone to forgive you if they have no idea you held them in contempt. Be careful and do not direct your need to seek forgiveness at the wrong person. A couple of cases in point from my own life:
“Dennis, I’ve never struggled with same sex attraction as a Christian, and as a result, I used to hate you for your past. Please forgive me for hating you.” All I hear in those words is ‘I used to hate you’. Such thoughts simmer in my mind needlessly as I wonder if others in the church feel the same way. Why put someone through that torment? Deal with your sin and leave others out of it if it would lead them to wrong thoughts.
Another one I’ve heard:
“Dennis, I was really upset at the way you led worship for a long time. Please forgive me for talking about you behind your back.” All I hear is ‘I and a lot of others talk about you in derogatory ways.’ My thoughts immediately go to ‘if he is saying those things then others are as well.’ Wouldn’t it have been better to go to the ones you had talked to behind my back rather than fill my head with thoughts of self-doubt and confusion? I’m just saying that sometimes our need to seek forgiveness is directed at the wrong person.
Maybe it would be better to go to those to whom you spread your offensive attitudes to and seek their forgiveness rather than dragging another person into the mess who never even knew your wrong attitude existed. When people have approached me with things that I was never offended by it gives the enemy a place to attack me. For that reason, let’s be careful and not seek forgiveness from someone just to appease our guilty conscience if it would do more harm than good.
Here are a few questions for meditation that you may find helpful in leaving the wreckage of your resentment behind.
- Who do you need to forgive?
- Are there any areas of your life that you need to seek forgiveness from the Lord?
- Are there any areas of your own life in which you have not forgiven yourself?
- What people have you offended that you need to seek forgiveness from?
In conclusion, I simply urge you to let go of the wreckage of resentment and seek the Great Physician for your healing. Let go and move on. It is in the letting go that you will discover more of that abundant life you have dreamed of…more than you even realized you were missing…more than you realized was even possible in this life. Forgive and watch yourself come alive.