Note: This is the sixth in a seris of articles on Forgiveness. We encourage you to also read the following: Forgiveness: Confronting My Bitterness, Resentment, and Anger, The High-Stakes Gamble of Withholding Forgiveness, The Starting Point of Forgiving Others, Forgiving the Unforgivable, Do You Have to Reconcile in Order to Forgive?
Forgiving someone is not a one-time event. It may shock you to hear that because we often view forgiveness as something that we do once and then it’s over. “I forgive you,” we imagine telling someone, and then all is well. But this isn’t how real life works, and it isn’t how our hearts work either.
If you forgive someone for an offense, it is because that individual has hurt you in some way. Perhaps cruel or slanderous words were said to you. Maybe the unthinkable was done to you by someone whom you loved and trusted. As we have discussed in previous articles, forgiveness doesn’t minimize or ignore the genuine hurt done to us. But in the midst of experiencing real hurt, extending forgiveness can feel one-sided. Almost like we’re letting someone off the hook for what he or she has done. This isn’t true. God governs this world, and it is accountable to Him. One day He will right every wrong. Choosing to forgive someone, rather than pursuing vengeance, is an act of trusting God to bring justice. We leave vengeance to the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35).
As Christians, we’re commanded by Jesus to forgive an individual of his or her transgressions committed against us. We do this by taking it to the Lord and recognizing His forgiveness of us in Christ. However, forgiving doesn’t magically erase the wound or damage that person did to you. The memories don’t just fade away. The implications don’t reverse course simply because you forgive them. There is often remaining collateral damage.
I discovered this firsthand as I struggled to forgive the surgeon who removed my son’s kidneys by accident. It took all of a year or more to forgive this man. His indifference and emotionless disposition made it even harder. However, we eventually did reach the place of forgiving him. What happened after that? Did my son heal and recover from what happened to him? No. Did his need for a transplant go away? No. Did his need for life-preserving medications and treatments cease? No. All of those remained. And that is when we discovered that forgiveness didn’t make him healthy and whole. His altered body didn’t change with our altered hearts. The surgeon’s error compromised his long-term health. Our daily fight to keep him healthy and alive was just as needed after we forgave the surgeon as it was before we forgave him.
We felt the pain of the surgical mistake for days, weeks, months, and years after the fact. We are still feeling the pain today because our son is no longer with us. We witnessed how prone our hearts were to revert back to the resentment, bitterness, and hatred when we faced scenarios related to the mistake. Each struggle was a reminder of what this man botched. Those thoughts kindled as we sat in the waiting room during Kaleb’s many surgeries. Living in the hospital for weeks, even months, at a time for infections reminded us of why. Watching my son struggle to use his arms or speak because of the stroke he suffered catapulted us back into the origin of the problem. Every second of fear and worry, and now grief and loss from his death, is an opportunity to return to the slop of our unforgiveness. It didn’t require lingering long over the surgeon’s mistake and terrible bedside manners to make us hate him all over again.
I’ve had many occasions when my mind wanders off to “what-ifs” with my son’s life had the botched surgery not happened. It has been more than sixteen years since we forgave the surgeon, yet we still have to keep directing our hearts and minds to God’s grace to us. Even so many years later, we continue to be dependent upon God’s power in allowing us to continue to forgive. We have to take our thoughts captive when we find them gravitating toward unhealthy places (2 Corinthians 10:5). As I reflect on what Kaleb would look like right now, or what he would want to do after graduating high school, I remember he can’t because of the surgical mistake that changed his life. I have to stop the runaway train of thoughts in their tracks. They must immediately be taken captive. Allowing thoughts of revenge and malice to take root in my heart only gives birth to more just like them. This can send me spiraling into a tailspin of grief and pain. Instead, I must preach the truths of God’s sovereign hand and wisdom over my life. I ponder His goodness and love for us. Those thoughts remind me of God’s ultimate control over Kaleb’s life, and my own, and allow me to persevere in forgiving the surgeon.
We must work harder to maintain forgiveness than we do festering bitterness, resentment, and anger. Those things spring forth from indwelling sin and the remnants of our old nature. God empowers us by His grace, providing the help we need to continue forgiving. We do this by relying upon the Holy Spirit each day. I began the article with this important point: Forgiving someone is not a one-time event. Once you’ve realized that God commands us to forgive our offenders, and you’ve done the heart work to achieve it, you must keep making the choice each day. The work isn’t over. As The Carpenters coined in their hit song, “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
Erik is the Lead Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon. He also founded Knowing Jesus Ministries, a non-profit organization which exists to proclaim timeless truth for everyday life. He is married to Katrina, and has three children: Kaleb (who went to be with the Lord), Kaleigh Grace, and Kyra Piper.