It’s often been said that holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill someone else.
But we’re rarely fond of the alternative. On the surface, forgiveness can be very unsatisfying. It’s easier to imagine methods of retribution for those who have wounded us rather than forgive them. They may not feel better afterward, but we might.
These thoughts and more were running through my head as I drove recently back on the country roads somewhere around 1 a.m. I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to get in my car and drive. It was a bitter cold, clear night. The moon was nearly full. The longer I drove the more my rage subsided and something else welled up inside me—deep pain.
It wasn’t surprising. Nearly any time I am angry it seems to always trace back to pain. The more angry I am, the bigger wound. That’s how it was in the car that night. The wound was huge.
I had tried forgiving the person who had hurt me. I even called him, and we met to talk it over. Then I told him that I was trying to forgive him, and shared a little bit more of my heart. It was then that he delivered the real blow.
He rejected my forgiveness completely. Forgiveness is hard enough, but now I was being told that I was the one who was wrong. In this moment I finally understood words that I had heard years before: Forgiveness is a form of suffering.
Most speak of forgiveness as a virtue, and praise the beauty of it. But there is a reason so many can’t seem to forgive—it requires willingness to suffer. This isn’t just any kind of suffering, either. To forgive is to willfully bear and embrace a wound that someone else has given to you.
At times, this can feel unnatural. When a person commits an offense against us, our typical inclination is to commit an offense in return. And not just any offense, but one that is bigger and hurts far more. We call this getting even, but it is really revenge.
We tell ourselves everything is OK. They deserved it and justice has been served. Even in the moments when we wonder if we should have done that, we can console ourselves with the words of Kanye West, “How can something so wrong make me feel so right?” We have the ability to believe this because deep inside it feels really good to get even.
But retribution is a false sense of justice. We didn’t get even—we got ahead. So vengeance will come back around to us. We will receive payback, and then we will pay back again. Vengeance is a downward, never-ending spiral. It only makes losers of everyone involved.
Perhaps you are reading this, and know you would never seek vengeance. Many feel this way. They never act out against those who have hurt them, rather they simply hold on to the wound, nursing a grudge rooted in a refusal to forgive.
Our idea of punishing the offender is to never forget or forgive. Something inside us believes withholding forgiveness will allow us to control the situation, but it doesn’t. It slowly kills us. It doesn’t work. We only imprison ourselves.
As the people of God we are not called to either of these options. We are called to forgive much, because we have been forgiven much. We are to be agents of forgiveness.
Another way of saying this is we are called to suffer, for this is the direct result of forgiveness. When we have been wounded by another we want things made right. Something has been broken and we want it fixed. Forgiveness offers such a repair, but places its demands on the one who has been wounded. It asks for the one wronged to absorb the sin committed by another. Is there anything more painful?
Forgiveness means we cancel the debt—at personal expense. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told a story about a master and a servant who owed him millions of dollars. The servant begged for leniency, and the master “cancelled the debt.” The master willingly absorbed the loss knowing he would never get the money back.
This is exactly what we see with Jesus. He absorbed the pain, sin, shame and brokenness of this world. It was laid on him when he was nailed to that Roman instrument of torture and execution that we call a cross. Again I ask, is there anything more painful?
It is this kind of forgiveness—this kind of suffering—we are called to imitate. We are to absorb the offense within ourselves, and forego any claims on the debt we believe we are owed.
This seems impossible. However, we must remember whatever sin has been committed against us has already been absorbed by Jesus. When we long for justice to be served, we cannot forget through the cross justice has already been satisfied.
But does this make it any easier? We can know these truths deeply, and yet still recognize the agony of forgiveness. Maybe you are reading this and know exactly what I mean. You have forgiven someone who has wounded you deeply, and in doing so, felt like your soul was torn in two.
Our hope is in those moments when we come face to face with the pain of forgiveness, as we discover the risen Jesus who says, “I know how you feel.” As I look back at that night when I was driving around confused, hurt and angry, something inside of me discovered this for the first time.
Forgiveness is a form of suffering, but for those willing to endure it, they will discover the the heart of Jesus. For when we are able to forgive we liberate the one who has sinned against us and we liberate ourselves just as we have been liberated through the forgiveness provided through Jesus. So may you suffer well, finding the liberation that forgiveness can bring, and may this lead you and many others into the arms of our forgiving God.