Lewis Smedes has said, “When you forgive someone, you are dancing to the rhythm of the divine heartbeat . . . God invented forgiveness as the only way to keep His romance with the human race alive.” What Smedes is saying is that we are most like God when we offer forgiveness to those who need it. Nowhere is this truer than in the marriage relationship. Multitudes of marriages fail every year because husbands and wives are unwilling to forgive.
Today’s country music demonstrates this. For example, here are just three typical song titles: “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?”; “I Bought The Shoes That Just Walked Out On Me”; and “She Got The Gold Mine, I Got The Shaft.” These titles explain why the songs in country music are called “Somebody done somebody wrong songs.” They describe marriages that might have been saved if forgiveness had been part of the equation.
So, what is forgiveness? To understand what forgiveness is, we must first understand what forgiveness is not:
Forgiving is not the same thing as excusing. We excuse others when we consider extenuating circumstances for their behavior. We excuse an expectant father for driving too fast if he is carrying his wife to the hospital when she is in labor. Forgiving does not mean tolerating bad behavior or pretending that what someone did was not so bad. Excusing is an end run around having a willingness to forgive. When an action is excusable, it doesn’t require forgiveness.
Forgiving is not the same thing as forgetting. All that forgetting requires is a bad memory. We forget phone numbers, where we parked our car, where we put our keys, or what someone’s name is. The Bible speaks of times when God forgets our sin, but this doesn’t mean that He has a memory retrieval problem. It means that He loves us so much that our past sins are irrelevant to His dealing with us. Forgiving is what is required when we can’t forget.
Forgiving is not the same thing as reconciling. You can forgive someone for an action without reconciling with them. A wife can forgive her husband for his physically abusive behavior, but this does not mean that she has to move back in with the brute. By forgiving his bad behavior she is able to let go of bad memories and move forward. Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, and often does, but forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate things. Forgiveness takes place in the heart of one person; reconciliation requires the conscious and deliberate action of two persons. Forgiveness can be granted even if the offending person does not request it.
Forgiveness is required when excusing or condoning or tolerating or accepting is not big enough to do the job. The first stage of forgiveness is the decision not to try to inflict a reciprocal amount of pain on the person or persons who have caused us pain or difficulty. When you forgive someone, you give up the right to hurt them back. You suspend the law of vengeance. You voluntarily give up the right of retaliation.
Forgiveness begins the very moment you give up the quest to get even. This, of course, isn’t an easy thing to do, but for your own peace of mind it is the best thing do. Only one thing costs more than forgiving someone – not forgiving them. Fredrick Buechner in one of his books says, “Of all the deadly sins, resentment appears to be the most fun. To lick your wounds and savor the pain you will give back is in many ways a feast fit for a king. But then it turns out that what you are eating at the banquet of bitterness is your own heart. The skeleton at the feast is you. You start out by holding a grudge, but in the end the grudge holds you.”
When you refuse to forgive, your anger will become your burden. The grudge you nurse will grow both larger and stronger. Bit by bit the joy of living will disappear from your life. All that will be left of what was once a whole and happy person will be bitterness and hate. And that bitterness will spread until it dominates everything you do.
Is there anyone whom you need to forgive? If so, you have a choice to make. Will it be vengeance or mercy? Prison or freedom? Hatred or grace? Life or death? Please choose wisely! Your happiness depends on it!