THE BOTTOM LINE – There is no healing to be found in the endless cycle of sin–confess–sin–confess. Instead, I find true freedom when I fully embrace God's forgiveness, forgive others who have harmed me, and forgive myself.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, bringing an end to slavery in the South. However, there are countless stories of slaves remaining in captivity even after being declared legally free. If you stop and think about it, many people live like that today. God has declared our freedom, but we often carry on our lives as if we’re still shackled and enslaved. It’s pretty amazing that no matter how bad we mess things up, God still offers his forgiveness to those who believe in Him.
Jesus can erase a sin-filled failing grade from our lives and give us a perfect “straight A” record in exchange. The freedom found in receiving this forgiveness is incredible.
But sadly, many of us don’t act like we are forgiven, and we certainly don’t feel free. So how do we fully receive and experience the freedom that comes from God’s forgiveness? Whether you realized it or not, we actually began digging into the process of forgiveness last week, when we looked at the difference between false guilt and true guilt.
We saw that the way to deal with false guilt is to recognize its deceitful and illogical basis, shine a light on Satan, its source, and ask God to remove it from us. On the flip side, we deal with true guilt, also known as conviction, by confessing our sin to Him, then repenting – which means stopping, turning around, and going the opposite way.
That’s where forgiveness begins. Confess your wrongdoing then repent of that sin. But that’s not the end of the process.
There are two more key components of forgiveness that can’t be overlooked if you truly desire a lasting change. The next step is accountability, or turning to others to come alongside you and help you as you grow. We need each other. We can’t heal in a vacuum.
Galatians 6:2 urges us to “bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.”
Accountability is about opening up to let others share our burdens. Think of sin like a physical wound. If we make that wound inaccessible to those things which can bring healing, it will get infected, make us sick, and eventually kill us. But if we expose it to light, air, and medication, it heals. Being accountable means exposing the malignant soul wounds in our lives not only to God, but also to a small, trusted circle of faithful friends or loved ones to whom we can say, “These are my wounds. And these are my goals and standards. Can I count on you to help me with them?”
Even if you’ve confessed and repented of your sin, if you keep that soul wound only to yourself, it will undoubtedly gain strength and expand its toxic influence in you and in those around you. As Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who conceals his sins will not prosper, but he who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” In addition to accountability, there’s one more important element of experiencing forgiveness – the process of restitution. When we’ve harmed or taken something away from someone, there needs to be some sort of repayment for that wrongdoing.
True repentance will show itself by our working to make the victim whole again. In other words, God is not only looking for your agreement with Him about your sin. He’s interested in changed action. Your response to your sin will validate your intention. When this happens, it clears the way for God to bring His healing without hindrance.
If you have lived more than a few years on this planet, you have undoubtedly been the victim of some sort of malevolent trauma, as we talked about way back in Week 2. Someone or something has done you wrong. How are you to respond? For many first responders, the answer is, “Fight fire with fire. Meet force with force.” To be fair, you are immersed in a world where this is a legitimate reaction.
In wildland firefighting, strategically placed backfires rob a larger, advancing fire of fuel and bring it under control. In law enforcement, if a criminal with a gun is barricaded in a house with a hostage, you match him with a SWAT team, snipers, stun grenades and semi-autos. It’s the only language some aggressors seem to understand. If you back off, the bad guys will often fill the vacuum, and evil triumphs.
But when it comes to interpersonal relationships, it’s not a winning strategy. Fighting fire with fire in this scenario only yields more fire. To put out a fire successfully, firefighters generally employ a substance that is the opposite of fire – water. In the same way, the best approach to dealing with malevolence is its opposite – goodness. The Bible tells us in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
And as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
At Firstline, we observe two major causes of emotional and spiritual wounds:
- Failure to receive, understand, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness
- Failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people.
If you grew up in a Christian home, you probably heard a lot about grace – God’s undeserved mercy and favor on us. But have you really let that concept sink in? Have you let it permeate your lifestyle? Failure to truly understand and allow ourselves to receive God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness will lead us into a life of anxiety. Our “earner’s mentality” will take over, and we will continue striving for God’s approval instead of resting in his grace.
When we don’t receive God’s forgiveness, we lose our ability to extend that unconditional love, grace, and forgiveness to others, and a vicious cycle is formed. As we fail to internalize God’s unconditional forgiveness of us, we open ourselves to the unforgiveness of others. Unforgiven people become unforgiving people. The unaccepted become the unaccepting.
The ungraced become the ungracious. Hurt people hurt people.
Bitter individuals are easy to spot, aren’t they? Ultra-sensitive, easily offended, constantly defensive, and quickly angered, they are rarely the most likeable people to be around and will often find something to complain about even when things are going well. Bitter people are covered in tiny scars from head to toe, and each scar tells a different story of a time when they were hurt by the world.
Have you ever had a paper cut on your finger or a metal shaving in your hand? Everything that touches it is painful. You are constantly aware of that tiny little cut. Those who are harboring unforgiveness live as if they are covered in paper cuts from head to toe. Everything and everyone they touch causes pain. This leads them down a path of isolation and anger. Soon, they can no longer tolerate having anyone close to them.
Failing to forgive someone is like hugging a cactus. The harder you hold onto your pain, the more it hurts and the more damage it causes – to you! And the worst thing about unforgiveness is that the people who hurt you often aren’t even aware of the pain they have caused. They aren’t sitting in a room right now, going through a healing course. In fact, most of them probably aren’t even aware they hurt you in the way they did. Unforgiveness hurts you the most. Have you ever thought about that? All the times you haven’t let it go or haven’t forgiven add up and create a weight on you.
This weight might be causing that underlying feeling of anger you carry around or that short temper you can’t seem to shake. If you are a Christian, you forgive because God has forgiven you. But even if you aren’t a person of faith, forgive for your own good! Unforgiveness leads to nothing but more pain and more stress.
Perhaps you are thinking, “I can accept God’s forgiveness, but how do I forgive myself?”
You aren’t alone. In fact, the majority of first responders who have come through Firstline have felt this way. In Matthew 18, Jesus shares a parable about forgiveness.
To paraphrase the story, a king graciously forgives an enormous debt owed to him by one of his servants, but then that very same forgiven servant throws a fellow servant in prison because he could not repay a small debt he owed. The king finds out and is furious. “‘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 handed 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 or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:32-35). We’ve all heard the phrase, “love your enemies.”
Perhaps you’ve recited the Lord’s Prayer and asked God to help you forgive your debtors and trespassers. But here’s a question for you – what if you are the enemy you’re supposed to love? What if you are the “brother or sister” Jesus speaks of in Matthew 18:35?
What if you are the one who needs to be forgiven by yourself? Does that make Jesus’ statement any less true? Read it a little differently. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive yourself from your heart.”
Anger and resentment are just as damaging when directed toward yourself as when directed toward others. Some of us are our own worst enemies. But we must forgive ourselves and let go. Are you ready and willing to forgive yourself?
Maybe your hurt is unlike anyone else’s hurt. Maybe you have been scarred your entire life and no one can understand. You’ve probably been told by friends just to “let it go,” but that seems like a dramatically oversimplified solution. After all, who are they?
They don’t know what you’ve been through! They don’t know about the cactus you’re squeezing! They’ve never hugged a cactus like this before! It is as simple as letting go. Do you see how silly it sounds when you think of holding onto unforgiveness like squeezing that painful cactus?
The process of forgiveness isn’t complicated. It may not be easy, but it is simple. The moment we start to forgive ourselves and others, a flood of emotions and thoughts will likely come to the surface. And most of those thoughts will try to convince us to hold onto our anger and bitterness. Remember that forgiving those who have hurt you doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything wrong or that you have to let them into your inner circle. It simply means that you choose freedom over pain. Forgiveness happens in this order: faith, then facts, then feelings.
So you may have to wait for the feelings to come. Remember, you forgive because God forgave you, not because you are seeking to earn a specific response from the person you are forgiving. So, this week, our prayer is that you will let it go! Let go of every messy bit of the hurt that you’ve been clinging to. The days of bitterness, resentment, and regret have held you captive long enough, so let go of the hatred and revenge.
Bitterness doesn’t belong to you any longer. Let it go! Seriously, let go of all of it. It may sound far too simple, but just lay down every nasty piece of it. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” forgiveness won the day.
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