On my thir­ty-fifth birth­day I wrote the fol­low­ing phrase: 

If you make it through life with­out becom­ing bit­ter and resent­ful, then you’ve done pret­ty well. To spend your life keep­ing your heart open to oth­ers and rela­tion­ships is a great accom­plish­ment. Resent­ment is the human default. 

Some­times I won­der why God laid claim to vengeance. It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deuteron­o­my 32:35).

Woven deep in our DNA is a desire for jus­tice. We ache for things to be turned right and good. Yet the anger, wound­ing, and inten­si­ty of ret­ri­bu­tion is so dan­ger­ous and poten­tial­ly dam­ag­ing to the human soul that I almost think God’s insis­tence on let­ting him han­dle affairs of judg­ment is a gift, a free­dom of sorts. The truth is I’m not sure I have the capac­i­ty to right­ly deal with those who have hurt me. 

Learn­ing to trust that he’s in con­trol is not an easy task, but I believe it’s safe to assume that God is ful­ly aware of human affairs and the evil we produce. 

But I like my resentments 

My resent­ments and me, we have a spe­cial rela­tion­ship. Late at night when the house is qui­et, I like to bring them out. I talk to them and they to me. I replay old words over and over again, like a peb­ble in my shoe. I squeeze my toes, turn­ing, turn­ing, nev­er sat­is­fied, always think­ing one more shift and it will find its home. And the more I adjust, the worse things become. My heart races, my mind is on fire.

I line up my offend­ers like a child with lit­tle toy sol­diers and com­pose detailed, artic­u­late respons­es to all the wrongs they have done me. And, as I imag­ine the replay, I cre­ate new sce­nar­ios and new speech­es. After months of con­ver­sa­tions togeth­er, my resent­ments have tak­en on a life of their own. I fear the truth and real­i­ty of the offense becomes buried in the venge­ful rush of my imag­i­na­tive court. 

I have no busi­ness hold­ing onto resent­ments. They are just too powerful. 

The old proverb rings so true: Unfor­give­ness is like drink­ing poi­son and expect­ing it to kill some­one else. 

If my own mis­ery was­n’t enough moti­va­tion to deal with my resent­ments, Jesus had some help­ful things to say: How many times should I for­give? Up to sev­en times?” Jesus’ answer almost sounds play­ful, I tell you, not sev­en times, but sev­en­ty-sev­en times” (Matthew 18: 21 – 22). 

He was so seri­ous about the busi­ness of humans for­giv­ing each oth­er that he even instruct­ed peo­ple not to give offer­ings until their grudges were dealt with: Leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be rec­on­ciled to your broth­er; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23 – 24). 

And then a series of dif­fi­cult vers­es: 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 6:14 – 15). 

Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not con­demn, and you will not be con­demned. For­give, and you will be for­giv­en” (Luke 6:37).

I don’t quite know what to do with those words oth­er than to try to obey. It cer­tain­ly seems prac­tic­ing for­give­ness as a dis­ci­pline is of extreme importance. 

The record­ings of the words of Jesus reveal that he was not only knowl­edge­able and kind, but he was prac­ti­cal as well. There­fore, I assume Jesus would not ask us to do some­thing that was beyond our capac­i­ty to do. With that infor­ma­tion, I’m of the opin­ion we start where we are. For some it’s as sim­ple as mak­ing our unfor­give­ness a prayer. Father, I want to for­give. I don’t know how. Teach me.” I’ve found God is ever so open to meet us where we are, and not where we want or think we should be. 

Now I’m not an expert on for­giv­ing oth­ers, although I’ve had my share of prac­tice. I’d like to use this space to share a few things I’ve picked up through the years in my work as a coun­selor and how I per­son­al­ly prac­tice for­give­ness as a discipline. 

I real­ize that for some this is an extreme­ly dif­fi­cult mat­ter to deal with, so please don’t let my short teach­ing feel trite. I should note that I’m not intend­ing these ideas to replace work­ing with a trained pro­fes­sion­al or cler­gy. Some mat­ters just should not be under­tak­en alone. 

I have come to con­cep­tu­al­ize my resent­ments as pri­mar­i­ly a debt that I’m right­ful­ly owed. Some­one has offend­ed me and I am just­ly enti­tled to rec­om­pense. Con­se­quent­ly, it is this debt and the col­lec­tion of its pay­ment that I offer to God. I say some­thing to this effect: This per­son wronged me. God you take it. I’m not hold­ing this debt any longer. I’m releas­ing ret­ri­bu­tion to you for you to do with as you please. If you would like to go after them and pun­ish them, that is none of my busi­ness. If you have some oth­er arrange­ment in mind that involves some sort of for­give­ness, that is up to you. I no longer hold this debt. It is yours. Take it and do as you please.” 

I like to use a visu­al pic­ture of my debt being a foot­ball that I kick up to heaven. 

I do think even­tu­al­ly we can be able to move to the point of gen­uine­ly and sin­cere­ly not wish­ing ill on the per­son, but for me this is often the pos­ture where I start. 

In order to even begin the process of for­give­ness, we have to be hon­est with our­selves and the emo­tions asso­ci­at­ed with the offense. Cov­er­ing things up or mak­ing excus­es for oth­ers is not help­ful. Of course, some resent­ments are big­ger than oth­ers, and some are best not to explore alone. What­ev­er the con­text, we need to be will­ing to deal with them straight on, and all the vile­ness fit­ting for the evil that was perpetuated. 

For­give­ness is not say­ing what hap­pened was okay. It’s not say­ing it did­n’t cause dam­age. It’s not say­ing there aren’t con­se­quences for actions. For­give­ness is releas­ing our stake in the mat­ter. For­give­ness is about free­dom from the tox­i­c­i­ty of some­thing so pow­er­ful that only God can prop­er­ly deal with it. 

For­give­ness does­n’t mean we don’t set bound­aries. Bound­aries can be healthy. Some­times not set­ting bound­aries is wrong. My wife likes to say that if some­one tells you who they are, then you should prob­a­bly lis­ten. In oth­er words, if some­one has a con­sis­tent record of being cru­el and hurt­ful, it’s prob­a­bly best, if pos­si­ble, to avoid putting your­self in a posi­tion to be wound­ed again. 

From my expe­ri­ence, we must not mea­sure our abil­i­ty to for­give oth­ers based on how we feel about that per­son or sit­u­a­tion. Jesus com­mand­ed us to for­give. To me that means the act of for­giv­ing is a choice, an act of our will, an obe­di­ence we will­ing­ly sub­mit to. Feel­ings are not the mea­sure. Of course, often feel­ings of good­will and release hap­pen over time. But, feel­ing good about a sit­u­a­tion or a per­son is not the point. Releas­ing the per­son, the bur­den, and the tox­i­c­i­ty it places on us into the capa­ble hands of God is. 

Jesus offers us yet anoth­er real­ly help­ful tool in prac­tic­ing the dis­ci­pline of for­give­ness: prayer: But I say to you, Love your ene­mies and pray for those who per­se­cute you” (Matthew 5:44). For some, these words are just too much to bear. I remem­ber coun­sel­ing a woman who lived in chron­ic pain from repeat­ed assaults from her ex-hus­band. It almost felt cru­el to ask her to begin pray­ing for him. As seems to be a com­mon word with the dis­ci­plines, we began as we could, where we were. Her prayer began by just men­tion­ing his name and allow­ing the tears to flow. Lit­tle by lit­tle over a num­ber of years she found her­self able to gen­uine­ly offer prayer for the per­son whose deci­sions direct­ly affect­ed the qual­i­ty of her life some 20 years later. 

I’ve found that pray­ing for the per­son who wound­ed me to be a help­ful way to work with the pesky feel­ings that can linger as we seek to for­give. When the emo­tions pop up, I take this as a cue to enter into prayer, not just for the per­son, but for my renewed com­mit­ment to relin­quish the offense into the good and able hands of God as an act of obe­di­ence. Some will find this help­ful as a dai­ly dis­ci­pline. God is so gra­cious to our obe­di­ence how­ev­er messy and hap­haz­ard it often is. In our obe­di­ence we will con­sis­tent­ly find our­selves greet­ed by a lov­ing father, eager to ten­der­ly care for and guide his beloved. 

I noticed a num­ber of lit­tle resent­ments sprout­ing and recent­ly felt a nudge to clean through a hand­ful of hurts. As a way to prac­tice the dis­ci­pline of for­give­ness, I’ve been putting togeth­er a series of lists. I think you’ll find this process works well in address­ing some of the small­er offens­es that we col­lect over time. Clean­ing out larg­er wounds can be slow work and is often best done with pro­fes­sion­al or pas­toral help. 

1. Nam­ing the offense
In as much detail as seemed nec­es­sary, I wrote out the details of what had happened. 

2. Their part
I bul­let point­ed every­thing that par­tic­u­lar per­son did that I con­sid­ered wrong. 

3. My part
We can­not con­trol oth­er peo­ple and are not respon­si­ble for the actions of oth­ers. What we can con­trol is our actions, so being as hon­est as pos­si­ble I wrote out my role in the sit­u­a­tions includ­ing what I did and did­n’t do in the fol­low­ing weeks, months, or years after the offense took place. 

In the nor­mal sit­u­a­tions in life, we can often find where we have done wrong or helped con­tribute to the prob­lem. In cas­es of abuse or trau­ma, it is nor­mal for vic­tims to feel a respon­si­bil­i­ty for what occurred, thus mak­ing this step unhelp­ful and poten­tial­ly dam­ag­ing to do with­out the guid­ance of a professional. 

4. Learn­ing
Can I be thank­ful for ways in which the expe­ri­ence was a teacher to me? Of course this is not say­ing what hap­pened was okay, or that it hap­pened so this par­tic­u­lar good could come about. God seems to be in the busi­ness of mak­ing beau­ti­ful things from mess­es. At this point, I want to learn and allow God to use my expe­ri­ences to teach and guide. In a sense, I dis­cov­er ways to befriend my offens­es as help­ful teach­ers in my formation. 

5. Prayer
As best I could, I wrote a prayer for­giv­ing the per­son for the offense, own­ing my part if nec­es­sary, and ask­ing God to teach me from the heartache. 

6. Pray­ing for those who persecute
Last­ly I offered prayers for the per­son whom I felt wronged by. 

As I walked through this process for a few dif­fer­ent offens­es, the first thing I noticed was before I had even fin­ished writ­ing out what I deter­mined was their part I began feel­ing empa­thy for the per­son. I found myself able to see and under­stand why they did what they did. Cer­tain­ly some peo­ple are just mean and inten­tion­al­ly hurt oth­ers. But, what I began to notice was that most peo­ple were either mis­guid­ed in their attempts to be help­ful, just being self­ish and look­ing out for them­selves, or act­ing out of their own bro­ken­ness. See­ing the frailty of oth­ers and cul­ti­vat­ing some empa­thy for their bro­ken con­di­tion made the rest of this process rel­a­tive­ly easy. 

On more than one occa­sion, the list of my part” was sig­nif­i­cant­ly longer than any oth­er list. I had a good laugh. It’s so easy to get caught up in what was done to us and for­get that we make mis­takes and hurt oth­ers as well. 

What sur­prised me most about this expe­ri­ence was my utter reluc­tance to actu­al­ly sit down and write things out. I have been telling some peo­ple for weeks that I was going to work on this dis­ci­pline, yet I con­tin­ued to pro­cras­ti­nate. I would work a lit­tle and then put it off for anoth­er week. It was­n’t until I had to write this piece that I actu­al­ly com­plet­ed the task. I’m thank­ful for your account­abil­i­ty, friends.

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Originally published November 2014