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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Text First Published November 2014