Though seemingly impossible, you can forgive—completely—and finally let go of the past
I received a heartrending letter from a couple who had heard me teach on the subject of total forgiveness a few years ago. They told me what their son-in-law had done to their daughter and grandchildren. It was an awful story. “Are you saying we must totally forgive our son-in-law?” they asked.
That was a hard question to answer. But I had to tell them the truth: Yes, they must learn to forgive. My heart went out to them. I can only imagine the pain they have experienced. But total forgiveness is the only way they will ever find freedom and release from the offense.
I have received many other letters that describe everything from infidelity to incest to rape to lying and slander. It is enough to make me consider very carefully indeed what I preach and write. People experience real pain when they or someone they love is hurt by another person. It is often harder to forgive when the one who has been hurt is someone you love deeply, especially your child. I find it much easier to forgive what people have said or done to me personally than what they say or do to my children.
It is not unlike Corrie ten Boom’s having to forgive the prison guard who was so cruel to her sister Betsie. Corrie saw this man viciously abuse her sister—who died shortly afterward—when both of them were in prison for protecting Jews in Holland during World War II. Years later, Corrie was seated on the platform of a church, preparing to speak in a service, when she spotted this very man in the audience. She struggled in her heart. She prayed in desperation for God to fill her heart with the love of Jesus. He did, but forgiveness became even more of a challenge when, after the service, this guard rather glibly said, in so many words, how good God is to forgive all of us. She wondered how sorry he was.
It is often easier, then, it seems to me, to forgive what is done to us personally than what is done to those we love. But it is still very hard to forgive those who have hurt us directly, especially when they do not feel the slightest twinge of conscience. If our offender would put on at least some symbolic show of repentance, it would be much easier for us to forgive them.
Love Doesn’t Keep Score
Love is a choice. It is an act of the will. The great love chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, is a perfect demonstration of the cause and effect of total forgiveness. The apex of this wonderful passage is the phrase found in verse 5: Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (NIV). The Greek word that is translated as “no record” is logizomai, which means to not reckon or impute. Keeping a record of wrongs is also an act of the will—a choice not to love—and it is the more natural, easy choice.
A key to letting go of the record of wrongs and achieving total forgiveness lies in the control of the tongue. The words we say can cause the catastrophe to which James refers: “Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6, NKJV).
The irony is that our words, instead of helping us “get something off our chest,” can cause an uncontrollable fire to erupt and incinerate what remains inside us. And instead of that fire subsiding, it doubles, intensifies and gets a thousand times worse in the end. It is a satanic victory, ultimately traceable to our keeping a record of wrongs.
How, then, do we deal with our tongue? Two things, I believe, will help:
- When a person does wrong, refuse to point it out to the person.
- When a person does wrong, refuse to point it out to others.
If this were to become a more popular lifestyle, the number of records kept would plummet! By refusing to continually bring up the hurt in conversations, the record of that hurt would eventually disappear.
This principle also applies to imaginary conversations—those internal dialogues with yourself in which you can’t get what they did off your mind. You may fantasize what you will say or do to them, or what you might tell other people about them. This conversation may go on and on—and hours and days may pass when you neither accomplish anything nor feel any better!
One day at about 11 p.m., as I was going to bed, I found myself having a conversation in my head about someone. I imagined I had the opportunity to spill the beans about this person. I pictured the scenario in great detail. I made myself look good and the other person look bad. But the Holy Spirit—miraculously—got into the matter. I heard Him say to me, “You can get a victory right now if you refuse to think about clearing your name.”
Even though the conversation existed only in my mind, I realized that I had an opportunity to triumph—in my spirit! It was a pivotal moment because it was as if we were real and I was refusing to say anything at all about the person.
By doing that I achieved victory. A peace entered my heart, and I knew then and there that I must never again enter into those imaginary conversations—unless I refused to vindicate myself.
For those who find such conversations therapeutic, I would only remind you to let your thoughts be positive and wholesome. Keep no record of wrongs in your thoughts, and you will be less likely to expose such records by your words.
When I am tempted to say something negative and I refuse to speak, I can often feel the release of the Holy Spirit in my heart. It is as if God says to me, “Well done.” It is a very good feeling! After all, Jesus is touched with our weaknesses (see Heb. 4:15), and He also lets us feel His joy when we overcome them! He rewards us with an incredible peace and the witness of the Spirit in our hearts.