My friend’s unkind comments cut me to the bone. After many years of close friendship, she lost her temper, accused me of things I didn’t do and blasted me with an onslaught of hurtful words.
She crossed every boundary of decency, respect and friendship, and the more I replayed her careless and caustic words in my mind, the more furious I became. I felt miserable and decided to have nothing more to do with her. “She doesn’t deserve my forgiveness,” I told myself repeatedly.
I shared my painful experience with another close friend. She listened to me and then surprised me with her advice.
“Denise,” she said. “You need to forgive her. You don’t want to live your life with the weeds of unforgiveness and bitterness growing in your heart.”
“Forgive her?” I cried. “She intentionally hurt me! Why should I let her off the hook and forgive her? She needs to suffer just like she has caused me to suffer!”
“You must choose to forgive her, Denise, even though she purposely hurt you. If you decide not to forgive her, you’re the one imprisoned in the past, not her. You’ll suffer, not her.”
She then reminded me of the Apostle Paul’s wise words to the Colossians: “Bear with each other,” he wrote, “and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13, NIV).
“‘Whatever grievances’ covers just about everything,” my friend told me, “even the hurtful words and actions of a dear friend.”
It took me some time to think, pray and study God’s Word about forgiving those who purposely hurt others. But I finally chose to forgive my friend. It wasn’t easy, but I knew it was necessary. During that period, I made some fascinating and surprising discoveries about biblical forgiveness.
What Must I Do?
Forgiveness is essential, even in the absence of an apology. Jesus provided the supreme example when He forgave those heartless people who nailed Him to a cross, sneered at Him and watched Him die. They never apologized to Jesus. Yet forgiveness was genuine and complete on Jesus’ part when He prayed the words: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NIV).
My friend had injured me with her words and accusations. She owed me a debt because of her disrespectful behavior. But when I chose to forgive her, I canceled that debt. I decided to no longer hold her responsible for the pain she had caused me. Fortunately my friend apologized and accepted my forgiveness, but if she hadn’t apologized, the act of forgiving on my part would still have been genuine.
I didn’t need her apology in order to forgive her. I could forgive her without ever hearing the words “I’m sorry.” Her willing apology graced my heart, but it wasn’t necessary to my forgiving her.
Four Little Sunday School Girls
Carolyn Maull McKinstry chose to forgive the members of the Ku Klux Klan who planted a bomb in her church on Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963. Carolyn, then 15 years old, had just spoken to her four friends in the basement restroom of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. As Carolyn walked upstairs into the sanctuary, the bomb exploded. The blast killed her four friends.
In her book, “While the World Watched,” Carolyn writes: “I know that because of the way Christ has forgiven me, I have no option but to forgive others who have intentionally hurt me and those I love.”
Carolyn knew that unforgiveness poisons the heart. The resulting bitterness can pollute the soul. Unforgiveness breaks God’s heart and interferes with intimate communion with the Heavenly Father. Believers in Christ do not hold grudges. Carolyn’s forgiveness has since enabled her to sow seeds of reconciliation and love around the world.
Nonna Lisowskaja Bannister, a young Russian Christian, suffered the loss of friends and family when German armies invaded her home in Ukraine during World War II. Nonna and her mother ended up in a German concentration camp and suffered unspeakable tortures. After years of imprisonment, her mother and her entire family murdered, Nonna was able to leave war-torn Germany and settle in the United States with the help of Southern Baptist missionaries.
Nonna chose to forgive those who purposely tortured her, killed her family members and caused her such great suffering. In her secret diaries, she wrote her eyewitness account of the Holocaust, her love for God and her family—and her forgiveness of Hitler. Nonna kept her diaries hidden for a half century until they were published in 2009 by her husband, Henry, with Nonna’s blessings. In her book, “The Secret Holocaust Diaries,” Nonna notes that forgiveness requires “much generosity and wisdom.” Her forgiveness enabled her to live a life of compassion, love and Christ-like generosity toward others.
Acts of Obedience
Forgiveness begins by recognizing evil in all of its horror. We can forgive without denying the reality of the evil and hurt we suffered at another’s hand.
We can also forgive those who hurt us without condoning or excusing the offender’s hurtful act. Forgiveness doesn’t brush aside the hurt, nor dismiss it. We must choose to forgive anyone who wrongs us.
Our forgiveness is not predicated on our understanding why the offender hurt us. We may never understand the cruel actions of people like Hitler or the Ku Klux Klan, but we can still choose to forgive them.
Feelings have nothing to do with the willful choice we make to forgive others. Surely the Apostle Paul didn’t “feel” like forgiving when his offenders stoned him, tried to kill him and threw him into prison. Even in his pain, he could write: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, NIV).
And we can forgive our offenders no matter how horrible the crime against us. Some crimes are so heartless and inhumane, we may even wonder if God Himself expects us to forgive.
On Oct. 26, 2001, a nurse’s aide, Chante Mallard, drove home from work and hit a homeless man, Gregory Biggs. The impact broke his leg and thrust him head first into her windshield. Mallard didn’t stop to help him, but instead, with Biggs lodged in her windshield, she drove eight miles and parked her car in her garage. She ignored Biggs’s pleas for help, and he finally bled to death.
Police arrested Mallard. The judge sentenced her to 50 years in prison. At her trial, Biggs’s college-aged son, Brandon, a Christian, addressed the courtroom. He told the Mallard family that his family was sorry for their loss as well. He offered his family’s forgiveness to Chante.
After the trial, a TV interviewer asked Brandon how he could possibly forgive Mallard for killing his father in such a brutal way.
Brandon told him: “It comes because I’ve been forgiven for so much … I can’t not be forgiving. Life is too short to live with all the anger and bitterness. … Life’s too short for that.”
Why must we forgive those people who hurt us or those we love? Because God, in Christ, has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32), and because Christ commands us to forgive others (Luke 17:4). So, for me to grow in Christ, I, too, must obey His Word and continue to forgive. God requires nothing less. D ©2012 Denise George
Denise George (denisegeorge.blogspot.com) is author of 25 books, including “Learning to Forgive Those Who Hurt You.” She teaches “The Writing Minister” at Beeson Divinity School and is co-founder and co-teacher of the write-to-publish seminars: Boot Camp for Christian Writers.