The View from the Pulpit
Why the forgiven are not always the best forgivers
When Jerry Fuller came to see me, he felt like the world's biggest fool. Everyone on the planet it seemed everyone except Jerry had known that his wife, Misty, was sleeping with his best friend, Phil.
Phil and Jerry had been college roommates and later had started a software consulting firm together. They each married within a few months of one another, and during those first years Jerry and Misty spent several nights a week with Phil and Heather doing everything from addressing advertising flyers to catching a cheap movie at the local dollar theater. Jerry wasn't alarmed to see Misty laughing at Phil's jokes more than his own. In fact, he was grateful that his wife and his best friend appeared to enjoy each other so much.
Now, years later, the couples still got together frequently. But one night something happened that awakened Jerry's suspicions. As they made their way to their seats at a Christian concert, he noticed how Misty made a point of making sure she was seated next to Phil. Throughout the concert she and Phil kept whispering and snickering.
"What was the deal with you and Phil tonight?" Jerry inquired on the ride home, not even trying to hide the edge in his voice.
"Nothing," Misty answered matter-of-factly. "We've always thought the same things were funny, that's all."
Over the next several weeks, Jerry became more aware of irregularities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Sometimes when he would return home early, Misty would abruptly end the phone conversation with "Sorry, Jerry's home, gotta go." Increasingly, when Jerry answered the phone, the other party would quickly hang up. And then there were Misty's unexplained absences in the evening. Sometimes the phone would ring and Misty would race to answer it. After only a few seconds of conversation, Misty would suddenly remember "something I need at the store" and be gone for several hours.
It was one of those evenings that finally brought everything to a head. After a brief call, answered before a first full ring, Misty announced, "I'm running over to Heather's to give her some ideas on her redecorating project." When the minutes turned into several hours, Jerry called to check on Misty.
"No, she hasn't been here all evening," Heather responded.
On a hunch, Jerry asked, "Can I speak to Phil for a moment?"
"You're out of luck tonight. Phil's not here either. He's at the office working late on the Laraby project."
After another hour Misty finally arrived home, mumbled a brief hello, and hurried upstairs to the bedroom. Jerry followed after her.
"Where have you been all evening? I was worried about you." His tone betrayed his true feelings.
"I told you, I went over to Heather's to help "
Jerry cut her off. "I called Heather and she said you weren't there and neither was Phil. Are you and Phil having an affair?"
After a silent moment, she began to cry softly. "Jerry, I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you like this. Phil and Heather were having trouble in their marriage, and he needed someone to talk to, and one thing led to another and soon.... Oh, Jerry, I'm so sorry. How will you ever be able to forgive me?"
In a strange way, Jerry was more relieved than outraged by his wife's confession. Not that he wasn't angry and hurt by the betrayal of the two people closest to him. But just as the survivors of terminally ill patients often do their grieving long before the funeral, Jerry had spent the last several weeks troubled over his growing suspicions. Now that everything was out in the open, he and Misty could begin the healing process. Out of sheer will power Jerry uttered the next sentences.
"Misty, there's no way I could ever describe to you how much this hurts me. To think of you cheating on me is bad enough but with my best friend! I doubt I'll ever get over this completely. But I do love you and believe that God brought us together. I really want to try and salvage our marriage."
Misty didn't utter a word. Maybe, Jerry thought, she was so overwhelmed by his vote of confidence in the relationship that she was speechless. So he continued with increasing conviction.
"I don't think it's any accident that just last week in our men's group we were studying the story of Hosea in the Bible and saw how God told Hosea to take back his adulterous wife. Misty, I love you, and regardless of what you've done, I forgive you and want to make this work."
At this point, Jerry expected Misty to break down into uncontrollable sobs, run into his arms, and express her profound gratitude for his unconditional love. But none of that happened. Instead she continued to cry softly, her head buried in her hands.
"Didn't you hear what I said, Misty? I love you. I forgive you."
Again no response, except that Misty's sobs increased in intensity.
"Misty, you told me you were sorry for hurting me so much. That means you want to end this thing with Phil, don't you?"
With one sentence, Jerry's worst fears were confirmed.
"I don't know what I want right now," Misty answered, gaining her composure. "But I know that our marriage isn't working and I need some time to think."
"Are you saying you plan to keep seeing Phil?"
"I'm saying that I'm not ready to end anything either with you or with Phil. I don't know what I want."
"But you said just a few minutes ago you were sorry for hurting me. How can you mean that and keep sleeping with my best friend?"
"Jerry, I am sorry for the hurt all this is causing you, and I take most of the responsibility for this mess. You have every right to be angry with me, and I wouldn't blame you for a moment if you walked out right now. But I'm asking you to be patient with me. Give me some time to sort out my true feelings. I love you, but I can't promise anything right now."
Now, as Jerry talked with me, he was filled with questions about forgiveness. Although his wife had apologized for her infidelity, was that the same as asking for forgiveness? And even if it was, could Jerry actually forgive her when she had announced her intentions to continue with her affair? Was it possible for Jerry to forgive Misty and still divorce her on the biblical grounds of adultery? And finally, if it was right to give Misty time to "sort out" her true feelings how much time should Jerry give her?
Wanting to Feel Forgiven
Nickie Boyd was abandoned by her father and mother when she was a little girl, but her grandparents in North Carolina happily agreed to take her in. Although money was tight for them, Nickie told me about their generosity.
"They gave me anything I wanted. They were cotton-mill people, but if I wanted a Coca-Cola they cost a nickel I got it. Comic books were ten cents, and she'd get me two. Saturday morning theater was fifteen cents, and I always got to go."
One of the things Nickie learned growing up was the benefits of forgiveness. "It's something my grandmother taught me," Nickie said. "If you don't forgive others, it will eat you alive."
After her grandfather died in 1964, Nickie began stopping by regularly to care for her grandmother. She cooked, cleaned, and changed her grandmother's clothes and bedsheets. For an eight-year stretch, Nickie visited her grandmother every day without fail no vacations, no breaks.
One day in late 1994, Nickie arrived at her grandmother's home and discovered that she had fallen. She had to call the fire department for assistance in getting her grandmother back into bed. Alarmed over what might happen in case of a fire and distressed over her inability to adequately care for her grandmother in her worsening health, Nickie finally placed her in a nursing home, despite her grandmother's objections.
Then came a staggering blow. After only three weeks in the nursing home, her grandmother died. "If I hadn't taken her over there," Nickie lamented, "she wouldn't have died."
A few days after the funeral, Nickie's minister came to visit. She related to him the terrible guilt she felt over her grandmother's death. The pastor prayed for Nickie.
"He prayed; I listened," she says, "but I felt no comfort at all."
She continues to ask God for forgiveness, but still has not received the answer she seeks.
"If you're forgiven, you just know," she says. "You feel it. When you're really, really thirsty, it's the first swallow that tastes so good and sweet. That's what forgiveness tastes like. And since she died, I have never tasted that."
Chet Hodgin of Jamestown, New York, is a devout Christian who understands what the Bible says about forgiveness. "Christ taught us that it's something we Christians should be willing to do if the offender is asking forgiveness or is repentant for his or her action. Then it becomes our Christian obligation to forgive." But he says he has difficulty agreeing with those who teach that Christians "should offer carte blanche forgiveness for every sin committed against us."
One can sympathize with Hodgin's feelings. In 1992, his son Kevin, a pizza delivery man, was killed in an armed robbery. His other son, Keith, was murdered in 1994 by a man Hodgin had fired from his business.
Since the killers have not repented of their actions, Hodgin feels no obligation to forgive. Would he forgive if the killers ever repented? "I would not necessarily say yes; we'll talk about it when the time comes."
Hodgin has little patience with Christians who want to talk only about his obligation to forgive. He says they give him the impression "that if we as Christians don't forgive everyone who sins against us, then we are equally guilty somehow, and I don't buy that."
Hodgin is channeling some of his rage into developing a support network for crime victims. He says this is something that the church should be doing, but the church seems to be more concerned with "the reconciliation between prisoners and their victims. Well, while the church is worried about redeeming the defendants, I'm concerned with the victims that are lying on the sidewalk, bleeding.... Don't come asking for forgiveness for the people that have killed my children."
Why the Disconnect?
"Forgiveness," C. S. Lewis once observed, "is a beautiful word, until you have something to forgive." If you've spent any time in church at all, you probably esteem the concept of forgiveness, at least in general. You understand that turning the other cheek is preferable to breaking your offender's jaw. No doubt you've read some of the following verses on the importance of forgiveness:
If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24)
For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:14-15)
Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven." (Matthew 18:21-22)
And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions. (Mark 11:25-26)
And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32)
You know that forgiveness is a biblical concept. Somewhere along the way you also may have been warned about the physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences of unforgiveness. Most of all, you are genuinely grateful for a God who was willing to take on human form and die an excruciating death that you might be forgiven of your sins.
Why, then, is there such a disconnect between our understanding of forgiveness and our willingness to grant it to others?
Respected counselor and author David Seamands may have an answer:
Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the major cause of most emotional problems among evangelical Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive, and live out God's unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people. We read, we hear, we believe a good theology of grace. But that's not the way we live. The good news of the gospel has not penetrated the level of our emotions.
Reading Seamands's quote reminds me of a story about a Sunday school teacher. In the middle of the lesson one Sunday, two boys in the back of the room were arguing. The teacher stopped the class and asked what the problem was. One of the boys replied that on the way to Sunday school the other had hit him.
This is a great opportunity to teach them about forgiveness, the teacher thought. He called the two boys to the front of the class and emphasized how much God wants us to forgive each other. Then the teacher asked the all-important question.
"Brian, will you forgive Luke?"
"Sure," Brian said. He then hauled off and punched Luke in the stomach.
"Wait a minute," the teacher yelled, grabbing Brian by the arm. "I asked you to forgive Luke, not hit him."
"I will forgive him," Brian protested, "but I had to get even with him first."
As C. S. Lewis said forgiveness is a beautiful word until ...
An Issue That Won't Go Away
The issue of forgiveness touches us every day and in every way. Sometimes it's a major crisis like those described in this chapter's opening pages that forces us to choose between forgiveness and unforgiveness. More often it is lesser offenses that we must deal with, such as:
when our child doesn't receive a coveted invitation to a birthday party when we aren't selected for a leadership position in the church when a friend refuses to show the proper amount of concern over our problem when a coworker spreads a lie that keeps us from receiving a promotion
In my experience as a pastor I've discovered that regardless of the size of the offense, forgiveness is not usually the preferred response. Why is that? Why do we Christians, who have been forgiven so much, have such difficulty forgiving others? Is it because forgiveness has not penetrated beneath the topsoil of our minds to our emotions, as Seamands claims? Perhaps. But I also believe there are other reasons.
You Can't Give What You Don't Have
First, it's hard to impart something to another person that you have not fully experienced. My younger daughter is getting ready to celebrate another birthday this weekend, and my wife and I have decided that one of her rites of passage needs to be learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels. Having already gone through the process with one very impatient daughter, I know it won't be easy. But after a few spills, bruised kneecaps, and many tears, she will master the skill of bicycling.
How can I be so confident? Did I read some detailed book or attend a seminar on bicycling instruction that qualifies me to be a teacher? No, I learned how from my father. Thirty-seven years ago he patiently walked beside me as I wobbled along our front driveway on my first real bike, always careful to reach out when I began to fall, but making me feel as if I were on my own. And next week as I try to teach that same skill to my daughter, I will imitate my own father's methodology and, hopefully, patience.
If the majority of people on this planet have never experienced the unconditional forgiveness God offers through Jesus Christ, is it any wonder why the majority of people also have difficulty forgiving others? You cannot give away what you don't possess. Or put another way, only the forgiven can truly forgive. We learn how to forgive from our Father. That's why I've devoted the first section of this book to the subject of God's forgiveness. Only after we understand and experience our Father's grace are we in a position to extend that grace to others.
And yet if experiencing God's grace were the only requirement for forgiving, it stands to reason that the church would be filled with forgiving people. But that's rarely the case, is it? Some of the most unforgiving people you'll ever encounter are those who occupy a pew with you on Sunday mornings. I remember the words of my former pastor and mentor Dr. W. A. Criswell: "If I ever fall into a sin, I pray that I don't fall into the hands of those censorious, critical, self-righteous judges in the church. I'd rather fall into the hands of the barkeepers, streetwalkers, and dope peddlers, because the church people tend to tear each other apart with their gossipy tongues." What a damning indictment! And yet most of us know it's the truth. Why?
What Is Forgiveness?
A second reason many people, including Christians, find it difficult to forgive is that they don't understand what real forgiveness is ... and what it isn't.
For example, I frequently counsel with individuals who would genuinely like to let go of the bitterness they've been harboring for years, but haven't done so because they've been waiting for their offender's repentance or rehabilitation. They've been taught by well-meaning Christians that it's impossible to forgive someone who doesn't first ask for forgiveness. After all, their reasoning goes, we're told to forgive just as Christ has forgiven us. God doesn't offer carte blanche forgiveness to everyone, but only to those who ask for it. How can we demand any less from our offender than the perfect Forgiver requires of us?
Sometimes our misunderstanding of forgiveness is linked with legitimate fears about the consequences of forgiveness. A woman who was physically abused by her husband may be reluctant to forgive her mate because she believes by doing so she would forfeit her physical safety. Two parents may want to forgive a relative for sexually abusing their child but be fearful about their child's safety. If they really forgive, should they simply expect the best and allow their child to be around the relative again? Doesn't the Bible teach that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18)?
At other times our lack of understanding about forgiveness leads to illegitimate guilt, and this in turn can make us hesitant to forgive again. A wife forgives her husband for an affair, but every time they start to become intimate, images of his infidelity flash into her mind. By her own reasoning, she must not truly have forgiven her husband. After all, when God forgives, doesn't He forget? He promises, "For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). Are forgiveness and forgetting synonymous?
A failure to understand the true nature of forgiveness leads to prolonged bitterness, illegitimate fears, and unnecessary guilt. That's why we'll devote the second part of this book to exposing some of the misunderstandings about forgiveness that keep us from receiving and granting life's most important gift. Specifically we'll examine the relationship between
forgiveness and repentance
forgiveness and consequences
forgiveness and reconciliation
forgiveness and forgetting
The depth of misunderstanding about these issues comes through loud and clear in a national opinion study commissioned by my publisher in connection with this book. These professional researchers conducted interviews with a representative sampling of adults across the United States, seeking their views on a number of forgiveness-related topics. This included asking for the respondents' perspectives on five forgiveness "myths" that this book addresses. In their resulting report, entitled "Americans' Views on Forgiveness," the researchers analyzed their findings:
Do most adults have a biblical viewpoint about forgiveness? Do most Christians? The conclusion that emerges from this research is that probably very few Americans (and only a small handful of born-again Christians) have a coherent, biblical worldview on the issue of forgiveness.
For instance, based on the five "myths" about forgiveness that we examined, we discovered that only 4% of respondents gave the biblical response to all five statements. Among born-again Christians, only 5% disagreed with all five of the myths.
The Guilt-Blame Seesaw
A final reason many people find it difficult to forgive is because of the "guilt-blame" seesaw they're riding. Allow me to explain. Travel back to your childhood days and recall what it was like to play with a friend on a seesaw. What happened when a mischievous playmate suddenly scrambled off the seesaw while you were still on the other end? CRASH! The only way you and your partner could ensure a safe landing was to get off the seesaw simultaneously.
Now imagine in your mind a seesaw with one side labeled "guilt" and the other "blame." The only way to keep the seesaw in balance is to make sure you have enough "blame" to balance your "guilt." The more guilt you feel for your own mistakes, the more blame you must pile on to remain in emotional equilibrium. But what happens if you suddenly get rid of the blame toward others (through forgiveness) without also removing your guilt? You will emotionally "crash."
I often play with my daughters on the seesaw at our neighborhood playground, but I've never heard one of them say while suspended in the air, "Dad, get off so I can feel the pain of a sudden fall." Most people I deal with have that same sense of self-preservation. They don't want to grant forgiveness and be left holding the bag of personal guilt. Instead, their own guilt for personal failures in their relationships will prohibit them from forgiving others. If they do choose to forgive, they will attach their blame to someone else.
That's why we will devote the last section of this book to discussing the how-tos of forgiveness how to receive it and how to grant it to others. We'll even talk about the issue of forgiving God. Does God play any role in the hurts that we have experienced? Shouldn't He be willing to accept some of the blame for our pain? I'm convinced that one reason we're hesitant to forgive people is that it is much easier (and safer) to blame others for our problems than to blame the most logical "Culprit." And yet at some point we must confront the question, "Why did God allow this hurt in my life?" In the final chapter we'll address this issue as we examine the most necessary ingredient in the whole process of forgiveness: faith.
Letting Go of the Hurt
I'm fairly confident that the reason you went to the time and expense to pick up this book is that somewhere in your past there was a tremendous hurt with which you are still struggling. That hurt might be
an unwanted divorce termination from your job a betrayed friendship sexual abuse you experienced as a child a slanderous rumor that has robbed you of your reputation
My prayer is that you'll find in the following pages both the encouragement
and the practical instruction you need to let go of that hurt not
in order to fulfill some moralistic requirement, but so that you
might experience that soul-quenching relief that comes with forgiveness.
Lewis Smedes said it best when he observed, "The first and often
the only person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the
forgiveness.... When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and
then discover that the prisoner we set free was us."