This year I have been privileged to learn some really important life lessons, albeit the hard way. The biggest struggle of my heart this year has been to forgive. I had often imagined myself a forgiving person. However, I have come to realize that you cannot be forgiving if you have not been offended. You cannot claim to be peaceful if you haven’t been provoked. In a sense, my heart had not been given sufficient offence to practice forgiveness. As I have sat with God in my morning quiet times, I have realized the following barriers that made forgiving hard. I hope you will reflect on them if you are struggling.
Relating with God on a works-based approach
When believers make their salvation transactional, they become like pagans. The heart of the Gospel is that we relate with God intimately, like a father and child. Believers who relate with God on the basis of boss and servant will struggle to forgive. If we keep saying to God “I’ve done what You want; so give me what I want” it will translate in our relationships with fellow humans. Jesus invites us to friendship with Him (John 15:15). The elder brother in Luke 15 served his father and viewed him as a taskmaster. That is why he could not rejoice in the return of his younger brother. If you have this perspective of a God, you will look at all the good you have done in a relationship with a human and be extremely hurt when they did not honour their part of the deal. You expected a transaction for your goodness. So forgiveness becomes a struggle because you feel owed. If you cannot forgive someone because you feel owed by them, it may be possible that you also have this attitude towards God where you feel He owes you too.
The goodness that we receive from God flows into our human relationships. If you know God owes you nothing but still gives you everything you will have people owe you things but like God, you will give forgiveness without holding back. The Gospel message of forgiveness is what fuels our own capacity to forgive. If you understand that you have the love and attention of the King, you will stop keeping scores of your good deeds towards others, and you will forgive when the time comes. We remain unforgiving because we fail to grasp the gravity of God’s loving-kindness to us (Matthew 6:14-15). It is also important that you see that God isn’t a dictator who only asserts that He owes you nothing; you should also see Him as a good, good Father who gives you everything when you deserve nothing.
One key way to help overcome this view of God is to have a healthy spiritual diet of sermons. Over the years, gospel-centred sermons have been elemental in helping me detach from a works-based focus on God. Be on guard when the sermons you preach have you as the hero of the story. Sermons that take the glory off God and make it all about you, your season and how your enemies will see you prosper because it’s your time will excite you but leave you useless when life hits you. Sermons that preach from the text as if the whole Bible was about you will be tickling to your ears but toxic to your spirit. The carnal man wants to be tickled; he wants to hear that his glory and time is nigh. This spiritual diet will make you a narcissist. A narcissist cannot forgive. Because your spiritual diet is always telling them there is something powerful about you, you fix your eyes on your pain when hurt instead of fixing your eyes on your God- the real hero of the story. I have seen husbands and wives lay down their pride and forgive one another when they changed their spiritual diet.
Not apologising to fellow believers; always playing the victim
Christians often rant about how the church has hurt them. But they forget that they too have hurt the church. People who insist on how hurt they are but do not take stock of how they are equal sinners (if not worse) will always struggle with unforgiveness. If you have said things or have done things that have hurt fellow believers, you are as guilty as the rant you make about being hurt by the church. You have also hurt the church. That other believer, no matter how much you may not fancy them, is still a member of the Body of Christ. They are His bride. And if you hurt his bride or speak badly of his bride, you are also part of the group hurting the church.
Many believers rant how pastors have hurt them but they easily dismiss how they too hurt their pastors. But because you don’t take stock of your end of the bargain, you may easily imagine you are always the victim in the Body of Christ. And because you deem yourself in a special position in the Body, you easily feel better than others. And deeming oneself better than others is the very heart of pride. And pride can never apologise when it has caused harm. One practical way to thaw our deceived hurts is to apologise to fellow believers unequivocally when we hurt them. Admit that you can be the villain. We like to judge other people by their actions and judge ourselves by our motives. I believe Christ would want us to give the benefit of doubt about the motives of others and not give excuses to our own actions.
Making a big deal about your pain.
Many believers react to the pain they feel as it were something strange. Peter tells us not to be surprised by the fiery trials we face in this world (1 Peter 4:12). Yet many believers get surprised. The Bible says you shouldn’t be surprised! And the comfort by Apostle Peter is that many other believers are going through the same pain (1 Peter 4:12). I believe the reason we act very surprised is that our idols are often bruised. As Timothy Keller once put it, “Your feelings were not hurt. Your pride was hurt; your feelings are fine.” If we keep getting surprised at the pain we face, we need to start an idol-detection process.
God is full of mercy that He even loves us in our sorry state. Don’t make the mistake of point number 1 by retreating to a corner to fix yourself then present yourself before Him. That is still work-based. Run to Him as you are and ask Him to start loving you and leading you.
Not rejoicing in God’s will
The part of the Lord’s prayer that states “thy will be done” can act as a spiritual test for where we put our hope. Surrendering to God’s will joyfully reveals that we know Him and that we understand his fatherhood. It reveals that we trust his “no” to our prayers as much as the “yes” because we know His character. His will is that we pray for the good of our enemies and not curse them (Matthew 5:44). I have prayed the opposite when hurt. I have prayed “God smite them!” If you know God’s character you know his “no” to that kind of prayer is for your good. However, when we say, “I prayed for this and I didn’t get it, so what’s the use of following God”, we reveal that our lives are not centred around the Father but around our idols. If we get inconsolably deflated when we don’t get what we want in prayer, it often shows that we have treasured our request more than the God that grants it.
When you were not born-again, this was often a constant pattern in your life- because you often approached God only when in need. If you are born-again and suffering, this deflating pattern in your post-prayer life is often because your request is a competing idol- you believe at that moment in its capacity to give you life. In both cases, we want God for his stuff and not for His heart. God isn’t LORD in that second scenario; He has become your personal genie. So you complain that you’ve rubbed the lamp over and over and all you’ve got is dust. Is your prayer life centred around your relationship with the Father? Or is it centred around your must-have needs? It takes humility to admit that God’s perspective of some of the things you ask for is better than the perspective of your own “wisdom.” The Bible says no good thing does He withhold from those who walk blamelessly (Psalm 84:11). Firstly, you have to forgive in order to be blameless. Secondly, you have to understand that good means the matter is seen not in our myopic perspective but is His sovereign one. Finally, the fact that he does not withhold good means that all you do not receive in prayer must not be good for you at the moment. And what blessedness many have found in rejoicing in His will being done.