Jesus told his disciples that they ought to love their enemies, do good to those who hated them, bless those who cursed them and pray for those who mistreated them (Luke 6:27–28). St. Paul echoed that command in his admonition to the church in Rome to bless those who persecuted them; bless and do not curse (Romans 12:14). While I know those words to be wise, true and healing, why is it that my wounded heart would far more happily echo the longing of the Psalmist (58:8) that my enemies should vanish “like a slug melting away as it moves along?”
“Why is forgiveness so hard?” the man asked. “I know I need to forgive if I am to have any peace in my life. I know that as long as I harbor all this bitterness and resentment, it is my soul that is left all twisted, aching and poisoned. Why can’t I just make a once-for-all decision to forgive and have the pain go away? I try to forgive, and some days can actually feel as if I had. Then the next day comes and some trigger will bring all the hurt and anger back like a tidal wave. Why is it so bloody hard to forgive and forget?”
I expect any of us that have gone through hurtful experiences in which friendships have been shattered or relationships deeply strained understand all too well the difficulty of forgiveness. If we have suffered any degree of rejection or betrayal, of abuse or cruelty, especially from people whom we considered loved ones or friends, we know that the wounds pierce to the deepest part of our being. Just as a physical knife wound, for instance, might require extensive surgery, so too harsh emotional attacks may require deep spiritual surgery by the Lord in repairing our ability to trust, restoring our courage to love and renewing our capacity for compassion. As a physical wound often requires a long slow time of recovery, our souls need time to heal, regain resiliency, hope and laughter.
Forgiveness is critical if we are to be emotionally and spiritually well, but as with a physical wound, we can cause far more damage by trying to minimize or ignore the extent of our injury or rush our recovery. One wise writer suggested that forgiveness takes as long as forgiveness takes, and everyone’s journey of forgiveness is unique. Like the old saying about eating an elephant, one bite at a time, forgiveness is a journey taken one step at a time, in which, bit by bit, we carry handful, armful and heart-full loads of pain, anger and resentment to the Lord, lamenting what happened and seeking grace to forgive like we have been forgiven. Forgiveness must certainly be a determined work inasmuch as we will either be stoking the fire of our rage or feeding the flame of our compassion. One fire will consume and destroy us, and end up wounding others around us; the other will prove to the source of solace, warmth and mercy and will bring blessing to those around us.
Perhaps forgiveness is so difficult because ultimately it is the process of letting the Holy Spirit chisel away our brittle hardness and mold us more into the likeness of Christ whose last best words were of forgiveness and pardon. As with any meaningful character-building work, the prayerful struggle to become forgiving is the process of letting God past all our hurt-formed walls to the place where we dare allow him to change our hearts. And it is the process of letting go of our jealously guarded anger and pain and letting God grace us with his power and peace, by which we come not simply to the place of yielding forgiveness, but meaning it. It is the slow work of letting God heal and change us that will transform us into people who no longer desire to curse, but truly long to bless. And in forgiving and blessing, find our peace.