Forgiveness: Do I Have a Choice?

I’ve been enjoying a new song playing on the radio by Matthew West titled “Forgiveness.”  As usual, West delivers thoughtful and challenging lyrics in his music and this song doesn’t disappoint.  Upon hearing the song, I thought back to a book I read a few years ago by James MacDonald that included a chapter on the importance of giving forgiveness for our well-being.  The points I make below are from his book 10 Choices.

I’m sure you are like me and you have some very painful experiences in life.  I have found that most people think since I am a pastor that I grew up in a blissful home that was void of pain or troubles.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Like me, you have people past and/or present that have hurt you deeply.  We all struggle with the issue of giving forgiveness to these people, whether they ask for it or not, and moving on with life.

Most of us have what is fondly referred to as “the junk drawer” at home.  This is usually a drawer in the kitchen that serves as a catch-all.  And if the junk drawer at your house is like the one at mine, about twice a year you have to clean it out because it will no longer open or shut.  It’s capacity is limited.  Think of the junk drawer as an illustration of what we do with pain in our life.  MacDonald notes that over the years, negative stuff in life can start to pile up.  Life moves so fast that you start putting hurts, conflicts, and pain into a “drawer” if you will.  Before too long that drawer fills up and you can’t shut it anymore.  But at some point in time, as the pages of the calendar turn, you eventually run out of room in life to stash all of the unresolved conflict, all of the hurtful things people have said and done to you, and the inevitable pain that just life can bring.  It’s about capacity.  You can’t move away from it, because you carry it around with you wherever you go.  We call it “baggage” today.

There are probably more of us today than we realize who are at a breaking point in terms of capacity and pain.  You feel like you can’t take it anymore.  You have to do something with the junk, but you don’t know where to put it.  You have a sinking feeling that you’ll be stuck with the baggage for the rest of your life.

So what do we do?  The good news about the accumulated hurt and pain of life is that God gives us a way to get rid of it.  Each of us can clean out the drawer and we do so through forgiveness.  The older you get, the more you realize you have to become good at forgiveness because you just don’t have the capacity to carry the load.  We have to deal with the wounds and the weights gathered through life.

Jesus told a story in Matt. 18:23-35 of how important it is for us to forgive others.  In summary, a servant was forgiven an incalculable debt by a king.  That servant then went and found a fellow servant who owed him a comparatively tiny sum.  Yet, instead of forgiving the fellow servant as the king had forgiven him, he threw the man into prison until he repaid him the full amount.  As can be imagined, the king was very upset.  In this story we see two major points.  One, followers of Christ have received the amazing gift of God’s forgiveness.  Two, as followers of Christ, we are to extend our forgiveness to others.  These are core truths in rightly walking with God and cleaning out the junk drawer.

Forgiveness Releases an Obligation

What an amazing gift is God’s forgiveness of our sins!  Christ did for us at the cross what we could not do for ourselves- pay the penalty of our sin.  Further, God’s forgiveness enables and empowers us to extend our forgiveness to others.

The word “forgiveness” in the New Testament was used to describe the release of an obligation or debt.  Think about how that applies to our lives.  When someone hurts you, they create an obligation because they have taken something of yours.  Someone took your money, or your lawnmower, or your promotion at work.  Even if you get it back, there is still the emotional baggage to deal with.  You have the choice to forgive.  You can look at someone past/present and say, “That’s the person that took my___________.”  Or you can choose to realize that you have been forgiven a much larger obligation and forgive that person.  In forgiveness, you release the obligation and when you do so you have taken something out of the drawer and removed it.

Granted, this isn’t easy to do.  If the obligation is something material you can many times get past that pretty quick.  It gets harder when you have to forgive intangible hurts: someone took away your healthy childhood, someone took away your dream of a happy marriage, your dignity, your trust, your safety, or your purity.  When something is intangible, it is often deeper and more complex.  What has been taken cannot be returned.  The offense feels deeper.  So what do you do?  I wouldn’t dare minimize your pain.  I understand it is huge just to even consider forgiveness.  But the bottom line is: what choice do you have?  Your capacity is full.  You cannot carry the weight anymore.  It eats on you like a cancer.  As Matthew West’s song says, “Forgiveness can set a prisoner free…the prisoner that it really frees is you.”  Your only choice is to forgive.

Forgiveness Must Overcome Obstacles

There are some reasons we don’t forgive:

The offense is so great, God doesn’t expect me to forgive.  The problem is that this doesn’t jive with what Scripture teaches.  If I am truly forgiven by Christ, I will find it in my heart to forgive others.  Besides, if you hold on to unforgiveness it turns to bitterness and the drawer remains full.  God doesn’t want you to live like that.  I have found that the bigger the hurt, the more I have to get rid of it.  We somehow have this erroneous thought that the pain will get smaller if I refuse to forgive.  The truth is that the pain just gets bigger.  I have to learn to trust God to enable me to forgive even the biggest offenses.  I have to trust in his ability to forgive, not my own.  It’s like the story of a boy who went to the store with his mother.  The shop owner handed him a large jar of suckers and invited him to help himself to a handful.  Uncharacteristically, the boy held back.  So the shop owner pulled out a handful for him.  When outside, the boy’s mother asked why he had suddenly been so shy and wouldn’t take a handful of suckers when offered.  The boy replied, “Because his hand is much bigger than mine!”  When it comes to forgiveness, God’s power and capacity is greater than yours.

I’ll forgive when they say they are sorry.  The person that hurt you is probably off doing the same thing they did to you to somebody else and you and your pain haven’t even crossed their mind.  Don’t think that if you hold to unforgiveness the other person will see your pain and resentment, feel bad, and then apologize. You have to move on and empty the drawer.

I can’t forgive if I can’t forget.  Actually that is backward. You can’t forget unless you forgive.  God can empty a drawer; heal a scar and pain like no one else.  He can completely change your perspective on whatever issue it is.  You say that if you forgive and forget the person will just hurt me again.  Forgiving and forgetting doesn’t mean you put yourself in the position to be hurt again.  If your husband abuses you, you can forgive him by releasing that obligation he owes to you.  But God has no expectation that you stay in an abusive relationship.  Remember that when you forgive someone that doesn’t make them right; it makes you free and empties the drawer.

Forgiveness Produces the Best Outcomes

Think about what unforgiveness destroys.  Look again at the story Jesus told.

Unforgiveness destroys relationships.  After the one servant got through choking the other, do you think they were fishing buddies?  The relationship is over.

Unforgiveness destroys reputations.  Notice how in the story the other co-workers are so appalled at the actions of the servant who had been forgiven so much that they go to the king and turn him in.  The forgiven servant lost all credibility and integrity with those around him.

Unforgiveness destroys end results.  When the forgiven servant is recalled to the king, the outcome is different.  This time the king sends him to prison.  The unforgiveness he exhibited to others is now what is being exhibited to him. Unforgiveness leaves you with little more than a thirst for revenge that ends in the outcome pain and misery.

Forgiveness isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.  But since we have been forgiven such a huge debt by Jesus we must trust Him to enable us to forgive others.  If we fail to forgive, our capacity gets full.  Who in your life do you need to forgive?  What obligation do you need to release?  Empty the drawer- you really have no other choice.

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2 Responses to “Forgiveness: Do I Have a Choice?”

  1. First, I’d just like to say that I am pleased to see that you follow James MacDonald. I have been listening to him for the past three years I think now and I was tickled to see that you listen to him as well. I am excited about his upcoming city tour to our city and can’t wait to go. I remember his sermon on forgiveness and one of the things he said that helped me was that if you are able to ‘let it go’ where you don’t bring the transgression to mind, if it is forgotten and no mention is made, then you have progressed. I think what i need is a definition of forgiveness. You see, I lost my sister in the OKC bombing. I lost my other sister two years after the bombing to cancer and I believe her cancer was made worse by the dust and soot and debris that was in the downtown area that day and she was there. She worked for the IRS. I also lost my brother, two months after my second sister died of cancer. He died in a car accident on I-40 where he was traveling toward the FAA center because he couldn’t face his job in the downtown area because he too, worked down there that day. He worked for GSA and had access to all the buildings. He ran all through the aftermath looking for my sister that day. Everytime he found a body, he also found a friend. He was very popular. The suffering he encountered was too much to overcome so he asked to be transfered to FAA so that he didn’t have to go downtown anymore. I am telling all of this to say that I know McVeigh chose William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” as his final statement. There was no remorse from him and I’m ok with that. My thoughts are that I feel that if I say I forgive him, it is the same as saying I approve that he took the lives of my loved ones. I don’t harbor any ill feelings from it and I think in part that is true because he has been executed. I am not glad he has been executed. I’m not glad that he is dead. I am not disappointed either. I don’t feel that it eats away at me or that I am keeping too much junk in my drawer from his actions. I am at peace. I have had trusted Christian friends tell me that I have not forgiven and I don’t really understand why. Am I only forgiving if I can voice it? I don’t feel convicted by the Holy Spirit about it either. I have spent a lot of time praying over it and thinking it over. I don’t want to displease the Lord in any way, and so that worry is the only thing that makes me uncomfortable about it.
    Matthew 6:14 ESV
    For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you

  2. I have heard this as my read it to me on the way to pick up her son on Saturday. I read it for myself today. I am like Wanda, I feel like that forgiving a certain person for what they did to me is to say it’s ok what they did. I am having a hard time getting past that point right now. I have been listnenting to Matthew West’s song as well. I bought it today on Amazon so I could listen on my phone. It is a powerful song, especially the part about the ‘person that it (forgiveness)sets free is you’ (me in this case). This has always been a struggle for me, because I don’t want the people who have wronged me to think that I think it’s ok what they did. I am in prayer daily right now asking God to help me with this. Thank you for the encouraging words here.