A couple of years ago, I shared a story of betrayal. I ended the article with a faint desire to forgive. But wanting to forgive doesn’t doesn’t supernaturally bestow it any more than wanting a beach vacation magically teleports us to Tahiti. It’s a start, an important start, but only a start.
Every desire to forgive is undermined by memories, recollections of the betrayal that relentlessly resurface with stunning clarity. With the vividness of slow-motion video, I recall a half-erased whiteboard, the buzz of a fly, and the shadows on the wall. A friend of mine remembers the jingle of an ice-cream truck and the smell of lilacs through the screen porch.
We want to forgive, but images flood our mind, and something in our soul recoils. We try to forgive and forget, but those memories scratch their way out of the holes we buried them in.
We want justice; somehow, in some form or fashion, we want payment. Like David, our heart cries, “Let death take them by surprise; let them go down to hell while still living” (Ps. 55:15).
Or as Freud said, “One must forgive one’s enemies: but preferably after they’ve been hanged.”
It twists our soul
Last week, I heard a podcaster interview a therapist. The therapist claimed that “un-forgiveness is a major contributor to heart disease,” and that “bitterness can kill us.” Unless forgiven, the evil inflicted on the outside begins to poison us on the inside.
On hearing the consequences of non-forgiveness, the podcaster responded, “I don’t want a stroke, so I’d better start forgiving. I’ll just let it go.”
But it’s not so simple. No magic wand will wave away the stain. To claim, “I’ll just let it go,” is like getting over stage-fright by saying, “I’ll stop being self-conscious.” It makes matters worse.
And it completely misunderstands forgiveness. Because someone DOES have to pay.
When we’ve been deeply wronged—not just an accidental slipup but a treacherous betrayal—we know there is a debt, a deep-seated sense of injustice. We can’t shrug it off, we can’t simply dismiss those memories in a momentary fancy of forgiveness.
When we remember the injury, we must choose between two paths. We can make the perpetrator pay (by finding little ways to make them suffer, poking pins in their memory, disparaging them to our friends, or snubbing them in our heart) … or we can forgive.
If we make the perpetrator pay, evil wins. The road to hell is not paved with good intentions, and not even with our betrayal of others. The road to hell is paved with our non-forgiveness.
So what does it mean to forgive?
Everyone thinks forgiving is a wonderful idea. Until they have something real to forgive. Because forgiveness means suffering. If we don’t make the offender pay (and somebody has to pay), it means we pay. Real forgiveness means we pay our betrayer’s debt.
It’s normal life. If I borrow your car and wreck it, then either I cough up cash for the repair or you pay for the repairs. The damage doesn’t disappear magically. Somebody pays. Or else you drive a wrecked car, which is just another form of you suffering for my mistake.
How do we pay? When we’re tempted to contemplate their cruelty, we stop (it costs us not to punish them in our thoughts). And when we have a chance to tell others of their betrayal, we shut up (we suffer while they enjoy a good reputation).
We also pray for their welfare, not punishment.
Of all Christian disciplines, this is the hardest. We first suffer the horrible wrong done to us, and then we pay their punishment for doing it. It’s double baked death. Compared to forgiveness, chastity, charity, and contentment seem like sipping lemonade on a summer’s evening.
Forgiveness also brings us closest to Christ. It is suffering, thorns, and nails. Because forgiveness means the evil done to us has been executed. As it was on the cross.
Because he paid when we betray him, as we do most every day.