“Forgive God? Are you crazy?” I asked my friend Mike. “He’s God. Why do I have to forgive him?”

Mike sat quietly on the couch with his hands around his mug of steaming coffee. He nodded quietly.

I paused for a moment—for what seemed like an eternity.

“I…” I started to choke back tears. My adam’s apple felt like a lead weight in my throat. “I, uh…”

I swallowed the lead weight.

“God,” my tongue moved involuntarily to the inside of my cheek as if to brace myself, “God, I forgive you.”

Forgiveness is a strange thing. In our modern, casual culture, we don’t hear a lot about it.

We may say “sorry,” to which the response is an obligatory (and largely unfelt) “It’s fine.” But most days, we simply brush aside offenses.

And while the old adage goes “forgive and forget,” our modern form of ‘reconciliation’ could best be summarized as “forget to forgive.” That is to say, we believe that ‘forgetting’ is forgiving. We simply try to forget the offense (whether ours or someone else’s).

But ‘forgetfulness’ is about as far away from forgiveness as Crazy Rich Asians was from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. (One of those was actually a good movie and if you think it was Crazy Rich Asians, I forgive you.)

The problem of ‘forgetfulness’

‘Forgetfulness’ doesn’t actually work. Here’s why.

Say you’ve been wounded, with shrapnel still in your body. Sure, you can leave it in and still manage. You’ll likely need to avoid certain activities to mitigate pain or discomfort, but your body will build scar tissue around it to protect you from further injury. Over time, you may even develop a numbness in that area. But one day, an unexpected bump, twist, or nudge will force the shrapnel through your scar tissue, tearing open the wound.

Forgetting the shrapnel is there doesn’t make it go away.

Similarly, we may be ‘fine’ with our emotional wound, avoiding areas that bring back that same pain, or perhaps even building up numbness in that area. But one day, you may be minding your own business when, at a word, an entire ocean of repressed emotion will come crashing down, and you’ll realize the pain was never gone. It was just postponed.

‘Forgetfulness’ says, “It’s okay. It’s no big deal. I’ll be fine.”

Forgiveness, by contrast, says, “It’s not okay. It is a big deal. I’m not fine.”

Forgiveness is surgery—the careful analysis of the damage and the recognition that something must be done about it.

And while that may sound simple, it is far from easy.

The challenge of forgiveness

Many times it’s almost like we want to hold onto what happened to us, perhaps as a point of pride: “Look at what I’ve had to endure.” Or “See what I’ve been through!” Sometimes we hold onto it because it makes us feel better than the person who wronged us. Sometimes we hold onto it because what happened to us is overwhelming or shameful and we simply don’t know how to deal with it. Or sometimes we hold onto it because we don’t know how to forgive ourselves for letting it happen to us, or for being at fault.

I recently apologized to some very dear friends of mine for something I’d done that I felt had hurt them. Then, a few days later, I apologized again. And again a few days after that. Finally, after a group prayer in which I asked for their forgiveness again, one of them turned to me and sweetly said, “Jean-Marc, you have to let this go. It’s done. We don’t even think about it.”

Sometimes the person getting in the way of your own forgiveness is you.

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 8:1

According to Etymonline.com, ‘forgive’ comes from the old English ‘forgiefan,’ which is actually two words: “for-, here probably ‘completely,’ + giefan ‘to give’ (from PIE root *ghabh- ‘to give or receive’).”

It’s remarkable that ‘forgive’ actually means ‘to completely give’ and ‘to completely receive’ at the same time.

Because only by completely letting go of something can we completely receive something new.

But what are we supposed to let go? And what will we gain when we do let go?

Letting go and receiving

You may need to let go of someone else’s offense against you in order to see who they really are—a flawed person in need of as much love as you.

You may need to let go of your own guilt in order to see who you really are—a person loved by Christ and forgiven unconditionally.

You may even need to let go of your version of God (the one you’re mad at) in order to see who He really is.

When we’re wounded, we have a tendency to focus almost exclusively on the offense. We often lose sight of who the person truly is, instead choosing our narrow painful experience with that person as a straw man. And sometimes, we even misunderstand who wronged us, assigning blame to the wrong person and denying ourselves a deep relationship with that person because of what we think they’ve done.

Forgiveness, then, is actually humility. It is a recognition that, despite being wronged, your perspective is still limited. Forgiveness is letting go of your version of someone and exchanging the hurt, pain, and anger for a different perspective marked by love and reconciliation.

“Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.” – Proverbs 17:9

But forgiveness doesn’t always mean that everything will go back to the way it was before an incident. In some cases, you shouldn’t forget what happened and the healthy response to an offense might be space. But the motivation for remembering and for the space will not be animus or bitterness; it will be peace and wisdom.

In addition, forgiving doesn’t necessarily require you to tell the person they are forgiven. It is primarily an act of your heart. And it isn’t a one-time decision, though it does start that way. Often times, it involves multiple decisions to forgive, as new memories about the incident surface, you may have to decide to forgive again and again.

The freedom of forgiveness

To be forgiven is possibly the most beautiful, most euphoric gift in all of human experience.

And to forgive is a powerfully healing, cathartic act.

But it’s ultimately up to each person to decide whether they’d like to live in the freedom of forgiveness, or the subtle bondage of ‘forgetfulness.’

This may sound silly, but I can’t express how freeing it was that day to let go of the hurt and anger I’d carried towards God. And I genuinely believe the act of laying down my punching-bag version of God—the one I’d rant and rail at, on which I’d bitterly heap blame for every evil in the cosmos—allowed me to approach God without baggage and with an open, curious, tender heart.

But hey, if you’re looking for a more secular reason to forgive, look no further than Oscar Wilde’s infamous quote: “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

So annoy your friends, family—hell, annoy God. Show Him who the bigger man really is and forgive Him.

Credit: Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash