The Impossibility of Forgiveness
“I feel so betrayed and humiliated! I don’t know what to do, I can’t even stand to be in the same room with them anymore!”
As I recently listened to these words and the story behind them, I had no idea how to respond at first. But what I learned from walking with this person through a very difficult situation has completely changed how I approach life and relationships.
It is safe to say we have all felt utterly and completely betrayed by someone at some point in our lives; someone we thought was on our side who now disagrees; someone we trusted or respected who behaves badly; someone we thought had our back but used our trust against us.
You know the details of the situation that comes to mind, and you know the pain you felt and might still feel. But how did you respond? It is hard to know what action to take and what emotions to allow yourself to feel. The emotional pain activates the flight or fight response in the deepest part of your brain. A part of you wants to fight back as hard as you can, get vengeance, and hurt them the way they hurt you. Or maybe you want to run away and never look back; escape the situation, the relationship and everything it now represents.
What you are facing is one of the greatest and hardest choices we are called to make in this life: the choice to forgive.
Think about it. We only have the opportunity to forgive in a situation where we have been wronged. A truth comes to light, a lie is undone; the state of reality as you understood it turned out to be false. Things were not as they appeared, not as you believed them to be. Now you doubt everything the person says. Is any of it true? How could they have lied to your face like that without you ever suspecting? Can you ever trust them again? You are angry, embarrassed, disoriented. It is awful.
The strange thing is everything was fine until this moment. You laughed and talked and trusted the other person completely. You had no idea the extent to which the truth you believed was actually a lie. An elaborate deception with you in the middle of it.
What does being wrong feel like? Nothing. It feels just like being right. Your trust feels justified. The history you share real. Until it’s not. When the truth is revealed, you go through the painful process of realizing and working through all that being wrong (and being wronged) means.
Despite the hurt and crushing weight of knowing that nothing can ever be the same again, the only way forward is to forgive and respond with unconditional love. It is likely the last thing you will want to do.
How to Begin Forgiveness
The first thing you need to do is to reestablish your foundation. When you are confronted with the truth, with your new reality, it is easy to lose your perspective. All that you worked so hard to build is gone in an instant. The trust you had with that person is compromised, perhaps lost forever. The lies loom large and insurmountable. But as followers of Christ, we know that our security is not in any person or situation, but in God’s love, His promises, and His faithfulness towards us. No matter what the world throws at you, no matter how much another person hurts you, God must remain your foundation. Reestablish your perspective and keep your eyes on God’s truth.
Christ Forgave Us
We are loved unconditionally by a God we so often turn our back on. We have been forgiven everything! Christ sacrificed His perfect life for our miserable ones. Think of the lies you have told, the people you have hurt, and the mistakes you have made. None of us are blameless. We are all guilty and all afraid that if people knew who we really are inside, they would abandon us. If we were to be honest, we believe people only like us because they do not know the whole story. If our real selves were exposed and the truth about our lives told in full, surely those we call friends now would reject us. But God does know the whole story. He has seen it all, and still loves us; still forgives us. While we were God’s enemies actively opposing him, he willingly died to save us!
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Everything we see in the world around us tells us that love is conditional. But God modeled unconditional love in the person of Jesus. While he was on the cross, in the process of being slowly, tortuously, and painfully murdered, Jesus forgave all and extended a love we can not really understand.
As Christians, we are to be like Christ, which means following His example. We ought to forgive because he forgave. But that does not mean it is easy, how could we possibly find the motivation? Knowing what to do is not enough, it takes all our effort to even look at the person right now.
Love Creates Love
God extends an amazing love to undeserving and imperfect people, and that changes everything. The Bible shows us clearly that knowing what we are supposed to do, knowing the rules does not motivate people to live rightly. We see Israel fail repeatedly at this. Simply knowing the correct course of action does not give us the will to comply.
Jesus came, not to bring more rules, but to fulfill the Law perfectly. He condenses the human responsibility into the following:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
- Mark 12:30–31
Killing, adultery and theft are obviously not loving actions to take towards one’s neighbor. Nor is worshipping idols or blaspheming loving towards God. If we simply loved more it would naturally result in the right orientation towards God and others. Jesus cuts to the heart of the issue with these two commandments. Love is the motivation behind the Law, and loving makes keeping the law effortless and natural.
But how does God give us the power to love in selfless ways that feel utterly and absolutely impossible in the face of serious hurt and betrayal? He does it by loving us first. By sending His Son to die on our behalf, a selfless act of His unconditional love and forgiveness.
If we understand how much and how freely we have been loved by God, suddenly everything is different. How easy it should be to love back and love others when we are the recipients of so much? It would be like being in an ocean and being asked for saltwater, or having an infinite bank account and being asked for money. How could we not give it away? We should be overflowing with it. Drowning in it. Reveling in giving away this love that we have received so completely and undeservingly.
We have been forgiven everything. So what reason could we possibly have not to forgive others? To share the joy and relief we feel when remembering our own faults and how Christ wiped the slate clean. We have been given new life. Literally saved from death. Doesn’t it make you want to shout out loud and share it with anyone who will listen?
The joy of our salvation and the overflowing of God’s love in our lives is easy enough to embrace when things are going well. We can be gracious when others are gracious to us. But when we are faced with hurt and betrayal, it will not be our default response. We will retreat into our humanity, into feelings of bitterness, hate and revenge. We will think it impossible to forgive. And we will be right. We can do nothing, but for Christ.
Forgiveness means loving someone despite their faults. We can forgive, because Jesus forgave us first. We can love, because God loves us.
Forgiveness and Love Bring Restoration
God loving us first gives us the strength, the understanding, the motivation and the real experience of love that enables us to love others and love Him. Love produces love. Sure, the other person doesn’t deserve it, but neither did we. When we love and forgive them with this crazy, counter-cultural, supernatural, illogical, unjustified, unmerited love that we ourselves have experienced, we show Christ to them. It causes us to taste again of the goodness of God, as we are confronted and wrestle with the cost of forgiveness.
This is the same love that flowed from the Heavenly Father to us through Christ, and now flows through us to others. It is the same love and has the same effect of giving the motivation and capacity to love more, to not betray the love and grace extended to them. It brings a life giving joy to the recipient who thought all was lost with you, and finds that all is not lost. It is the first step to rebuilding on a stronger foundation.
The one who stands in need of forgiveness is vulnerable and exposed, and through forgiveness and love from the injured, the same wash of relief and peace that we feel with Christ should cover them. It has the same life giving, life changing, love inducing, transformative power to motivate and produce the same self-sacrificing love in them that they need. It will help break the cycle of whatever problem caused the need for forgiveness. You can not break the chains of bondage to sin with law, punishment and rejection, Jesus shows that they can only be broken through love and forgiveness.
I am going to stop here, only because I want you to really absorb this upside-down reality we are able to live in because of what Christ has done on our behalf. In the next post, I will share how forgiveness looks lived out, and some practical tips about how to safeguard our relationships from shattering when the truth is exposed in the next post, The Possibilities of Honesty.