Middle school was the hardest. An awkward three years of having only a small group of friends and often being teased or bullied by older students. I was a spindly-limbed introvert who just wanted to go unnoticed. Now in my 40s, I recall those days clearly—and yet I made my peace with those difficult times long ago. Let me explain how…
If there were a chart illustrating forgiveness, certainly the difficulty of the effort would soar in relation to how deeply the hurt scars one’s soul. That difficulty would be even greater if the person, group, or institution that damaged you did so knowingly. Clearly what I experienced is minor compared to the trials others have suffered. Nonetheless, pain is pain.
Before the act of forgiveness can begin, there is the inward struggle of addressing the topic. Because letting go of pain and forgiving the responsible party involves both examining the wound and summoning the desire to move past anguish. Beyond even that, there is the seductive tinge of self-righteousness that comes with carrying a grudge (You hurt me. You should beg for my grace.) Rather than forgiving those who unjustly convicted him as Jesus did just before he died on a cross, the injured party would rather cry out to God, ““Forgive them not, Father, for they knew what they did!"”
To live out our faith and confront our own suffering, we have to look in the mirror and ask hard questions…
Do we actually want to forgive? If not, why?
These questions form the root of the problem. As with all matters of the self, the ability to admit an issue comes first. Does a victim of bullying even want to forgive the bully? The injured party will likely feel this is unnecessary work since s/he isn’t at fault. Shouldn’t the bully apologize? The natural answer would be yes, but what if the apology never happens? The victim of the slight has his/her own decision to make. Even though time can heal a wound, the scar remains.
Maintaining a grudge requires a certain energy and a desire to indulge the pain. And the urge to engage in long-lasting self-pity may appear surprisingly attractive. That same self-pity can lock us into our current state, denying us the chance to grow spiritually and emotionally. Beyond that, bearing a grudge prevents us from experiencing greater strength and peace.
What does it say about us if we truly can move past this pain? And if we choose not to?
Forgiving does not mean forgetting. A trauma did occur, and that memory will not vanish. Yet we have control over our reaction to pain. Choosing to move past anguish draws upon a strength we often don’t know we have. In making that choice, we frequently surprise ourselves by developing a reservoir of resilience. When we forgive once, we’re more likely to summon the spiritual strength to forgive again.
What do we gain from forgiveness?
In a word, closure. Again, this does not mean erasing the memory. Rather, this is an opportunity to exercise one’s freedom and spiritual maturity and discover a lasting peace. Without releasing the pain, we can become its perpetual victim and rob ourselves of growth. Forgiveness also declares that the grace and mercy that Jesus showed on the cross is alive in us. An added benefit of forgiveness is gaining the ability to help others experience the same outcome.
What is God’s guidance?
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. [Romans 12:17-18]
Romans 12 reminds us that justice belongs to God. It is human nature to want some measure of revenge, yet ancient wisdom instructs us to seek a more divine response. In fact, verses 17-21 give a glimpse into God’s own heart.
Psalm 130:3 notes, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” It’s a hard, unflinching, and honest question—and it may be the true first step toward forgiveness. When we recognize our own fallibility and questionable motives, we take a meaningful step toward humility. With a heart that understands human failings, we can at least begin to realize why forgiveness is necessary in our lives.
What happens afterward?
Rather than a happy ending, perhaps the better term would be “peaceful resolution.” The next chapters of your life await, and each day will carry enough activity on its own. And there is a durable satisfaction to be embraced with the knowledge and assurance of captaining your life from this day forward. When you liberate yourself—with divine inspiration—your ability to live with grace and kindness only increase.
Brett McArdle works as the Content and Branding Manager for United Methodist Communications. He lives near Nashville with his wife and two children. He divides his spare time between creative writing, fitness and discussing the greatness of Alabama Crimson Tide football.