Forgiving someone that you don’t maintain a relationship with is very different than forgiving someone that you do. In my experience, forgiving someone that I am unlikely to see again, such as my offender, is a momentous one-time prayer where I release that person to God and then, if needed, add continual prayers choosing to forgive as new thoughts and memories come to mind. The follow-up prayers are easier because I’ve already chosen to forgive that person.
As I am forgiving other non-offenders, but influencers, that continue to be part of my life, well, that’s an all-around bigger challenge. The forgiveness can still be instantaneous or a continual journey, but the process involves looking to the past, the present and the future. My thoughts, behaviors and habits have to be transformed by God in order to experience full freedom from the bondage of unforgiveness. I can only control my end of the relationship, so part of God’s healing is giving me a vision for the path forward with these individuals, the reliance on Him to be changed and the self-control to practice new habits. For one relationship in particular, I have written out an action plan to remind myself, to pray about and to go back to so that I am equipped for interactions. The plan doesn’t trump the Spirit’s leading, but it helps me stay focused so that I don’t slip back into old patterns or allow the old tapes to play in my head.
God gave me the vision for the path forward after some very difficult wrestling with Him. I was willing to forgive and welcome a “POOF – all is well” resolution, but I didn’t want to put effort into this relationship. I remember thinking that if it weren’t for knowing my God more intimately, then I might walk away from this challenge. I couldn’t though, because how I treated this person – not just in my actions, but in my heart – stood in the way of me growing closer to Him. It didn’t seem fair. Why did I have to do all the work? It took a while of me battling in the trenches with God before I found peace. Honestly, it took me looking again at my own brokenness and remembering what Jesus has done for me. God is calling me not only to forgive, but to also actively love others in their brokenness. This has been the hardest part of the whole healing journey.
Though I didn’t know it’s technical name at the time, preparing the action plan involved evaluating which elements of emotional attunement needed to improve and how I can work toward that. How can I clearly see this person through God’s eyes? How can I let them know that I am tuning in and deeply listening to them because I truly want to understand them? How can I better empathize and identify with them so that I can genuinely respond to their emotions? How can I communicate that their presence brings joy rather than duty and annoyance? For now, I am choosing to focus on a couple of these areas that I feel will be the least threatening to them and I can do with sincerity.
My action plan lists things for me to do irrespective of how they respond. It does not create any expectations on them or about what our relationship may look like in the future. I am standing secure on the foundation of the character that He desires to grow in me. Even as I write this, I am in the process. I am by no means finished or have obtained full understanding, but I can count on God to finish this good work in me. He has led me to desire to forgive, to be changed, and to be set free. I am resting in His provision of new thoughts, behaviors and habits for me. I am confident that He will fill my memory banks with new memories, even if I am the only one doing anything differently, and my character will be transformed to more closely resemble His. Here’s what I have learned about forgiving those you are in relationship with so far.
NOTE: I am sharing my experience with someone who is not my offender. They are neither a physical harm to me, nor emotionally toxic. There are very real instances where some or all of the aspects of the approach that I describe below are not healthy, safe or part of God’s leading for someone else’s journey.
I have to put on a new skin. Just as old wineskins are rigid and unable to handle the expansion of new wine fermenting, I need a new skin that is moldable and has the capacity to accept the new truths that God is revealing to me. I will become stressed if I try to reconcile new ideas in my old mind-set or expect new results from old behaviors. I must put on my new self, as instructed in Colossians 3:5-10:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
I am being “made new in the attitude of (my) mind.” (Ephesians 4:22-24) When I am thinking something derogatory about this person, when I am anticipating their disappointing me or when I am recalling how they hurt me, I stop. STOP! I ask God to uproot that thought and pray for them to be blessed. It hurts. It’s smothering my self-centeredness and self-righteousness. It’s painful, but I think Jesus showed us that offering forgiveness involves suffering. Every sting that I experience when I take my thoughts captive is worthwhile because I am choosing to walk on God’s path to freedom.
I have to choose to stop punishing and holding a grudge. God is the only one who has any right to hold anything against anyone. That’s hard to swallow, right? I can no longer react as someone wounded by them. My focus needs to be on my part of the relationship. How can I be Christ to them? (Assuming I can extend sincere love and acceptance to them in a healthy way.) I need to stop trying to let them know they have done wrong, whether through intentional or subconscious actions, and instead allow God to change them (or not) as He sees fit. I can also pray for them to believe that Jesus can change them as they likely see at least part of their own brokenness. Leviticus 19:18 says “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
I need to put them on the same level as everyone else. Everyone is God’s child, uniquely created in His image and worthy of love, compassion and encouragement. I can choose to treat everyone who enters my home as a valued and welcome guest. Hugs, smiles and sincere greetings will not be held back.
I need to get to know them. I need to get to know them all over again so that I have a true understanding of who they are versus my tainted view. Getting to know them will help me know where they are. Then I can connect with them in meaningful ways on their terms, and graciously pour God’s love and compassion into whatever healthy relationship they offer. It is ok for it to be one sided. Jesus did everything to pave the way for me to have a relationship with Him.
I should seek to actively love and bless them. At first, it feels like a sacrifice. I think it will get easier with practice. I desire to become a safe place of acceptance, focusing on positives and building them up until (if ever) we have grown to have a relationship where I can speak truth. Romans 12:17 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” The passage goes on to instruct me that if my enemy is hungry, to feed him, and if he is thirsty, to give him a drink. Yes, Lord, I will.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t turned into Pollyanna here. These are hard truths to internalize. This doesn’t mean that those I have forgiven don’t have to earn my trust again. It doesn’t mean they are my new best friends. Notice how all the statements above start with “I”? I am being changed and called to grow. I am acting out of the healing of my heart. It is only through God’s work in me, giving me new understanding and new capacity, that I am open to His Spirit equipping and guiding me to do these things. Every healing journey is unique. In my journey, God is calling me to be like Christ to people who have hurt me because they are broken and in pain themselves. They need to know healing and wholeness is available to them too. Even if those direct words never leave my mouth, my actions can help point them to God.
In my own (limited so far) experience, when I have stepped out in obedience, God has been faithful to give me capacity to react in love, to reduce the number of negative thoughts, to break habits, and to even see myself in them. So far, I have heard a new enthusiasm in the voice of one that I have forgiven. Even if their actions toward me never change, I can choose to follow God’s leading in how to respond in that challenging relationship. Perhaps it will lead to a renewed relationship later. Regardless, I know it is leading to my complete freedom and a deeper fellowship with God.
I’m not done. My Father will finish the good work He has started in me.