I recently took an incredible trip to the Appalachian Mountains. As I was listening to the wind in the leaves and the pine needles, I was in awe of this beautiful day on a winding mountain path. The view of the mountains was beyond stunning, bathed in brilliant sunlight with a dusting of snow. I wanted to soak up the beauty, store its lushness in a container and keep it deep in my hurting heart.
I had come to the mountains to enjoy and celebrate the majestic beauty in front of me and to experience the glory of God. But, the greater purpose was to bring healing to my shattered heart and to grieve an intimate relationship that had become a nightmare in my life recently.
I was living in a state of shock and post-trauma. I knew it as I had been down this path of devastation before. I was feeling like I had been hit by a wrecking ball by the one I thought loved me the most – the one who I had invested all of my time, trust, energy, finances, prayers and love into. I thought it was a fairy tale dream come true. How wrong I was. How vulnerable I was to an “unsafe person” as I was thrown under the bus to bleed.
I was to be at this healing center called “His High Places” for a week. I got there emotionally, physically and spiritually spent. As a trauma therapist and ministry leader, I had helped many wounded people restore their hearts to the Glory of God. I prayed, hoped and trusted that God would meet me at the depths of my torn heart as he did many other times before.
You see, God knew where to bring me. I was raised in the Rocky Mountains of Montana where my greatest healing and biggest faith decisions had always been on the mountain paths. As a little girl, I was always on my horse, Chico. I knew without a doubt that as it says in Psalm 46 that God is my refuge and strength, always ready to help in time of trouble. I knew that I had been in a storm, with chaos raging around me, but most important I knew that God was in the eye of the storm with me. I felt he was laminated to me, and He would bring me out of the storm. I may have been scared a little but not destroyed.
I felt like my heart, soul and body were a heavy backpack. I prayed that at the end of the week of my recent mountain stay I would have the courage to forgive the one who betrayed me and also forgive myself for not listening to the Spirit of God before I vulnerably walked into an unsafe relationship.
I can say from the depths of my heart God met me so deeply, profoundly, lovingly and graciously as I let go of the backpack and grabbed the hand and heart of my Savior. I wish I could take credit for the forgiveness path he brought me on, but I really can only say thank you to my Abba Father who He allowed me to cultivate forgiveness.
What is forgiveness?
R.T. Kendall says that “Total forgiveness is a choice. It is not a feeling, at least at first, but is rather an act of the will.”
Webster’s Dictionary defines forgiveness as the act of giving up “all claims to punish or to exact penalty for an offense.” When we decide to forgive, we let go of our desire to punish that person and turn him over to God. Many abuse victims want to hurt the person who harmed them, and that is understandable. But, forgiveness hurts the person who won’t let go much more than the perpetrator.
When I was struggling with forgiveness of my father and others who had abused me years ago, someone said to me, “hate hurts the hater more than the hated.” I meditated on that statement over and over. Slowly, as I began to read the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis, I began to let go of my hatred and forgive. As I let go, I felt a powerful release and incredible love for my abuser. My ulcers went away, and I felt totally free! Like Joseph I could declare, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20 NASB).
After releasing our shame and anger, we need to understand how to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us. We will also address how to forgive ourselves and accept God’s forgiveness.
For some of us, just hearing the word “forgiveness” makes us cry out, “Are you kidding? Do you know how bad my perpetrator hurt me?” When we evaluate the harm that has been done to us, of course we want justice! We want to get even. God understands all of this desire and promises to satisfy it. At this point we need to let go of the desire to take revenge and choose to let God be the one to pursue justice on our behalf. It says in Deuteronomy 10:18, “He administers justice for the fatherless” (ESV). This is great news to those of us who have been betrayed.
Myths about forgiveness
We may be reluctant to forgive. This reluctance may be because we have some misconceptions about what forgiveness truly is. The following is an adaptation of Dr. David Stoop’s misconceptions about forgiveness:
Myth #1 – Forgiveness condones the other person’s evil actions. We don’t have to say, “That’s okay, it really didn’t hurt that bad” or “It really wasn’t a big deal,” when we are screaming on the inside. I was screaming inside for years; the anger and bitterness began to affect my health and my relationship with others. I came to a point where I just had to let go and realize God’s hook was so much bigger than mine. In the Scriptures, Paul describes it as canceling a debt (Colossians 2:13-14). Sin is serious; it cost God a great deal. Forgiveness cancels the debt from the past; it doesn’t encourage the sinner to continue to repeat the sins.
Myth #2 – Forgiveness is the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is something I can do all by myself. Reconciliation is something both parties must do together. I can forgive someone on my own, without his permission, without his even knowing about it. However, I cannot be reconciled with someone until we take mutual action together. Ideally, we will achieve complete reconciliation, but that is not always possible. This is great news because if we depended on their actions of repentance, we would be bound by them.
Myth #3 – Forgiveness is a quick, easy process. To brush off the harm that has been done to us casually is not forgiveness; it is excusing the sin. Genuine forgiveness is much deeper and more powerful — it takes time. Please allow yourself time to work through the process and don’t rush it by the encouragement of well-meaning church people that tell you to “hurry up and forgive.” God’s word never gives anyone nice options about forgiving. Jesus clearly states in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Myth #4 – Forgiveness is impossible if we don’t completely “forgive and forget.” I have been told over and over that I need to “forgive and forget.” Actually, the opposite is true. To forgive is to remember. How can we forgive something we have forgotten about? Forgiveness begins as one decision, but often it may require a daily choice to live that forgiveness out. For instance, what happens when we burn our hand on a stove? We usually remember and choose not to place our hand on the stove again. It is a very good thing that we remember.
For that very reason God gave us Hebrews 12:14-5. “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (NASB).
It is from the heart that we see, hear and have a voice. As I drove out of the mountains at the end of the week, my soul was at rest and peace. I no longer carried the overweight backpack, but carried His joy, peace and love in my heart. I carried this for my Savior and also for those who had wounded me. My heart is beating with GOD!
“At the end of the day I desire to please God. Confidence toward the heart of God is ultimately what total forgiveness is all about.”
Julie Woodley, MA, is founder and director of Restoring the Heart Ministries as well as a Gateway Counseling Center Therapist. For information visit Rthm.CC or call 1-866-780-7846.