In last week's post, I spoke about bitterness/anger of the heart and the damage it can do. I wrote “the most self-destructive thing you’ll ever do in life is to hold on bitterness. That is the quickest way to ensure that you live miserably and lonely for the rest of your life.”
So what’s the cure for bitterness? How do we get rid of it?
There’s only one way. You can try to ignore it (won’t work) or pretend it isn’t there (definitely won’t work) or convince yourself that you’re past it (YEAH RIGHT!). Our goal shouldn’t be to “get past” the bitterness, but rather to treat the bitterness and to heal it.
How? There’s only one way…FORGIVENESS!
“Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)
Last week, I addressed the question of “what is forgiveness?” Today, I’d like to address the second question that naturally arises when the topic of forgiveness is mentioned... HOW DO I FORGIVE?
We know we SHOULD forgive and that we NEED TO forgive, but we don’t know HOW to forgive.
Below are four steps adapted from Andy Stanley’s ENEMIES OF THE HEART: Breaking Free from the Four Emotions That Control You - a book I highly recommend for anyone who wants to go deeper into this topic.
STEP ONE: IDENTIFY WHO YOU’RE ANGRY WITH
Make a list. Write it down. Write the names of anyone who has hurt you or betrayed you or disappointed you… anyone who has left you feeling angry or bitter or resentful in any way.
A parent, a teacher, a sibling, a priest/pastor, a neighbor, an ex-wife/ex-husband, a boss… The further back you can dig, the better. Who is it that you feel “owes you” in some way or another?
“Wait a minute Fr. Anthony…this doesn’t make sense. Aren’t I trying to GET PAST my hurts? This will only bring them back to the surface and cause the pain all over again, won’t it?”
Exactly my point. The reason you don’t want to think about them is because you never really forgave them. You never dealt with the anger properly. You just stuffed it down and tried to “forgive & forget” or just pretend that you’re fine.
But you’re not fine. We treat a disease by confronting it, not by pretending it isn’t there.
STEP TWO: DETERMINE WHAT THEY OWE YOU
General forgiveness cannot heal specific hurts. A vague “I forgive that person who hurt me” doesn’t work.
How did they hurt me? What did they take from me? What do they “owe me”? I need to determine why I’m angry. In the parable of Matthew 18:23-35, the king didn’t forgive the debt of the servant in general; he forgave a specific debt (10,000 talents). We need to do the same.
Without knowing the exact amount owed, you may go through the motions of forgiveness, but you won’t find the specific healing/freedom that you need.
STEP THREE: CANCEL THE DEBT
This is the simplest/hardest of all the steps.
It’s simplest because it requires very little outside effort – all you need to do is say “I forgive them.” Or even better is to say it to God in prayer “Father, I forgive them and I ask you to forgive them as well.” Simple, right?
But you and I both know that this might be the hardest step of all. It isn’t easy to let go of the anger/pain/hurt.
But here’s the good news – you don’t need to let go of your pain. You don’t need to let go of the hurt. In fact, I don’t even believe it’s possible for you to let go of it. Someone who has been hurt badly (insert your greatest pain here) can’t simply forget it or let go of it. Asking you to forget your hurt is like asking you to forget your tiredness when you’ve been up all night. Sounds nice, but not really possible.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting go of the hurt; forgiveness means cancelling the debt. So you don’t have to hide your pain or pretend that the hurt is all gone; no way! But what you need to say is this:
a) "I acknowledge that _____ hurt me” (step 1)
b) “This is what I now feel _____ owes me because of that” (step 2)
c) “I am choosing to cancel the debt. ______ no longer owes me anything.” (step 3)
If you can do that, then you’re just one step away from finding long term freedom from your anger and bitterness…
STEP FOUR: DISMISS THE CASE
Forgiving your offender today doesn’t mean that you won’t remember the hurt tomorrow. In fact, once you do forgive the debt, I believe you should EXPECT the feelings and memories to come back. Going through this process will bring back the flood of emotions that led you to being so angry in the first place.
But when that happens, that is when you must choose to DISMISS THE CASE.
Once a case has been brought into court and decided upon, it can no longer be reopened. That’s it. We have a verdict. The debt has been forgiven. Case closed. Don’t come back again. That’s what we need to be saying to our emotions when they swell up and threaten to overwhelm us.
“The case has been tried already; it can no longer be reopened. We have a verdict. The debt has been forgiven. Case closed. Don’t come back again.”
(fyi, this is why I strongly encourage you to go through this exercise on paper, not just in your mind – so that you have a document to refer back to)
Your offender may have hurt you and caused you significant pain in life; but you are the only one who controls what happens next.
Will you allow them to continue to hurt you day in and day out by holding on to your anger? Or will you allow yourself to be healed and live freely?
The choice is yours.