What’s the ultimate reason behind unforgiveness? Part 5 of “Forgive Intentional Sin—Don’t Just Manage Emotions.”
Forgiving without excusing is hard, so hard it sometimes seems unforgiveness won’t ever let go.
When I stopped excusing my mother’s actions as based on ignorance and inability to help herself, I had to learn something new: forgiving without excusing. I made good progress when I prayed in ways that bolstered faith in God’s promises and good care. The anger eased significantly. But it still sometimes flared unexpectedly.
Unforgiveness & a Cry for Help
Then one day it erupted in a way that scared me. I was driving my pale blue Toyota Corolla to work as the sun was just rising, when I spied a girl in a steel blue school uniform skipping gaily, two perfect dark braids bouncing on her carefully pressed short-sleeved shirt.
Her mother loves her, I thought. And then, I hate her!
In that moment I feared what I would become if I didn’t forgive my mother: filled with hatred and jealousy towards those who had what I wanted, even if they hadn’t wronged me. My stomach churned as I realized I had it in me to be like her. In my pride, I hadn’t thought that possible. Though I might never hurt a child as she did, if I harbored hatred I would be like her.
Suddenly, I wondered when she first chose not to forgive. Had she stood at the same crossroads, but made the easier choice and let bitterness seep in, not knowing it would spread and finally rule?
I clenched the steering wheel in desperation. “God, I don’t want to become like my mother. Help me forgive!”
Unforgiveness & a Cry for JusticeI considered how Jesus compared forgiving sin to forgiving a debt, and thought perhaps if I prayed aloud to release her from her debt—for God not to punish her for her sins—that might equal forgiveness even if my emotions dallied.
“God, I want you not to punish—” Do I? “No! That’s not what I want! I want Justice!”
And then I understood. More quietly I finished, “But I also want to be forgiven.” I paused as I remembered my ugliest sins.
I turned onto the freeway. Ahead, the morning sun had risen above the horizon. “God, I know my many sins against you far outweigh hers against me. So I pray that you draw my mother to know you, and if she receives Jesus as her Savior, then Justice will be done by his shed blood. And if she rejects Jesus, then Justice will be done when her sins are held against her. I forgive her as I want to be forgiven, and leave her in your hands.”
At that moment I knew it wasn’t mine to determine whether my mother received eternal forgiveness. That was between her and God. It wasn’t even mine to know to what degree my mother’s actions were intentional: Only God sees the heart.
In my heart, mercy had triumphed over judgment.
Peace washed up and through me. Yes, Justice would be done. I was humbled by the glimpse of the depths to which I could fall without God’s grace. And I was no longer angry. I truly wanted God to give my mother the same grace I wanted him to give me.
Unforgiveness Stripped Away
That was many years ago. Neither the jealousy nor the rage returned. As new affronts came—whether from her or others—the lessons learned through forgiving my mother helped me continue to forgive without excusing.
How Excusing Sin Leads to Unforgiveness
In time I understood how excusing sin actually produced the pride that prevented forgiving. I had initially excused my mother’s wrongs by telling myself she didn’t know better; after all, no sane person would purposefully and knowingly harm children. Thus, my siblings and I were safe from repeating her actions because we knew better. We were better than she because we had superior knowledge.
When my false belief that she didn’t know better collapsed, its sister belief changed slightly: “My siblings and I and most people I know would never purposefully and knowingly harm children.” Now, we were better than she innately.And that was the pride blocking forgiveness: this subconscious sense that I was somehow better than she and therefore more deserving of mercy. When I wasn’t.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered eight years in a Soviet gulag, asked this about those who committed genocide:
Where did this wolf-tribe appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood?
It is our own.
And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?”
It is a dreadful question if one answers it honestly.[i]
If I answer honestly, then I know that if my life had turned out differently (especially if I hadn’t come to Christ), I could have murdered or abused or terrorized or done any number of things I’ve escaped. I could have been like my mother. Because I’m not innately better. And therefore not more deserving of mercy.
We can Choose to Forgive
We can choose to forgive because forgiving is about more than one relationship with an offender: It’s about future relationships; about healing us; and about participating in divine Justice and Mercy.The ultimate reason behind unforgiveness Click To Tweet How excusing sin leads to unforgiveness Click To Tweet
[i] Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 73.