The Freedom to Forgive

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Every day in our world, in our society and in our individual communities, somebody is treated unfairly. Someone is hurt, even though he or she didn’t deserve it. Someone is lied to or lied about. Someone is ignored or attacked. Someone is singled out or discriminated against. Many of us don’t have to look far to find such mistreatment—because we’re the ones who experience it!

If you’ve been the object of slanderous gossip at church, or passed over for a promised promotion on the job, or harassed because of someone else’s prejudice and fear, join the club. We all feel the pain of unfair treatment at some point in our lives.

Unfortunately, few of us know how to handle being mistreated by others. We get hung up on the who, what, when, how and why of the offense, justifying our anger, and never entertain the notion of forgiveness—at least not right away. After all, we think, why should we forgive someone who has treated us wrongly?

This is a relevant question for Christians to ask. Our Savior and model, Jesus, was treated unjustly—and yet as He hung on the cross, He said, “‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do’”(Luke 23:34, NKJV). He didn’t get hung up on the mistreatment He was receiving; instead, He was quick to forgive.

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We should be, too. But of course, that’s easier said than done.

I know. I was 5 years old when my father, Martin Luther King Jr., was shot to death while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The date was April 4, 1968.

I grew up very angry because my father had been unfairly taken from me at such a young age. And in the years that followed, three more deaths in the family sent me into an even deeper abyss of hatred and anger.

In 1969 my Uncle A.D., my father’s youngest brother and the man who taught me how to swim while we were on a summer vacation in Jamaica, drowned mysteriously at his home a few days after returning from this vacation. In 1974 my grandmother, Alberta Williams King, was shot to death while playing “The Lord’s Prayer” on the organ at our family church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. Two years later my 20-year-old cousin, Darlene King, A.D.’s daughter, died of a heart attack while jogging.

The pain of so much death and loss left me feeling so angry that I started drinking as a teen-ager. Later, as a law student at Emory University, I contemplated suicide.

But as I held the knife in my hand, I heard the Holy Spirit whisper, “People are going to miss you.” I put the knife down and eventually sought counseling. My life began to change—even more dramatically after I received the baptism of the Holy Spirit in 1995.

Since then the Holy Spirit has been teaching me how to conquer the “unforgiveness factor” in my life. He’s been teaching me how to overcome my anger and forgive, even in the face of treatment that is wrong or unfair.

Often when people do things to us that we feel we don’t deserve, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get back at them or nursing a grudge against them. But what would have happened if Jesus had harbored anger toward His accusers or contemplated revenge against them as He hung on the cross? He would never have completed His mission to reconcile us back to God!

The truth is, whenever we harbor ill feelings, they poison our spirits and prohibit us from reaching our goals and walking in our destinies. Proverbs 23:7 reminds us that “as [a person] thinks in his [or her] heart, so is he [or she].” That means that if we dwell on thoughts and feelings that are negative, we will end up living out the negative; but if we dwell on thoughts and feelings that are positive, we will live out the positive.

No matter how others treat us, we must not focus on their negative actions but on the positive rewards of responding as Jesus would. Jesus didn’t get hung up in anger and revenge but focused on the greater good. He forgave His wrongdoers, canceling the power of their wrongs to control Him in any way.

They Do Not Know What They Do

Certainly Jesus could have tried to get even with those who crucified Him. But He recognized that they “did not know what they were doing.” He understood that He was dealing with people who had imperfections—faults and weaknesses that kept them from dealing with Him fairly.

In order for us to forgive others when we’ve been mistreated, we, like Jesus, must acknowledge that people are imperfect. Even Christians are imperfect.

When we are born again, it is our spirits that are immediately made new. Our souls—our wills, minds and emotions—and our bodies are still old. Every day we must deny our old selves, renew our minds through daily meditation on God’s Word and choose to be like Christ in all that we do. But it’s a slow process.

Often we find ourselves still acting out of emotion or impulse—the old self—rather than from a renewed mind. When that’s the case, we can have all the knowledge and intelligence in the world and still make wrong decisions that hurt others. As Romans 8:6 says, “to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”

All of us have said and done hurtful things that we’ve later come to regret. We must recognize that other people do the same.

Does this mean we shouldn’t hold people accountable for their wrongful actions? Not at all! When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do,” He wasn’t saying, “Father, forgive them, because what they’re doing is OK.” He was saying, “God, don’t hold this against them.”

Jesus didn’t deny that what they were doing was wrong; He simply forgave them. What a contrast to our typical reaction when someone does something wrong to us!

We tend to hold a grudge against him for life. “I will never trust him (or her) again,” we say. Caught up in our suffering, we feel justified in our refusal to forgive the person who has caused us so much pain.

Women have to be particularly careful in this regard. Our nurturing nature can lead us to nurse, feed, and give life to our emotions of hurt, anger and betrayal.

The longer we feed, the greater the bond; the greater the bond, the more difficult it is to sever the tie. When we constantly feed our negative emotions, we end up in bondage to them. They take control of us, and we begin to do and say hurtful things that rival the things our offenders have done and said to us.

If the crucifixion means anything, it means that through Jesus Christ we have been given another chance in life. Now, as Christians, it’s our turn to extend the same “second chance” to others.

Keeping in mind our own need for forgiveness, we’re called to live a lifestyle of forgiveness, praying the way Jesus taught us in Matthew 6:12: “‘Forgive us our debts [wrongdoings], as we forgive our debtors [wrongdoers].’”

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