The Anatomy of Forgiveness


Pierce O’Farrill was shot three times in a Colorado movie theater.  He said he hoped to talk to the crazed gunman, James Eagan Holmes, so he could say, “I forgive you.”

Devastated mother of a raped daughter in Stubenbenville, looked at the boys who sexually assaulted her daughter and said, “I forgive you.”

How is this possible? I have not faced these kinds of horrors, but I have needed to learn how forgiveness unfolds. As a young church planter in my first senior role, I experienced the best and worst of humanity. I experienced the joy of people coming to Jesus and the disappointment of people not living up to their words.  I walked in the path of discouragement, bathed in the pain of betrayal and found myself in an emotional tailspin when I encountered a very different and very painful life – so different from what I’d dreamed of.

In a moment of quiet reflection, I realized that I didn’t know how to forgive.  Absent the ability to pardon perpetrators of the pain they caused in my life, I pulled back from life and relationships into a cocoon of loneliness and despair.  As I mused about the concept of forgiveness, scriptures would scroll across the marquis of my mind, “Forgive one another as the Lord forgave you,” (Colossians 3:13); “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you,” (Ephesians 4:32).  Even though I knew these in my head, I was impotent to bring the healing power of God’s forgiveness into the real world of my pain.

Thankfully, I read a book written by Lewis Smedes called Shame and Grace.  He inspired me to recognize the anatomy of forgiveness. Here are his principles, which have been so helpful to me in my journey of forgiveness.

  1.  Accurately assign responsibility for the wound.  It is probably safe to assume that we all misjudge who is liable for our hurt. The tendency of our hurting hearts is to blame others, while giving ourselves a pass on what we may have contributed, or, take too much of the responsibility and neglect to identify the role others have played in our injury. Healing begins and the journey towards forgiveness is initiated by humbly discovering how much the offender is responsible and how much we may have contributed towards being hurt. (Proverbs 12:15)
  2. Surrender our right to get even.  Last week I had to carry an 8-year-old girl to her car because a horse had stepped on her foot during a school field trip to a ranch. Trying to lighten the mood, I jokingly asked her, “Did you step on the horses foot to get her back?” That’s the flesh talking. Whether we demand justice or want others to hurt as much as we hurt, the temptation to lash out is a powerful one. God wants us to let Him impart justice in this life (Romans 12:29). If we surrender to the perpetrator, we will continue to feel weak, like a victim. It is imperative that we remember that God is sovereign, that he is the one who will work out justice in His way and in His time. (Proverbs 3:5) “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven.” Thomas Fuller
  3. Rework the caricature of the person who injured us. The moment we get hurt, our minds begin to exaggerate the bad parts of the person who harmed us. If not held in check, our imaginations will cook up a full-fledged monster in no time–sometimes for even the smallest offense. What did you conclude about the last person who cut you off on the freeway or jumped in front of you in line at the store? Regardless of the size of injury, we often paint a portrait in our minds that doesn’t match reality. As difficult as it may be, we need to find ways to test our mental caricatures against the true person, and keep it in line with the way God sees this person. (I John 1:9) “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” Dietrich Bonheoffer
  4. Revise our feelings. Feelings can’t be removed; they have to be replaced. Often when we gain new insights about a person or a situation, our feelings can change. I knew a person who was raised in a very shame-filled environment. This upbringing filled them with feelings of hatred and spite towards their parents.  One day, a perspective shift happened: in a single moment, the child was moved from bitterness and disgust to empathy and compassion.  The child was a firsthand witness to the grandparent shaming the father. Wow! There it is. The parents merely passed along what they had experienced.  These reshaped feelings allowed the journey of forgiveness to continue in a healthy manner. (Matthew 6:14-15) “Forgiveness is not an emotion… Forgiveness is an act of will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” Corrie Ten Boom
  5. Accept the person who made us feel unacceptable. Read these words carefully.  We accept the person, not the act. The bad, the evil, the injury is still a negative event that will remain in that category until God supernaturally moves it onto the positive side of the ledger (Romans 8:28). But, the person is a different story. We move toward forgiveness when we humbly recognize the fact that we are all capable of hurting others, both inadvertently and intentionally. When we stand in judgment and declare, “I would never have done that!” we render acceptance nearly impossible. When we acknowledge not only the bad we have done but the bad we are capable of doing, we are empowered to release others to be who they are–flawed fellow sinners in need of a Savior, just like we are.  (Isaiah 43:25)

Until God bestows discipline, power and motivation upon us, we will never be able to forgive. Even if someone doesn’t want to acknowledge or have a relationship with God, the ability to forgive is a result of the general grace that He has sprinkled upon our world.  The only way we can forgive another’s mighty transgression is if we sink our fingers into the reckless forgiveness that Jesus purchased for us.

When we consider that our sinful indebtedness was nailed to the cross with Jesus, taken away forever (Colossians 2:13-15) and that my guilt was disposed of by the precious blood of Jesus (I Peter 1:18), I am moved to forgive those who have caused me deep hurt.

Q:  Whom did God bring to mind as you read this post?  Who do you need to forgive?

“As a Christian I am called to treat my enemy as a brother and to meet hostility with love. My behavior is thus determined not by the way others treat me,

but by the treatment I receive from Jesus.”

Dietrich Bonheoffer


Check out an earlier post by Craig here