How to forgive

Forgiveness is a tricky thing. As Christians, we know we are forgiven, and we are told to forgive in the same way. It’s easy to say, “I forgive you,” but it’s only real if it’s from our hearts.

Dallas Willard, in his book, Life Without Lack, said we make three errors when it comes to forgiveness. First, we tend to believe it requires reconciliation; second, we think we have to forget what happened; and third, we think we have to stop hurting. None of these are necessary.

We forgive by making the choice not to punish or seek revenge, which means we let people off the hook. It lets us off our own hook, too and frees us—from anger and bitterness—and allows us to love them the way God wants us to.

If we wait for reconciliation (which often never comes), tell ourselves we have to forget what happened (can’t do that) and wait to stop hurting (the pain might lessen, but will never go away), forgiveness will never happen, at least not in this life. Forgiveness is God’s way of life and his way to life (N.T. Wright) but doesn’t happen in our hearts without God’s help and much prayer. It is possible, even when it feels like it’s not, if we can avoid these mistakes and trust God to make it work.

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Stop, Drop and Roll

The Bible has a lot to say about our words. We are to keep them sweet, kind and gentle. We are told to tame our tongues and use them to glorify God, and not to tear people down. But what about when unkind, hurtful words come our way? None of us like to be on the receiving end of insults or verbal abuse but it happens, and we need to know how to handle it.

One day, as I was thinking about how hard it is to deal gracefully with this situation, the phrase “stop, drop and roll,” popped into my mind. This is a simple fire safety technique taught to children, emergency service personnel and industrial workers in case their clothes catch fire. Stop—don’t run because that adds more oxygen to the fire. Drop—drop to the ground. Roll—roll on the ground to put out the flames.

It’s also a great reminder to not let the words of others bother or offend us. James calls the tongue a fire (James 3:6, NIV) which can set the whole course of your life on fire. When the flames from someone’s tongue get too close, stop—take a breath and calm yourself. Drop—just drop it. Don’t let the person or situation push your buttons. Roll—let it roll off your back.

Jesus was an expert at this. When he was insulted and falsely accused, he didn’t say a word. I can’t remember many times I’ve remained silent when being insulted—I could probably count those times on one hand. But it’s not just a matter of learning not to be offended. It goes to the heart of being a Christian, which is dying to self. Jesus wasn’t crucified so we wouldn’t have to be; he was crucified so we could be crucified with him (Dallas Willard, Life Without Lack). Being dead to self means we don’t let the circumstances of life, including being insulted, denigrated or verbally abused affect our sense of well-being, self-worth or behavior. (I hope it goes without saying that extreme cases of verbal abuse involving violence should be dealt with by the police or other authorities.)

Kathleen Hart, in her booklet “Taking Control of Your Actions and Attitudes,” says it’s a matter of choosing to react or act. Rather than letting knee-jerk reactions make the problem worse by returning evil for evil, we can choose to be in control of ourselves. How can we do this? Kathleen gives four principles: be prepared by choosing ahead of time how you will act; decide that your motives will always be to please and glorify God in all your words and actions; pray the life of Jesus will be manifested in your life (he lives in us); and live in obedience to God’s Word. By following these principles, we can be meek, not weak, and we won’t feel the need to demonstrate our strength with anger or aggression.

Prepare by training yourself to stop, drop and roll and by spending time with God, letting him change your heart, filling it with love and goodwill toward others. Then next time verbal barbs come your way, you’ll be ready to act rather than react, and the peace of Christ will be evident in your life.