Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Heart that Forgives

Carl is a distinguished, gentle man in his 70s who has spent over 30 years in the counseling ministry. Several years ago, I had a chance to hear his story. I’m always interested in hearing a seasoned individual reflect on his life and ministry. You just know there will be some gold nuggets of wisdom from a guy like Carl. Sure enough, his talk was loaded with more nuggets than I can recall, but a couple things stood out that I’ve mused on many times over the past few years.

Carl said (my paraphrase based on memory), “Over the past 30 years, I figure I’ve had over 30,000 counseling appointments with thousands of different people and I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of the people that I’ve worked with all have the same root issues—the inability or unwillingness to forgive someone who has hurt them, or the inability to receive forgiveness when they are the offender. The lack of forgiveness in human relationships is the biggest problem I see. Most of my time has been spent helping people to forgive others or to help them find forgiveness.” I’m not sure I heard anything else Carl said. That comment set me back for few minutes. Really, Carl? With all the mental and emotional disorders out there? With all the bad things that can happen in a person’s life? Forgiveness is the key to spiritual and emotional health? Carl would say, “Absolutely!”

Carl went on to describe a dangerous continuum that people get trapped in—anger, bitterness, hatred, and apathy. Let’s say that something has happened in a relationship that has caused you to feel disappointed or hurt by someone’s actions. Anger can be the first emotion to surface. “I can’t believe she did that. That ticks me off.” Your anger builds and goes unchecked, and as a result it turns to bitterness. “You know, this isn’t the first time she’s hurt me, and it won’t be the last. That’s the way she is!” Hatred can quickly follow bitterness as the emotions fester downward toward vengeance. “I can’t stand her and the first chance I get, I’ll get her back. She’ll pay for the pain she’s caused.” The end of the continuum is apathy when a person feels nothing for the other person. “I’m done with her!” Unfortunately, this continuum is the natural way of things within the human heart. It’s easy for us to slide down that slippery hill.

So, what stops that slide? Forgiveness. Sure, there are other important things that need to happen such as honest conversations and confrontations, as well as remorse and repentance from the offender. But at the end of the day—no matter the outcome of the confrontation, no matter if the offender expresses remorse—forgiveness must happen for us to live in peace. A forgiving heart frees us from the downward slope of anger, bitterness, hatred, and apathy. An unforgiving heart shackles us to destructive emotions that result in a bad outcome. I think the Apostle Paul would agree with Carl’s synopsis of the human heart.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4.31-32

It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Throw off all your anger, bitterness, and fighting and replace it with kindness and forgiveness. Easily said… but harder to do, we all know. What encourages me about this verse is the reminder of how much Jesus has forgiven me… how much he’s forgiven you. Paul seems to be saying, “You can forgive the people who have hurt and disappointed you because I have forgiven all the hurt and disappointment your sins have caused me.” Maybe Carl is right. It all does come down to forgiveness. Remember, you are forgiven to become a forgiver.

This week's author- Phil Niekerk, senior small groups pastor

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