Its A Choice


These days the concept of forgiveness is treated like a sickly old man: ignored when possible, otherwise visited only on special occasions. If forgiveness is engaged, it is often handled awkwardly, with hesitation or reluctance. In our culture we are expected to hold grudges; forgiveness is for wimps and religious leaders.

Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. It isn’t a meaningless gesture. It isn’t a compromise, a get-out-of-hell card for sinners (unless you’re God), or permission to avoid consequences for bad behavior. Forgiveness isn’t even an emotion. It’s a choice. I don’t have to feel like forgiving in order to do it.

Webster’s dictionary defines the word “forgive” as

“to give up resentment of or claim to requital for”

“to cease to feel resentment against”

Ah… the root problem:  resentment.

Resentment is intentional re-feeling or re-experiencing the emotional response to an injury or insult again (resentment = re-sentiment = feeling again). In simple terms, forgiveness and resentment are opposite ends of the spectrum. I can choose one but not both at the same time. They are mutually exclusive.

Much of the time, my choice of forgiveness versus resentment will only affect me. Have you noticed how the person that insulted another is often living more freely than the person holding onto the resentment? Choosing to resent instead of forgive is the equivalent of locking myself in a jail cell: I may have the key but I refuse to be free.

The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book has this to say about resentment (page 64):

“Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease…”.

The choice to resent instead of forgive is a selfish and self-harming one. It says I have decided it is my right to hold someone responsible for some infraction, and it is more important than my serenity, my freedom, my emotional well-being, and my God.

Ouch. Resentments are idols? Could it be true? If I refuse forgiveness, is it because I would rather bow down to the idol of my resentment? As one who has walked through the 12 Steps of A.A., I would agree this is exactly how my life worked before and during my drinking career. I don’t have time in this post to include the details of how that turned out. That’s because I started this post to talk about…

Have I forgiven myself?

For years I held myself in contempt (resentment) for the things I had done. I had agreed I was unlovable, unworthy, unforgivable, and ultimately un-human. You know the danger with that? When a person decides they are unforgivable then it’s just a small step to the lie that “all are unforgivable”. That’s not a decision a human can make. If I refuse to forgive myself, just who do I think I am – God? Only God can decide whether I am unforgivable, and He decided the opposite.

               “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…”  Ephesians 1:7 ESV

And if God says I am forgivable then all people are forgivable (some more difficult than others, I’m sure). I can’t fully grasp forgiveness of others until I grasp God’s forgiveness of me, and come to forgive myself. (Brennan Manning does a wonderful job of examining this truth in his books, The Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba’s Child. I highly recommend both.)

Since it almost killed me, I’ve spent a lot of time (years) processing through this stuff. Here’s what I’ve found to be true:

Refusing to forgive = idolatry.

               Idolatry = rebellion against God.

               Rebellion = separation from God.

               Separation = dependence on self.

               Self-dependence = loss of identity as God’s child.

               Loss of identity = isolation and pain.

               Pain manifests a desire to find relief from pain, to feel better.

Attempts to feel better come out in all kinds of negative behavior:

               Drinking/eating/shopping too much.

               Angry outbursts.

               Deception and self-deception.

               Judging/condemning others.

Self-defeating or self-destructive choices.

All of it rooted in selfishness and self-centeredness.

There I land with my ultimate motivation exposed: It’s all about me. I want to feel better. About me. For refusing to forgive. Yet I am the one that created my own misery by refusing forgiveness in the first place. And in some cases, a person will put another person down in order to feel better. Now innocent bystanders are getting hurt!

I can tell you what kind of life that creates. Go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (or one of the other Twelve Step fellowships – there are over 200 of them). The people in those meetings are the fortunate ones. Many end up in prison or die before they get into recovery.

Forgiveness is, literally, a matter of life and death. A choice between living or re-living pain. A choice between worshiping God and trying to be God. A decision to believe God knows what He’s doing instead of trying to prove Him wrong.

One of my favorite Don Henley songs is The Heart of the Matter, where he explores forgiveness as the solution to problems of the heart. The lyrics are printed at the bottom of this post.

Forgiveness is a choice.


The Heart Of The Matter (Don Henley)

I got the call today, I didn’t want to hear
But I knew that it would come
An old, true friend of ours was talkin’ on the phone
She said you found someone
And I thought of all the bad luck
And the struggles we went through
And how I lost me and you lost you
What are those voices outside love’s open door
Make us throw off our contentment
And beg for something more?

I’m learning to live without you now
But I miss you sometimes
The more I know, the less I understand,
All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again
I’ve been tryin’ to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore

These times are so uncertain
There’s a yearning undefined
People filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
Ah, the trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They’re the very things we kill, I guess
Oh, pride and competition
Cannot fill these empty arms
And the work I put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm

I’m learning to live with out you now
But I miss you, baby
And the more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I’d figured out
I have to learn again
I’ve been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But everything changes
And my friends seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore

There are people in your life
Who’ve come and gone
They let you down
You know they’ve hurt your pride
You better put it all behind you baby
‘Cause life goes on
You keep carryin’ that anger
It’ll eat you up inside baby

I’ve been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me

I’ve been tryin’ to get down
To the heart of the matter
Because the flesh will get weak
And the ashes will scatter
So, I’m thinkin’ about forgiveness
Even if , even if you don’t love me

Forgiveness, forgiveness, baby
Forgiveness, forgiveness
Forgiveness, forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me
Forgiveness, forgiveness
Forgiveness, forgiveness
Forgiveness, forgiveness

Writers: J.D. Souther, Don Henley, Mike Campbell
Publisher: Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

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