I was filled with anger and confusion. I was betrayed, lied to, stolen from, hurt and damaged by a close family member. I watched every single person in my family suffer. We changed, becoming unrecognizable to one another, all with varying opinions, all eager to cast a wide net of blame. True devastation hit as soon as the person was caught and convicted and sent straight to prison for a long list of crimes. The sad truth was that our entire family followed as well. No, not imprisoned by real iron bars but by real ironclad strongholds of shame, bitterness, anger and unforgiveness.
For the first time in my life, I fully understood how correct 16th century English poet and cleric John Donne was when he wrote “No man is an island.”
I was eaten up with bitterness. A few good friends told me that they could see anger and bitterness on my countenance and in my eyes. I could feel the hard knot of bitterness in my heart. I hated it, but no matter how hard I fought, it would not go away.
There was a war within me, and one side was going to win: bitterness or forgiveness. I could either forgive or lose everything of value — my faith, my marriage, my family and myself.
I desperately wanted to be rid of the resentment. I wanted to be free from my own kind of prison. I began to read books on anger and bitterness. Everything pointed to forgiveness, and very quickly I found out that I did not know how to forgive, not really.
Over time, I discovered six meaningful lessons that have unveiled the fullness of forgiveness and brought it into my life.
1) Start somewhere.
Forgiveness is a slow process, and it takes time. In my case, all I wanted was for healing to begin in my heart.
I was instructed to have a forgiveness list of people who had wronged me and to pray each day to forgive them. My list initially began and ended with one person. Yet over time, as I have lived the glorious freedom resulting from true forgiveness, I have found great value in often asking myself if there is anyone whom I need to forgive. It is one question I always know the answer to immediately, even if I don’t want to admit it.
2) Begin to pray for the one who has wronged you.
You simply cannot pray for someone without your own heart being softened. I borrowed my first prayer from Corrie ten Boom. After surviving Ravensbrück concentration camp, Corrie began to travel worldwide to tell her story of forgiveness. In one such meeting, the very same German guard who was one of her captors and who watched her beloved sister die a slow, terrible death, was in attendance and made his way to the front of the room after she spoke. He had become a Christian and asked for her forgiveness. She said her body went numb, and she felt she could not forgive him.
Corrie wrote, “And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too.
Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘Jesus help me!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’”
Corrie did forgive him, and she is attributed with praying, “God, make me willing to be made willing.” I knew I was not willing to forgive when I started. But I was willing to consider it for God’s sake.
3) Stay in the Scriptures.
Stay close to God through His Word. Read what the Bible says on forgiveness. Here are two verses that helped me hold on to the desire to forgive:
“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15).
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).
Verses focused on forgiveness, however, were not what helped me the most. It was God’s Word overall. Sometimes I would just read continuously and let God wash His Word over me. I soaked it into my heart like a dry, mildewed sponge. It was cleansing.
4) Take every little bit.
“Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Exodus 23:30).
This verse is so hidden, so insignificant, yet to me it leaped off the page and became my mission and my life word.
I wanted the bitterness, shame and anger driven out so that I could enter a new phase of my life with a healed heart. As I prayed, read, listened and was counseled, I took every little bit of advancement in forgiveness as God’s work in me. I pictured Jesus with holy anger and a whip of cords (John 2) overturning the money changers’ tables, and I pictured Him whipping shame and bitterness and anger out of my heart. Little by little, I began to uncover my bitter,
hardened heart. Little by little, I began to have my life restored by God.
5) Some success is success.
You will know when you have forgiven. There are many indicators that are different for every person. It may be that seeing, or talking to, or hearing about that person or event no longer results in a knot in the stomach. It could be that you no longer seek silent revenge. It may be experiencing the peace that passes all understanding or realizing the anger is gone.
For me, my heart was light. I physically felt it. The burden was lifted, and I began to trust God that His holy vengeance would be right, timely and perfect. Gone were the bars of imprisonment. I could talk about it without tears. I could remember the pain without reliving it. My heart felt as light as a feather.
6) Keep on forgiving.
I learned that forgiveness is continual. Forgiveness is a gift from the heart of God. Once learned, keep on. I continue to keep a forgiveness list even though I hesitate to write it down. Mine is mental, and many nights I fall asleep with a desire for forgiveness of one specific person on my heart. I still rely on Corrie ten Boom and her words, “Willing to be made willing.” In especially deep and hard cases of forgiveness, her words give me a starting place. Most of all, I have learned that one small step of forgiveness is one giant leap toward God. When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray to the Father, He taught them to ask for forgiveness and give forgiveness. Forgiveness pleases God.