Is It Crazy To Forgive Those Who Hurt You? A Christian Perspective

Many years have passed, but just thinking about an event with a past landlord can still set my blood to boiling. He sued my ex and me for "damages" to an apartment we left. We suspected he inflicted the "damage" himself so he could make us foot the bill for some renovations he wanted to do. However, we had no proof and ended up paying him to avoid court action.

Even today I seethe when I think of how he lied and cheated, and got away with it. His house was on my way to work after we moved out and every time I passed by I would salute him with the international sign of friendship -- taking great pleasure when he was actually out in his yard so he could see me.

I hated him -- with every fiber of my being. It's the first time I think I really understood on a fundamental level what the Bible calls a "perfect" hatred. But, eventually, I had to forgive him. Not for his benefit -- but for mine. The hatred I carried for this man began to adversely affect my life. I would lash out in displaced anger at others, including my spouse at the time. My impotent rage for this man and his unethical actions were hurting me far more than they would ever hurt him. It had to stop.

I began a long process of letting go of my anger for him. But, even now, just thinking about it again, I can conjure up all those old feelings of hatred, anger, and pure, unadulterated rage. I can feel my body tense and my heart beat a bit faster as I ruminate on the details of that time. I may have forgiven, but I have not forgotten.

Studies on anger and forgiveness have shown that what I really wanted in this situation was a sense of control. By his actions, and my inability to stop him, I felt that I had been taken advantage of, that I had lost control over events in my own life. Researchers at Hope College in Holland, Michigan say this loss of control manifests itself physically. Their research shows stress increases when we consider revenge rather than forgiveness.

Researcher Dr. Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet suggests "that we may be drawn to hold grudges 'because that makes us feel like we are more in control and we are less sad.' But interviews with her subjects indicate that they felt in even greater control when they tried to empathize with their offenders and enjoyed the greatest sense of power, well-being and resolution when they managed to grant forgiveness. 'If you are willing to exert the effort it takes to be forgiving, there are benefits both emotionally and physically,' she concludes." [From Time Magazine article Should All Be Forgiven? -- April 5, 1999 Vol. 153 No. 13]

As she points out, one of those benefits is regaining a sense of control over your life. I may not be able to make my former landlord any less of a lying, thieving jerk, but I can control how I feel about that sort of person. Instead of hatred, I now feel a sense of pity for him. I forgive him now because I know he honestly doesn't know any other way to behave. He has problems that I can't begin to understand.

But, I had to take that difficult first step and forgive him. It took me a long time because I was actually enjoying hating him -- but it was necessary so I could finally break that bond of hatred that tied me to him forever.

As a Christian, I am commanded to forgive, "seventy times seven" if that's what it takes. We balk at this notion. Why on earth should we be forced to forgive someone who hurt us? Jesus explains it this way in Luke 6:37: "Forgive, and you will be forgiven." As Christians our own forgiveness hinges on how forgiving we are.

Writer Emmet Fox, in his book Sermon on the Mount, reminds us that in the Lord's prayer we ask God to forgive our trespasses, "as we forgive those who trespass against us."

"Notice Jesus doesn't say, 'Forgive me my trespasses and I will try to forgive others,' or 'I will see if it can be done,' or 'I will forgive generally, with certain expectations.' He obliges us to declare that we have actually forgiven, and forgiven all, and he makes our claim to our own forgiveness to depend upon that." (emphasis his)

For anyone who claims to follow Christ, we must forgive as he forgives, without reservation, unconditionally and totally.

We've all heard the phrase "forgive and forget." However, truly forgiving someone does not mean forgetting, or pretending things can go back to the way they were. Being trespassed against is always a painful experience, and one that will remain with us long after we've forgiven the trespasser.

I remember, quite clearly, every detail of the legal hassle with that landlord. But, through the lens of forgiveness, I see it with different eyes. I see a man with little or no conscience, who takes advantage of people. I see him now as a man who schemes and connives, and I take pity on him. I hope one day maybe he'll become a better person. In the meantime, I must move on with my life, if for no other reason than my own health and well being.

Fox makes the point that by not forgiving we "are tied to the thing [we] hate. The person perhaps in the whole world whom you most dislike is the very one to whom you are attaching yourself by a hook that is stronger than steel. Is this what you wish?"

It was not what I wished at all. I wanted to be free of the landlord forever. After all, isn't that why we gave him the money, to get him out of our lives for good? My refusal to forgive him just kept him in my life longer than necessary. By having him on my mind, and consciously hating him and holding that grudge, I tied myself to the very thing I hated. Forgiving him may not have done much for him -- but it set me free.

Although I was free, things were changed forever. Richard Foster, in his book Prayer, says that's to be expected since forgiveness is not pretending that the offense did not really matter. "The offense is real," he writes, "but when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior." I finally stopped giving the one finger salute to my old landlord's house. I no longer fixate on it. By forgiving him, I've released myself from a pattern of old hatred and rage. It no longer controls my behavior.

Don't expect forgiveness to fully restore you, or the person who offended you, back to a state before the offense. It can't happen. What you hope to experience when you truly forgive is a bit of peace in your own mind, even if you never actually tell the other person you've forgiven them. Often, forgiveness is something we must do for ourselves, so we can move on and begin to feel whole once again.

Forgiving a bad landlord may seem trivial -- and easy. What about forgiving murderers, or others who have done great violence? South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells stories of profound forgiveness that came from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the wake of apartheid. There, people who had lost loved ones or had themselves been physically attacked and left wounded forever found it in their hearts to forgive their perpetrators.

Whether it's a crappy landlord, or a violent offender, Tutu says, quite simply, "Without forgiveness there is no future."

The first step in forgiveness then is a willingness to forgive. We can choose to carry that chip on our shoulder, daring the world to knock it off, or we can begin the process of letting go of our anger and resentment, and learn to forgive. Forgiveness isn't just something religious people need to do. Scientists tell us forgiveness makes us physically and mentally healthier. Jesus tells us that if we forgive, we will be forgiven. And God knows we can all use some forgiveness.