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Why Forgive? The Real Reason

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

– Abraham Lincoln –

When people wrong us, we know it. We have an innate sense of right, wrong, and justice that serves as our standard for how life should work. When life doesn’t work that way, we feel betrayed.

Our first betrayal comes at birth. Out of a warm womb, we emerge into a world that immediately chills us, then pokes and prods, sticks and pricks us. It’s not long before our parents and caregivers betray us by being fallible (how dare they?), breaking promises, misunderstanding us, and sometimes misleading us, usually unintentionally. But it’s not long until our own expectations betray us. We expect this career choice or that person or this purchase to make us happy, but they don’t – not permanently anyway. The move that we expect will gain us loyal friends brings only fair weather acquaintances. What we think is love turns out to be only pity. What we think will be our big step into a career is only a move that sidetracks us. The person we expect to help us actually expects us to help them instead. Life is full of small betrayals of the way we think things should be.

Then there are the stab-in-the-back betrayals. I once believed that life was supposed to be fair, that people knew it, and that “God’s people” above all would treat you fairly, while those “in the world” regularly stabbed you in the back or kicked you in the teeth – metaphorically or literally. But Christians can betray trust as fast as non-Christians. This shouldn’t be surprising, because betrayal, by definition, happens when someone we’ve trusted pulls the rug out from under us and walks off with it. The irony is that when “God’s people” betray us, it’s sometimes people “in the world” who pick us up, treat us with respect, heal our wounds, and give us a new rug to stand on.

But betrayal can make us focus. It can clarify our lives, put things into perspective, and sift the sediment out of our souls. It’s a form of disillusionment, an invitation to remove the rose-colored glasses so we can see more clearly where we stand now and can look ahead to a wide landscape of possibilities.

But we have to decide not to chew the bitter gum. Bitterness is addictive, and like other addictions, it’s dangerous. We often don’t realize we’re addicted until it has affected our whole self, body and soul. But why is the desire for payback so addictive in the first place? Why is it so easy to baby our bitterness and so hard to forgive?

Maybe we believe that if we forgive, we have to forget as well, and we know we can’t forget. Some people think “forgive and forget” is a Bible verse. It’s not. What’s more, to forgive and forget is nearly impossible. In a lot of cases, it’s not even wise.

After a business partner stole from me, I struggled with this issue. Did forgiveness mean I had to pretend it never happened? Did I have to prove I had forgiven by going back into partnership with that person? I couldn’t. If it was business as usual, I was past the point of no return. I had to separate. Not because of hatred and bitterness but because of wisdom. When someone proves to be untrustworthy or disrespectful or abusive, forgiveness may need to go hand in hand with distancing ourselves from the relationship and remembering not to go down that road again.

Nor does forgiveness preclude justice for crimes. Whether I forgive or not, consequences may be required by civil law. There may be natural consequences as well. But we don’t have to nurse a bitter heart in order for justice to be imposed or for consequences to kick in. Justice and consequences can operate equally as well if we forgive. In fact, the purpose of forgiving is not primarily to set my wrongdoer free. First and foremost, it’s to set me free. Which is the subject for next week’s post. I hope you’ll join me as we continue to explore the subject of forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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