In the last chapter we dealt with one major issue that disturbs our inner peace, that of being able to receive God’s forgiveness. In this chapter we will consider another factor that hinders inner peace—perhaps more than anything else—the problem of forgiving other people who wrong us.
When I was 12, I read Moby Dick—it’s a great fish story. When I got into it I couldn’t put it down. Captain Ahab and all the whalers are looking for this mythical great white whale called Moby Dick. When they spot him, they are all afraid of him and only Ahab will go after him. When he tries to harpoon the great whale, his leg gets caught in the line and is severed. As he is recuperating, he becomes obsessed with killing the whale. Upon his recovery, he recruits a new crew and outfit and goes to sea to pursue Moby Dick.
The more Ahab chases the whale, the more he becomes consumed with the fact that he has been maimed by him. At the climax of the story, Ahab harpoons Moby Dick, becomes entangled in the lines of his harpoon, and he and the entire crew die.
When I finished reading the book, my grandmother asked me, “What did it teach you about good and evil?” I was only 12 years old then, and I thought it was just a good fish story. As the years have gone by, however, the lesson of that classic novel has become clear—the all consuming passion of revenge, the inability of Captain Ahab—being wronged and maimed—to forgive.
Each one of us has been or will be maimed by someone else, and nothing robs us of inner peace like resentment and revenge. If we don’t find a way to get rid of it, there is no peace. That is why Jesus was so adamant about forgiving others. Listen to His words:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?“
“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven, because the Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a king who decided to check on his servants’ accounts. He had just begun to do so when one of them was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. The servant did not have enough to pay his debt, so the king ordered him to be sold as a slave, with his wife and his children and all that he had, in order to pay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before the king. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay you everything!’ The king felt sorry for him, so he forgave him the debt and let him go.
“Then the man went out and met one of his fellow servants who owed him a few dollars. He grabbed him and started choking him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he said. His fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’ But he refused; instead, he had him thrown into jail until he should pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were very upset and went to the king and told him everything. So then he called the servant in. ‘You worthless slave!’ he said. ‘I forgave you the whole amount you owed me, just because you asked me to. You should have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you.’ The king was very angry and he sent the servant to jail to be punished until he should pay back the whole amount.”
And Jesus concluded, “That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)
Now I’ve studied the Bible in Greek and Aramaic trying to find a way to change what Jesus said about forgiving others. It cannot be done. There are no loopholes.
Someone once caught the atheist W.C. Fields reading the Bible and asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m looking for loopholes,” he replied.
There are no loopholes in what Jesus taught about forgiveness. He plainly said that if we don’t forgive those who maim us, God will not forgive us. This raises a difficult question. Is God placing a condition on His forgiveness? How can He love us unconditionally and impose this condition? My answer is this: We cannot feel God’s forgiveness as long as we refuse to consider forgiving those who hurt us.
Think of God’s forgiveness as a radio signal. I can’t receive it unless I am tuned in to the right frequency. Refusing to forgive others gets me “off frequency.” God’s forgiveness is there. I simply can’t receive it. When this happens to me, I try to remember these things:
The Best Thing I Can Do For Me Is Forgive
The first thing that I try to remember is that the very best thing I can do for ME is forgive. When we are wronged by someone, it can be quite painful. There is usually a wall put up between us and the other person, we are estranged and separated from them. We are not comfortable this way because we were created for community, and the wall of unforgiveness puts us in an emotional prison.
The two most popular responses to hurt are revenge and resentment.
Revenge—retaliation—is getting even. I was raised in an environment where I learned the art of getting even. We often talk about revenge lightly. We speak of a sports team wreaking vengeance on their opponent.
When I was a young boy growing up watching the western movies, the good guys always got revenge and we all applauded when the bad guys bled. On a late night TV martial arts show that aired recently the bad guys killed two people. The good guy killed 37! He broke necks, he burned people, he gleefully pushed them off cliffs, ran over them in bull dozers—and I was shouting approval.
Revenge is getting even, but there is one problem with it. It doesn’t work. If getting even worked, then the first time that the Serbs retaliated against the Croatians in Yugoslavia during the 1940’s, it would have been over. But the Croatians waited 50 years and returned the favor. And it goes on and on. If retaliation worked, the Arabs and Israelis would have made peace a long time ago. Revenge won’t work. It never works. You can’t get even.
When I was a child, I remember a big bully who took a knife which had been given to me by an actor who played the Cisco Kid. It was like the holy grail to me. This bully took one look at it and threw it in a stream. From that day on, I hated him and I waited for my revenge. Some time later his father died and when I saw him walking down the sidewalk weeping, I leaned out the window and said, “Glad your daddy died.” The boy broke down, started crying, and ran into his house. I felt no sense of being even. Instead, I felt a deep sense of loss. I call it my “fall from grace.”
The other thing we do that hinders forgiveness is resentment. The root meaning of resentment is “to feel again”—over, and over, and over. Resentment makes you rehearse a painful situation every day for the rest of your life. “I was hurt, I’m going to remember it, I’m not going to forget it, I’m going to hold onto it and that’s how I’m going to be free!”
Retaliation and resentment—these are the two popular ways we respond to hurt. But Jesus comes along and uses another word: Forgiveness. The root meaning of that word means “to hurl away.” Forgiveness is a word used to describe a prisoner being released from prison and hurling away his chains. He is freed of the things that had bound him. That is the root meaning of the word forgive. We still have people going around saying that revenge and resentment are the best ways to deal with hurt, but Jesus said, “Forgive. Hurl it away.” The best thing you can do for yourself is forgive.
Remember Reginald Denny—the truck driver caught in the middle of the Los Angeles riots in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict? We all watched on live television as he was dragged out of his truck, and beaten senseless. A few days later, he was at the preliminary hearing of the two perpetrators. They were sitting there in court with passive, steely eyes, showing no feeling at all. Reginald Denny broke away from his lawyers—who were trying to stop him—and went over to the two men and said, “I forgive you.”
“It was the only way I could find peace,” he answered.
“Do you think it made any difference in the minds of the people who beat you up?” asked the reporter.
“I don’t know,” answered Denny, “and I really don’t care. I didn’t do it for them. I did it for me.”
The best thing you can do for yourself is to hurl away those chains of resentment.
To Change My Enemies, I Must Forgive Them
The second thing I try to remember is that the best thing I can do to change my enemies is to forgive them. That sounds irrational, but you only have two choices when someone hurts you. You must eliminate them or change them.
One of Lincoln’s adversaries who had dogged him for years was finally caught in a compromising situation. One of Lincoln’s assistants said, “Now we’ve got him! We can ruin his career, disgrace him, and get rid of him once and for all!”
But President Lincoln said, “There are two ways to get rid of your enemies. Eliminate them or turn them into friends. See if there is something that this man and I have in common so we can be on the same side.” Lincoln made a friend for life.
Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, he was taken from his family, falsely imprisoned, and at the mercy of the Egyptians. When his brothers finally stand before him, the opportunity comes where he can take revenge. When they beg for forgiveness, however, Joseph begins to cry. He says, “Who am I to play God? I’m not God. I’m one of you.”
Forgiveness never occurs until we get on the same side. In the story Jesus told in Matthew 18:21-35, all of the servants were in debt—not just one or two of them. They were all in debt, just as you and I are in debt. We had better not get what we deserve! On judgement day, I want to be very inconspicuous. If God wants to let some of you sinners off, that is okay with me. I don’t want to smell any burning flesh or hair because it’s apt to be mine!
The best way to change other people is to forgive them. If you think it is idealistic or wrong, you should try it. I’ve been married over 40 years and I’ll never forget our wedding day. It was one of the saddest days of my life. I got married just because I was afraid someone else would marry Lois and I thought she was quite pretty. I didn’t want to get married, but I didn’t want anyone else to have her either. I was 20 years old, immature, I loved me, and me wanted her. I had no concept of what it meant to love another person. It was through her grace and forgiveness that I changed and came to know what love is all about.
Forgiveness is the best thing that I can do to change the people who hurt me.
Forgiving Shows The World That God Lives In Me
The third thing I try to remember is that forgiving is the best thing I can do to show the world that God lives in me.
Forgiving is an unnatural act. It is more natural for us to act like animals. Encroach on an animal’s territory and it reacts and attacks you. To forgive is unnatural. You may say, “What a wimpy way to approach life!”
The Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, lost 89 members of his family to Hitler. He tells of being a young architect at age 22, assigned to a military hospital, and wearing the required yellow star of David which marked him as a Jew.
One day, a nurse came and got him and said, “Come with me.” He followed her into a darkened room and found a young German officer, completely swathed in bandages, with only his nose and eyes sticking out—with flies swarming around him. Through the gauze, the soldier said, “I burned a house full of Jews. Inside, there was a man with two little children and he covered their faces and leaped out the window trying to save them. I was ordered to shoot them, and I did. I cannot die without receiving the forgiveness of a Jew. Will you forgive me?”
Wiesenthal turned and looked out the window—it was a beautiful sunny day and the birds were chirping. He said, “I stood there a long time, then I turned slowly and I walked out of the room.” Later on, Wiesenthal wrote to 32 scholars of all faiths asking if he should have forgiven the German. Only six out of the 32 who responded said that he should have forgiven him.
The haunting question is raised, what would Jesus have said about it? I can tell you that He did say that by showing love and forgiving one another, “then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35) Morality—acting a certain way—is not the chief evidence Christ lives in us. The only way to show the world that Christ lives in us is to forgive, to do the unnatural thing. Unless you forgive, you will never be out of the prison of revenge, retaliation, and the cycle of violence. You will never know peace.
Corrie Ten Boom and her sister were placed in a Nazi concentration camp for helping Jews during World War II. Her sister died in the camp. After the war, Corrie went around preaching forgiveness. One day she came face-to-face with the SS officer who had tortured and abused her sister.
He said, “Ya, Corrie. It is good that you preach forgiveness.”
He stuck his hand out to shake hers, but she couldn’t take his hand. “All I could say was, God forgive me. I cannot forgive.”
At that moment, a great burden was lifted from her soul, and she was suddenly able to take his hand. Only the Spirit of God can bring us to the unnatural act of forgiveness. It is the best witness I know that we are children of God.
You undoubtedly have been, or will be, maimed during your life. You will be insulted and hurt and then you will have a choice to make. You can imprison yourself or you can hurl away the chains of resentment and revenge.
What will you do?
- This series of Posts is based upon Dr. Gerald Mann’s book The Search for Inner Peace. The author and the MakeTrix have received the permission of Gerald Mann’s wife, Sandy Mann, to use the contents of his wonderful masterpiece in this series of articles. We are honored and humbled and wish to thank her for her generosity. This series is of course, and as always, provided free at no cost to the reader.
- Dr. Gerald Mann, The Search for Inner Peace (Austin, TX: Gerald Mann Ministries, 1999), pp. 51-65. ISBN: 0-9678502-0-7, Out-of-Print.
- For more on Feeling God’s forgiveness, please read our post Dealing with Guilt.
- For more information, read our posts: Introduction to the Search for Inner Peace, Challenging Our Illusions, & Accepting the Truth About God.