I’ll forgive . . . but I’ll never forget. We hear that so much, it’s easy to shrug it off as “only natural.” That’s just the problem! It is the most natural response we can expect. Not supernatural. It can also have tragic consequences.
In his book Great Church Fights, Leslie Flynn tells of two unmarried sisters who lived together, but, because of an unresolved disagreement over an insignificant issue, they stopped speaking to each other (one of the inescapable results of refusing to forgive). Since they were either unable or unwilling to move out of their small house, they continued to use the same rooms, eat at the same table, use the same appliances, and sleep in the same room . . . all separately . . . without uttering one word. A chalk line divided the sleeping area into halves, separating doorways as well as the fireplace. Each would come and go, cook and eat, sew and read without ever stepping over into her sister’s territory. Through the black of night, each could hear the deep breathing of the other, but, because both were unwilling to take the first step toward forgiving and releasing whatever was the offense, they coexisted for years in grinding silence.
Refusing to forgive and cancel the debt leads to other tragedies, like monuments of spite. How many Christian organizations split (often over nitpicky issues), then spin off into another direction, fractured, splintered, and bitterly opinionated? How many families choose to hold on to memories of resentment, rather than create legacies of forgiveness? And churches can be the worst at this!
After I spoke at a summer Bible conference meeting one evening, a woman told me that she and her family had been camping across America. In their travels, they drove through a town, passing by a church with a name she said she would never forget—THE ORIGINAL CHURCH OF GOD, NUMBER TWO.
Whether our dispute is a personal or a public matter, we quickly reveal whether we possess a servant’s heart in how we respond to those who have offended us. We always have a choice. Will we choose to hold on to the things that have hurt us until we’ve erected monuments of spite that divide our once harmonious relationships . . . or will we choose to create lasting legacies of forgiveness by forgiving those that hurt us and then releasing the offense . . . canceling the debt? Don’t miss those final words.
It isn’t enough simply to say, “Well, okay—you’re forgiven, but don’t expect me to release you!” That means we have constructed a monument of spite in our mind, which isn’t forgiveness at all.
Before I go on, let me say this: I don’t mean to imply that you forget what happened, or that you are able to erase the incident from your memory, or that you don’t hold someone responsible for abusive or criminal behavior or financial debts. We live in reality. It’s impossible for victims of rape to remove the unspeakable crime from their memory. Memories of childhood abuse cannot be wisped away like leaves falling from a tree. Scars, both physical and emotional, are lasting pictures of a terrible pain.
What I do mean is that we release people from the guilt and no longer hold the offense over their heads. When we choose to “cancel the debt,” we unshackle people from the dark emotions lurking in our hearts that say, Never. Never let this go. In fact, for those who have experienced life-altering offenses, choosing to forgive and release people can be an ongoing process. When Peter asked Jesus, “‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’ ” (Matthew 18:21-22).
Servants must be broad-shouldered people—big enough to go on, big enough to remember the right, and big enough to forgive the wrong by releasing the offender of any guilt, pain, or grudges.