Forgive…But Don’t Forget?

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What’s the difference between holding a grudge and being cautious in your interactions with someone who’s hurt you? Can you forgive someone but still maintain distance from them in the future? Is it possible to actually wipe the slate clean?

Conversations with my gentleman friend often progress from simple updates about our days to deep, thoughtful questions such as these. It’s one of the things I appreciate most about our relationship – we don’t shy away from the hard topics, and we’re genuinely interested in learning from each other.

Let GoBut our conversation about forgiveness the other night left me scratching my head. As I ruminated on these questions throughout the next day, I found myself wondering if there were people in my life that I hadn’t truly forgiven. Had I honestly let go of the wrongs they’d done toward me? Or was I still clinging to those injustices out of a need to justify my cold shoulder toward them? Was it okay to avoid interaction with them, or was that unloving?

Questions like these require soul searching and truth seeking, so I turned to the only solid truths I know: the Word and words. That is to say, I turned to God, and I sought to better understand the meaning behind the words I was tossing around. What is a grudge? What is forgiveness really? What does the Bible have to say about self-defense?

My searching brought me to these five insights.

1. A good test for whether I’ve forgiven someone is what I first think of when they come to mind.

Are my thoughts loving or bitter? Do I feel hopeful for them or hope they get what’s coming to them? Do I believe they have potential to change, or do I write them off? An indicator of the latter is when I think something like “I’m over them” or “I’m so done with them.” Props go to James for pinpointing those phrases as a good litmus test for the heart.

That leads me to my second conclusion.

2. Forgiveness has more to do with the meditation and posture of our hearts than what was done toward us.

A grudge is a persistent feeling of ill will or resentment that you feel toward someone – or something (I think you can totally hold a grudge against that coffee table that always trips you up) – because of a past insult or injury. Persistent and resentment are the words that stick out to me in that definition because they imply continued action. Even the phrase “holding a grudge” reveals how un-forgiveness requires conscious action on our parts. And gosh, isn’t holding a grudge tiring? Who hasn’t experienced the exhaustion of trying to constantly self-protect and judge someone who’s wronged us in the past?

Earlier this year, I wrote about the healing power of forgiveness. After experiencing a painful breakup and a betrayal by someone I’d thought was a friend, I gripped tightly to my feelings of resentment in an attempt to make sense of my situation. I lacked closure and an apology from said parties, so I attempted to make meaning out of my pain by making judgments of the people who had hurt me. I mistakenly thought that holding a grudge would bring me peace or protect me from being hurt again.

But my resentment – the grudges I was holding – weighed me down. I literally felt like I was carrying a burden of judgment.

No wonder God commands us to not take matters into our own hands. He knows that’s not in our best interest! As Paul encourages in Romans, “Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God.”

Let go and let God. Such an overused phrase – and honestly one that can really tick me off when I’m consumed by my own self-righteous anger – but isn’t it also so true? It was only once I let go of my grudges that I finally felt the peace I’d been longing for. And that’s because I was learning to trust God.

That led to me to my this thought…

3. Un-forgiveness reveals a lack of trust in God.

Did I think so little of God that he could not use every situation to disciple me – and others? And what did I think I deserved in the first place?

For me, my resentment ultimately stemmed from feeling like I’d been treated unfairly. It’s true that I was treated wrongly, but unfairly? Unfairly implies that I deserve more than I received. When in reality, anything good I receive just pure grace. I don’t deserve it.

And yet, at the same time, God is so good. And I truly believe he is working all things out for good. So, rather than ruminating on the wrongdoings, I’m trying to make a habit of meditating on the ways God has come through for me and what he’s teaching me – whether through dating missteps, miscommunication, or health issues.

Rather than stirring up my heart over and over again by re-hashing the hurts, I’m learning let them go and fill my mind and heart with the truth of God’s provision. I think that’s what it means to wait on him.

When we wait on him, trust in him, place our hope in him, our strength is renewed (Isaiah 40:31). Rather than being dragged down by our grudges, we can soar like eagles. We can run – unhindered by our hurts – and not grow weary. We can walk and not faint.

Like the Psalmist, we can trust that God will be with us in the green pastures and the valleys that hold the shadow of death – the darkness of past pain. Even in the presence of our enemies, God will prepare a table, provide for our needs, sustain us.

And that brings me to my final thought on the topic of forgiveness (for now).

4. Having a strategy for future interactions isn’t the same as holding a grudge.

While the Psalmist praises God for his protection and comfort in the presence of enemies, he also asks for God to bring the wrongs to right. He trusts that God will protect him and ultimately bring justice.

I trust in you;

    do not let me be put to shame,

    nor let my enemies triumph over me.

No one who hopes in you

    will ever be put to shame,

but shame will come on those

    who are treacherous without cause.

The Psalmist trusts God to save him – from his own sins and those of his enemies. He knows his heart isn’t trustworthy on its own. He needs God to show him the way he should go (Psalm 25:12).

The same is true for us. We need God’s wisdom in our interactions with others, especially those who have hurt us.

When someone has been “treacherous without cause” or has wronged you consistently and/or without repentance, then I think you’d be wise to be more careful in future interactions. This is where we desperately need God’s instruction.

Rather than holding onto our grudges out of a need for self-justification, we can ask God to bring justice and give us a strategy for relating with these people in the future. Being careful around someone who has hurt you consistently isn’t the same thing as judging their worthiness. You can love them, pray for them, and ask for God to continually change your heart toward them. And at the same time, you can do all of that from afar.

Having a strategy simply means you’ve learned more about yourself and the other person, and you’ve discovered wiser ways of interacting with them. For me, when I see those people who’ve hurt me so deeply in the past, I take note of any fear that arises in my heart, and I turn that back to God. I ask him for wisdom in how I relate to them, and I let him handle the rest.

5. The best strategy for protecting yourself against the burden of a grudge is to simply not get offended in the first place.

Easier said than done. But here’s what I mean: in every moment, we have a choice of whether to get offended or let things go. Of course, there’s a time and place for grieving a deep hurt or mourning a betrayal. That’s an important part of the healing process. But so is perspective.

When I recognize that the person who’s hurt me is just another flawed, fearful, self-protective, in-progress human being like myself, then I find it much easier to forgive them and let go of the offense. And sometimes, that person I need to forgive is myself.

In the act of extending grace to others and to myself, I recognize that their worthiness goes beyond their actions in any given moment.

I can even express gratitude for how the situation or the hurt has sharpened my character. As the director of spiritual formation at our church recently said: God uses every situation, every person, and every circumstance in your life to disciple you.

Even the most painful situations, hurtful people, and frustrating circumstances of my life have taught me something. I’ve learned how to deal with conflict, how to identify the fears that drive me toward people pleasing, and how to instead interact with people in a healthy, open, and sometimes more careful way.

Moreover, I’m learning to trust his work in other people’s lives. Instead of judging their character, I’m better able to recognize the fear that’s driving their behavior and have compassion for them as a result. I know God wants more for them, just as he does for me.

God is changing me and the people that have wronged me. It’s not my job to show them how they should modify their character. It’s not my burden to judge them or make sense of what’s happened to me. I simply have to be open to being transformed and hopeful for that transformation in others. When I let go of my expectations of what I think would be most fair in a given situation, then I leave more room in my mind and heart for gratitude.

Because, really, it is all grace. Whether in the green pastures and the still waters or the dark valleys and the rocky paths, God is always in control, and he is always so good. I can mourn and I can give thanks. I can learn and I can let go.

It is so freeing. And it changes me.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. How do you know if you’ve forgiven someone? Can you truly forgive if you don’t forget? How have you handled grudges in the past? Share your thoughts and insights in the comments below.

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