“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,
even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32, NKJV)
This was her second meeting with the counselor. Ellen was regular in Sunday worship and active in her church. But something was stifling her Christian growth and contentment. It had gotten worse in recent months, so she had sought help from a Christian counselor.
A couple of sessions in, it came out that Ellen had been abused as a child. It was clear she was wracked with pain at the experience. The counselor tried to get her to open up and to express the hurt, still fresh after all these years.
But Ellen would have nothing of it. When the counselor probed, she didn't merely skirt the subject; she guarded it like a pit bull. She made it clear that she hated her father and would never forgive him. In fact, she would not even consider the prospect.
As they met over the next few months, Ellen was willing to talk about everything but the abuse. It was like the counselor had free rein of the house, expect for one room at the center. On the door to that room was a circle. Within the circle was a cross, across which was stretched a diagonal line. No one admitted. Not even Jesus.*
What do we make of Ellen? On the one hand, we want to tell her to get over it. Forgive as she has been forgiven. Let it go and move on. We can bring out the big guns of God’s sovereignty, His will for her life, the liberating work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit to reason her into compliance. Just do it. Live and let live.
On the other hand, we want her to be real. We want her to acknowledge the trauma to her soul, to know the depths of her pain and to better know the power and sufficiency of the grace that has come to her. We want to treat her as a person growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and not just as some sort of broken appliance that can be fixed by mechanical repair.
When it comes down to it, only the Holy Spirit can open her eyes and soften her heart to allow the root of bitterness to be pulled up. He can do that through us, through our prayers and through the counsel of His Word. We can lift her face to Jesus and urge her to allow room for the Spirit – just like He’s done in our lives so many times.
But what can we pray for? What scheme of the devil can we pray against? What counsel of God might we bring to bear and kneed into her soul like yeast to dough? How can we help her start to lean into the winds of resistance she is experiencing in order to press on toward the call of God to forgive as she has been forgiven in Christ?
Perhaps the best starting point is one that prepares her for the battle at hand. That starting point is a readiness to suffer for the sake of Christ. Forgiveness operates on a willingness to suffer. Suffer for the love of God, love of neighbor as ourselves, love even of an adversary – in the model of Him who loved us.
Suffering does not dismiss the horror of someone’s sin against us. Rather it faces it head on. Suffering does not minimize the deep-seated pain and fear that can plague us. Rather it positions us to inch forward in love for God and neighbor despite the hurt.
Suffering exercises a willingness to be wronged, not by way of resignation or reluctance but willing in the name and with the attitude of Jesus Christ. It was while we were His enemies that He set His love upon us. It was while we were His enemies that He gave Himself for us.
In a very real sense forgiving someone who has wronged us involves dying to self. We deny ourselves and what we want, and we put on Christ. We yield our sense of justice to Him.
In the power of our new life in Christ, we adopt a posture of humility, counting others more significant than ourselves. We step down from our moral high ground, with all the rights we have to lord it over those who have wronged us, and we humble ourselves in becoming obedient to the point of death of self (Phil. 2:1-8).
To understand suffering as the workshop for forgiving others prepares us for the hardship and struggle involved in the process. It is by humbling ourselves before our God that He will lift us up from the debilitating pain inflicted by others and free us from the bondage of what has held us back from knowing the joy and peace that are ours in Christ.
Somehow, by the grace of God, we want to come to a point of blessing the one who hurt us (Rom. 12:14-21). Not because they deserve it. Not because they earn it. Not by hoops or penance or themselves suffering. But because we are willing to ourselves suffer in order to bless them.
*Excerpted from Why Must We Forgive? (S. D. Gale, Reformation Heritage Books)
- How would a willingness to suffer affect a willingness to forgive?
- How does humbling ourselves prepare us to suffer for the sake of Christ?
Loving Father, who calls me to forgive others as You have forgiven me in Christ, grant me the courage to suffer for the cause of Christ. Grant me the humility I need to love the unlovely, to love the undeserving, as You have loved me.
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.