Written By Abigail Ellington, USA
Forgiveness always felt like a mind game.
When people hurt me, I would tell them that I forgave them. But the truth was I was rarely able to move on from painful experiences. Despite knowing that Christian forgiveness required me to stop holding grudges, angry and resentful reflection came so naturally to me that I did not know how to change.
Every time I thought about past offenses or arguments, I obsessed over the details, captive to cyclical, anxious thoughts. How could I possibly pretend that something had never happened and did not affect me? I wanted to forgive people, but I also wanted them to feel my pain and recognize just how wrong they had been.
Because heartfelt forgiveness seemed like an impossible goal, I focused on learning life lessons from negative circumstances. I thought that if I could clearly understand what went wrong in a situation and what sins, insecurities, or misunderstandings drove a conflict, then everything would make sense and I could move on.
It never worked. No amount of rational reflection could take away my pain, and even if I came to a satisfying conclusion one time, there was no guarantee that I would be able to respond the same way when the memories returned.
Love does not heal everything; rationality does not fix my feelings. I felt like I would explode if I ignored offenses, but at the same time, I knew that my rage was the antithesis of Christ’s example. My mother often quoted from James 1:20, which said: “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”
But what could I possibly do? No matter how many true things I thought, the churning bitterness was still there. Throwing this verse in my own face along with accusations of pride, disobedience, and lack of love never helped anything.
One night, unable to fall asleep, I started fuming again over a long-resolved conflict with a friend. Nothing in particular triggered it. I just suddenly became a flaming ball of rage about an issue I thought I had found closure with. My friend had long since asked for forgiveness and fully owned her mistakes, but I wanted to lash out with all the studied explanations of how I was right, she was wrong, and it was completely unreasonable and unjust for her to say and believe what she once had.
I hated feeling like this, because it was unloving, made me miserable, and robbed me of joy. The night of my angry episode, I told myself that I needed to somehow forgive her and move on, but at the same time, I could not imagine a world in which I could be free of bitterness.
Then it dawned on me: what if my everyday gospel application was not just “Jesus in my place,” but Jesus in her place? If I respond to memories of my own guilt by fixing my eyes on the cross, I can do the same when confronted with someone else’s wrongdoing.
Through Jesus’ sacrifice, I am forgiven and made whole, and I have no more debt to pay. The same is true for my brothers and sisters in Christ. Grace does not explain away someone’s wrongdoing and pretend it never happened. It acknowledges the truth of sin, but points us all to an even greater truth: Our sin is all finished and paid for, and we are free from the bondage of sin and from the prisons of our memories. If I want to apply this consoling, life-changing grace to memories of my own failings, I must extend the same grace to those who have hurt me.
That night of reflection changed my life. When painful memories now come to mind, I do my best to apply the gospel and reject the temptation to dwell on the past. I can gaze upon the cross, where both I and any offender have been vindicated in the sight of God. We are forgiven and clothed in Christ’s righteousness, and there is no condemnation for us.
I do not have to create excuses or justifications to make peace with another’s sin. Nor must I persuade people of their wrongdoing and make them feel my pain. God took their sin seriously, and Christ died for it, and my only just response is to say that if God’s sense of justice is satisfied, then mine is too.
Forgiveness is not a magical feeling that erases my pain—but it was never intended to be. Rather, forgiving others and myself is an ongoing process that pushes me into an even deeper reliance on God. I find peace in the gospel, knowing that forgiveness is possible through Christ alone.