I remember the first time I did a “forgiveness list”. It was part of a “Step Study” in my Celebrate Recovery Program. A Step Study is a 9-12 month commitment to a weekly sharing of homework with 10-12 others. The study is focused around the Eight Principles of St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ most famous sermon, and the 12-steps of Recovery.
Principle 6 states: Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me, and make amends for harm I’ve done to others, except when to do so would harm them or others.
Happy are those who are merciful to others. -Matt 5:7
Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. -Matt 5:9
In Celebrate Recovery: “We are told to forgive because God has forgiven us. The Bible also says,”Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate with one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”(Ephesians 4:31-32, NIV)
We all stand in need of forgiveness and mercy! In the model prayer, Christ taught us to pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
I have been a Christian for most of my life, and I know what the Bible says about forgiveness and making peace – but I never knew the process of forgiveness until Celebrate Recovery. Like most people, I just thought “the past is the past, so just move on”. I never thought to evaluate all my past relationships to see if there was un-forgiveness, resentment or bitterness lingering in the closet of my soul. I was in deep denial about how the painful relationships of my past were still affecting all my current relationships, as well as keeping me enslaved to patterns of relating that were unhealthy and damaging to others.
So as I “inventoried” my past relationships, I discovered that there were several people I needed to forgive. That inventory was excruciating! I had prayed “search me O God, and know my heart. See if there is any deceitful way in me and reveal it so that I may be free to embrace Your forgiveness.” God answered my prayer! Fortunately, I have discovered that He did not overwhelm me with every person I needed to forgive in that first inventory. It has taken many other Step Studies and 17 years of recovery to deal with the rest!
Principle 6 deals with three main actions we must take in order to know the freedom that forgiveness brings, and we must accept God’s unconditional forgiveness. Jesus paid for all sin for all time when He died on the cross. He exclaimed from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). If you believe this fact and accepted the free gift of forgiveness Jesus offers, then you are forgiven for the sins you have committed in the past, the sins you did today, and all the sins you will commit in the future! This is the good part of the good news! Now you are able to take the steps of forgiving others. The “Steps” include the following instructions (with my notes)
1. You must forgive everyone who has hurt or harmed you.
Yes, there is a difference between hurt and harm. For example – eating and drinking is pleasurable, but too much can be harmful…you can develop a host of health problems and not even know it! On the other hand, a surgeon’s scalpel will result in a world of hurt – but that pain will result in purging the defective and healing the body. Pain is part of the healing process. This reminds me to keep my inventory balanced. There are people who enabled me, lied to make me feel better, thought they were helping me by drawing me into questionable lifestyles, but it was harmful to my soul. I had to forgive even the “nice” people who thought they were doing the right thing but were definitely not. On the other hand, there were those who spoke the truth, even when it hurt. My reaction to the pain this caused prompted me to ask THEM for forgiveness! (that is the “amends” step, another post!)
The most difficult to forgive were those who perpetrated abuse and neglect against me as a child. Principle 6 reminds me that forgiving those who have harmed me in this way no way excuses the harm done against me. Forgiveness allowed me, however, to be released from the power that they had and continued to have over me. I was instructed to write out my forgiveness to my perpetrators in detail. Because I no longer had contact with them, I read this to someone I trusted to keep my story confidential (my sponsor). I have no words for the relief and freedom I felt as I confessed what had happened, and verbalized my forgiveness out-loud.
2. You must forgive yourself.
I felt that the guilt and shame of my past was too much to even think about, let alone forgive. I learned to cover-over the shame with compulsive work-a-holism and other addictions to avoid dealing with it. This is what God says about the darkness of the past – “Come, let’s talk this over! Says the Lord; no matter how deep the stain of your sins, I can take it out and make you as clean as freshly fallen snow. Even if you are stained as red as crimson, I can make you white as wool! If you will only let me help you” (Isaiah 1:18-19 TLB). Until I was able to forgive myself for the shameful ways I had lived-out my past abuse, I would continue to defend, excuse and justify my actions, or blame others for my hurtful behavior.
3. You may need to forgive God!
I had a very distorted view that somehow God had made me defective, and because He allowed the abuse to happen, He was not to be trusted. I had to realize that because God gave everyone free-will, it was the choice of my perpetrators that were responsible for the abuse, not God. In fact, God has redeemed my pain to such a degree that I am able to be more compassionate and loving to others who have experienced the shame of addiction as a result of past abuse. 1 Peter 5:10 says, “After you have borne these sufferings a very little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to share in his eternal splendor through Christ will himself make you whole and secure and strong.”
If forgiveness is an ongoing battle for you, I highly recommend Celebrate Recovery. You will find a step-by-step walk through the process of forgiveness with the bonus of having others to encourage and help you along the way.
Celebrate Recovery meetings are located in thousands of churches throughout the United States and in nearly 40 other countries around the world.