Three Stages of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

When I was about eight years old, I told my mother that I would not be attending Sunday School anymore. I said they just told the same stories over and over again, and that I had heard them all. Needless to say, I did not get out of Sunday School.

This is one of those stories that seems to come up over and over again in the Bible…at least the theme of the story.  Really? Again with the forgiveness? 70 times 7? And of course the spirit of what Jesus commands is not like what Hillary Clinton once said at a National Prayer Breakfast: She told colleagues, “I know that Jesus said to forgive not just seven times but 70 times seven. I want you all to know that I’m keeping a chart.”

We know that what Jesus means is that we are to forgive. Period. Not keep count. Not keep score. One either forgives or one doesn’t—but it’s not really that cut and dried, is it?

I’ve decided that there are three stages of forgiveness. Keep in mind, this is not based on any scientific study or empirical evidence, just 40-something years of personal observation coupled with about 15 years of pastoral experience. Three stages of forgiveness. We can be in one particular stage, or we may find ourselves in all three stages at once regarding three or more different people or situations.

The first stage of forgiveness is when we know we’re supposed to forgive a person or let go of a situation, but we have no plan to do so. We fully intend to hold on to that anger as long as we possibly can. If you are in that stage right now, you may have already stopped reading this post, as it really hits a nerve.

The second stage of forgiveness is where we know we should forgive, and we really want to move on and let it go, but we just can’t seem to get there. We’re working on it. If you are in this stage, you’ll probably keep reading to see if there’s anything here that can help you on your way.

The third stage of forgiveness is where you have forgiven the person who has wronged you, let go of the anger and feel freed from the situation. If you are this stage, you’re probably feeling a little bit like eight-year-old me. Why doe we have to keep re-hashing this forgiveness thing?

We keep rehashing it because the truth is, none of us ever live completely and permanently in that third stage. Stuff happens. And we need to be reminded.

Reminded that forgiveness is not about letting the other person or persons off the hook. It’s about releasing ourselves from the poison of anger and bitterness that comes from holding on to a grudge.

I think we’ve all heard the “not forgiving someone is like eating rat poison and waiting on the rat to die” angle, so let me ask you this:

What would you wish for someone you love? Suppose your brother or longtime friend calls you up to say that his wife has left him. After 15 years and three kids together, she’s decided she never really loved him and the whole thing was a big mistake. Putting aside how you feel about the wife, what would you want for your brother, your friend? Would you want him to be stuck in stage one and stay angry, to pass that anger and resentment on to his children and to die as a bitter old man? Or would you want him to find his way to stage three and find some peace and acceptance and a fresh start?

If you chose the first option, we may need to seek help. You’re gonna need more than a blog post. However, if you did choose the latter option,  if you would want peace and acceptance and a new beginning for someone you love, why would you not want as much for yourself?

If you’re one of those people who always likes to imagine which character you are in every Bible story, don’t fool yourself. We are always the unforgiving servant.  All of us are always the unforgiving servant. The one who has been offered grace and forgiveness and then refuses to pay it forward.

Every time we hold on to a grudge

Every time we harbor resentment in our hearts

Every time we stew in the juices of our own acrimony

Every time we allow our hearts to be weighed down by our own indignation

We are the servant who has been granted grace and forgiveness but who refuses to extend it to others

But let’s be clear: I’m not saying we should never get mad about things. I’m not saying that we have to be impossibly patient in the face of stupidity, arrogance and just plain meanness. But when that anger and impatience takes hold of our hearts, and we not only allow it to stay there, but decide to nurture it and help it to grow, the person we are hurting the most is ourselves.

It’s not easy. The struggle is real. It’s very real. But it’s also really, really worth the struggle.

And here’s why. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness.”

If we remain stuck in that first stage of forgiveness, we risk freezing to death on our own. But, if we can extend the same forgiveness to others that Christ has given us, we don’t have to end up alone in the cold. We can forgive each other for the pokes we receive, and we can stay huddled together and warm.

And that’s a story we should hear again and again and again.

–Rev. Anne Russ

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1 thought on “Three Stages of Forgiveness”

  1. My view is you just say to someone who has offended you…I forgive you. Or if you have offended someone say please forgive me for….and name the offense. The hard part for me is the wound that is caused by the offense and needs to be healed. And it is my experience that the person who has wounded me, the person I forgive wants to be on the healing team to take care of the wound that they caused and vice versa. That rarely works. We have to put our own healing team together of God and all the holy angels, those known and unknown to us. So the hard part for me is the healing of the wound. not so much the forgiveness

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