For all the talking Christians do about the grave importance of forgiveness, I’ve oftentimes found that our version of forgiveness doesn’t look that much different than what I see in the non-believing world. This dysfunctional attitude couldn’t be more contrary to Scripture, which suggests the following, radical approach: “If anyone has a complaint against another . . .”
Tell them off? Tell others about it? Pout about it silently? Nope. We are to forgive them – period, and then we are to move on. (Colossians 3:13). There are rare situations where face-to-face confrontation is necessary (as I mentioned in my article, “Your Spouse Does Not Need a Life Coach”), but generally, we’re just stuck with forgiving the person and getting over it.
Yet after being offended by another person, we’re oftentimes are not interested in simply moving on. Instead, we would prefer to throw a private pity party to fully absorb the magnitude of the offense – to feel, all over again, the pain of being a victim. If we’re not careful, this can become a lifetime habit, and before we know it, we can end up finding a bizarre sense of identity in perpetual victimhood.
But why wouldn’t we enjoy victimhood? Being a victim is the quickest and cheapest way to attain significance in America without ever having to lift a finger (except to point it at someone else). And it feels so good, doesn’t it? We rehearse the pain, relive the anger, dream of all the ways we would have liked to have told this or that person off. These offenses take on a life of their own, giving us an intoxicating sense of importance as we realize, Yes, my feelings matter this much.
As a victim, with each offense committed against us, our significance grows. There’s one more issue to fume and sniffle over, one more person to blame, one more opportunity for us to sit in the judgment seat. But it comes at a high cost, one we might have noticed if we weren’t so busy trying to keep up with the ways others have hurt us. Unfortunately, the price we pay is our ability to fully love Jesus.
Jesus tells us that in the end, many will discover that they declined the opportunity to love Him in so many practical ways, leaving Him hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, imprisoned, and sick (Matthew 25:44). He explains, “Whatever you did to the least of these, my brothers, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:45). That is, to the degree we distance ourselves from the practical needs of other people, we distance ourselves from Him.
One of the most practical needs we all have is the need to be forgiven; and there’s no better way to leave someone alone, naked, and imprisoned than to lock them up in the past. Whatever our reasons may be, according to Scripture, to the degree that we bask in unforgiving victimhood, we pay for it with an inability to relate to Jesus.
Certainly, forgiveness is going to be a process which, depending on the circumstances, will require differing amounts of time, prayer, release, healthy boundaries, and maybe even confrontation. But in the midst of working through forgiveness, we must beware of our tendency to find significance in being a victim, in acquiring a taste for the wounds we’ve oftentimes been licking for too long.
This struggle isn’t foreign to me. About two months ago, I finally called off a long-running pity party I’d been celebrating for too many years. The facts were bad enough that it was pretty easy to share little parts of my story and get sympathetic pats on the back from most people. But finally, through a process that’s too long and too personal to share here, I completely let the offender off the hook. In doing so, I recognized that, in refusing to forgive, I had become an offender against God, and it was affecting my ability to connect with the Lord and others.
Since then, I have found it easier to love my wife, harder to get angry, and I’ve found myself more attuned to the still, small voice of the Spirit. I don’t mean to imply that my whole spiritual life hinged on that one act of forgiveness, but if Matthew 25 is true, holding on to that offense for so many years certainly wasn’t helping to draw me close to the Lord, and it may have been keeping Him at bay.
Sure, it’s easy to be a victim. All it requires is a finger and at least one imperfect person at whom to point it. But it’s even easier to just drop the heavy baggage of resentment at the foot of the cross and move on, unencumbered by the self-ordained responsibility of keeping track of the faults of others.