Last spring after a turbulent year, I signed up for a program at my church that helps believers anchor their identity in Christ, through rigorous curriculum and one-on-one mentoring. In the church lobby one Sunday, my friend—who was halfway through the program at the time—warned me that though worthwhile, it was difficult, convicting work, especially the chapter on forgiveness. “I’ve been stuck on that chapter for four weeks,” he told me. He must have been deeply wounded, I thought, or maybe even traumatized.
As I made my way into the auditorium, surprised and intrigued by his comment, I tried to recall my own struggles to forgive someone who had hurt me. But I couldn’t think of a thing. Surely I had said “I forgive you” in my 20 years of being a Christian. I had to—because I remember the questions that followed: Did that work? Am I supposed to feel different?
But if forgiveness is more complex than I thought, have I been doing it wrong all this time? Truthfully, I’ve only ever known to say the words I forgive you like a wide-eyed child regurgitating a Sunday school lesson, while crossing my fingers and closing my eyes. I assumed it was enough and moved on.
It turns out decisional forgiveness, as the department of psychology at the University of Munich refers to it, is necessary, but it’s not enough. Moving forward requires our emotional forgiveness, which is bad news for those of us who have trained our emotions to wipe their feet at the door and stay out of logic’s way. It’s a skill I’ve relied on for years, knowing how easily feelings can influence decisions, spinning them in other directions no less liberally than a gust of wind carries leaves. Left to free reign, emotions might have steered me to quit studying music or lose others’ respect in the corporate world by crying in an empty conference room.
But just as our unchecked feelings can lead us astray, they can also embolden us, becoming catalysts for acts of courage logic can’t justify. How else would people promise to spend their entire life with one person? How else could I have left my secure, lucrative position at a well-respected company for a shot at the bottom of the food chain in a different field?
The Bible warns how our heart can mislead us, but Jesus offers an alternative—healing and forgiving people after He felt compassion for them. Perhaps His fully human feelings swept Him away at all the right times, bringing these miraculous displays of love to fruition. Maybe tides of heartache for us washed over Him again and again so that He might choose His Father’s will over temptation for 33 years.
The Bible warns how our heart can mislead us, but Jesus offers an alternative—healing and forgiving people after He felt compassion for them.
But unlike mine, Jesus’ forgiveness sticks. I would expect nothing less from God as a man, that He would forgive wholeheartedly once and mean it. But how can you and I offer such assured freedom when we’re tossed by unpredictable flights of emotion? When just the sight of a person triggers the sting we claimed no longer stood between us? The same study by the University of Munich found that true, sustainable forgiveness requires detaching the offender’s wrongdoing and associated character traits from their personhood. In other words, the victim must separate what their aggressor did from who he or she is. Consider the aggressor’s worth isn’t a sum of actions. Believe dignity stands independent of what a person does, that it simply is.
This reevaluation is difficult for me. When I thank Jesus for bridging the vast gap that stood between His holiness and my sinfulness, I’m quietly apologetic for not being worthy to begin with or able to earn salvation myself—as if God had wanted me to become holy on my own but gave up when He saw I was incapable. Focusing on the distance that once separated us keeps the old measuring stick—my performance—close at hand when it has been irreparably broken. Jesus’ death and resurrection promised our dignity would stand untouched by successes and mistakes, and this was not God’s plan B. It was His method of valuation from the beginning, one that captures what can’t be measured. It’s more like a tag on the inside collar of a shirt, which says “handcrafted with purpose and care, inherently and indestructibly invaluable.” And if that’s the case, if forgiveness doesn’t take wrongdoing and “good-doing” into account, then maybe I can mean it when I say “I forgive you,” and it will be worth remembering.