In my primary school days, I recall a teacher saying that when people are old they stay in bed for most of the time before they die. When I got home, I ran into my mother’s room and threw myself onto her bed and cried into her arms. “What’s wrong, Davy?” she asked.
“I don’t want you to die!” I blurted.
My mother cradled me in her arms and told me she wasn’t dying. She just had a stomach ulcer and had to stay in bed until she healed. But she was wrong. She was dying. My mother had left home the day she turned 18 and didn’t look back. She didn’t talk about it until decades later, but she and her sister had been victims of abuse. She’d been abused by her father and had to get away from him. After she left, her sister began hating her father.
The feelings of hate my mum felt tore her to pieces. For years after her sister died in a house fire, my mum kept the hatred alive. The story of her abusive father and the child abuse she suffered was untold and remained unforgiven.
A few months after my tearful outburst, my parents attended a series of lectures on healing. The very first session was on forgiveness. The presenter said many people he treated who reported long-term gut pain and headaches were bearing a burden that wasn’t theirs. He said they began healing once they forgave.
By letting go of this hate, we remove the weight from our own shoulders and place it on the shoulders of the person who created the burden. When I choose to forgive someone, I say to myself: “I’m not the one at fault and I’m aware of this.” Then, by physically saying aloud to the other person, “I forgive you”, this statement of forgiveness means, “This is yours again. I forgive you for sending it my way. But, I’m going to let you own it, because it really is yours to own.”
Not long after the lectures on healing, my mum drove three hours to her parents’ house and expressed her forgiveness to her abuser. It wasn’t easy. She’d held the abuse inside for so many years—putting it into words seemed like a betrayal of herself. But she did it.
“Dad,” she said, “you know what you did to me was wrong. I forgive you. You can do what you want with my forgiveness, but the pain isn’t mine anymore. It’s yours.”
Then she left.
Typically, she never did receive a sorry or an apology of any sort; he never changed, he never admitted to anything. But for my mum, she stopped “dying” and her ulcers healed. The length of a person’s life as well as their general happiness can be predicted by asking one question: Are you living alone? You see, positive relationships affect both our physical and mental health. According to the 80 year Harvard Study of Adult Development, relationships shape our resilience and provide our joy.
The joy of togetherness you see in the faces of some elderly couples is well deserved. They are happy, because when their relationship got rough, they took time to patch the potholes alongside their loved one rather than pulling off at the nearest exit.
Resilience is the ability to face hard times and bounce back. Keeping relationships alive develops resilience because relationships aren’t easy. The aforementioned Harvard study showed healthy life-long relationships are the number one predictor of both longevity and personal happiness.
And in contrast, isolation and loneliness kills. Even though, sometimes it feels safer to be alone, it actually lowers your overall health and wellbeing, according to the Harvard study. And as it’s safe to assume that we all want to live long and happy lives, we need to develop strong relationship skills. And without a doubt, the most important practice is forgiveness. And what better time to learn about forgiveness and the forgiveness process than at Easter.
Forgiveness is a requirement of all relationships. People will hurt you. They will let you down. They will say one thing and do another. They may even do the unthinkable. And you will be left with a decision: Should I forgive them?
Often, it can feel safer to protect yourself emotionally. But consider the cost—the loss of happiness and a long life—and recognise that forgiveness is the default option for people who maintain healthy relationships.
Note, forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean staying. In abusive relationships or when facing abusive behaviour, you must protect yourself. Even when the best choice is to move on, forgiveness from afar will still save you a short lifetime of hurt and grant you a long lifetime of joy.
In most relationship friction, the best choice is to face and fix it. You cannot have a long-term relationship without being willing to offer and accept forgiveness.
Learning to be humble
On the other side of forgiveness, sometimes we are the wrong-doer who must hear the words, “I forgive you” from the forgiver. Most of the things that’ll be forgiven aren’t like the story on the previous page. Usually they’re less consequential, like forgetting a birthday, using words unkindly, ignoring someone or laughing at a joke told at someone else’s expense. But little things have a habit of becoming big things when left unrequited.
When someone tells us they forgive us for something, it can be hard to know what to say. Especially in festering situations (because, to us, it was small and happened a long time ago) we need to recognise this has been eating at them for that entire time. Saying they forgive us is actually huge! We need to validate their feelings and say, “I understand what I did must have hurt you. Thanks for valuing our relationship enough to forgive me.”
But there are big things: abuse, years of hurtful comments, an affair and the lying it entails. How we arrive at the forgiveness moment will look different each time. Sometimes, it’s an unexpected situation, when, as with my mother, we’re suddenly held accountable for something desperately evil we’ve lied about to ourselves for years. My grandfather could have burst into tears and said he’d been suffering inside all these years and fallen to his knees and apologised, but he didn’t. As a consequence, he died lonely and consumed by his guilt.
Forgiving is an essential but difficult part of the healing process. Similarly, accepting forgiveness can be a challenge. In order to do so, we first must admit we are part of the problem. This takes humility and a desire to make things right.
While offering true forgiveness is difficult, it can be even harder to accept.
Every year at Easter, the world stops to consider the God who forgives. The key focus of this three-day weekend is God’s forgiveness. God had planned how to forgive us, long before we even knew we needed it.
God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to provide forgiveness for our sin in an overwhelming way, by taking our place: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. . . . God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8).
And, no, you can’t make comparisons here to how we forgive. We don’t die for each other literally. We humble ourselves to offer and receive forgiveness, but that’s a far cry from death on a cross. But that is what Jesus did. He suffered and died on a Roman cross to save you from eternal death. You are that important to God. God loves you! And that love is not conditional.
Jesus died willingly in order to say, “I accept your apology and forgive all you’ve done wrong.” In the myriad of world religions, no other god offers anything like this. All gods imagined by humankind want to see wrong-doers punished. But the true God, the One who created us in His image, restores relationships through forgiveness.
God forgave us. But why?
To make things right between us and Himself. And to call us to do the same—like the Lord’s Prayer says, to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Jesus knew the result of “unforgiveness”. It kills. The ultimate result of sin is death. My death. Your death. He knew that when we refuse to forgive someone, we risk the death of a friendship or relationship.
But He also knew the results when we do forgive: life, a new life, a renewed life.
After He died and was buried, Jesus showed us what new life looks like. On the third day of that long weekend, the God who died for you and me came back to life. He defeated death. Why?
To bring new life. And to call us to do the same. Our relationships come back to life when we forgive others. Like Jesus, we experience “resurrection” life whenever we are called upon to forgive!
God wants us to have healthy relationships with both Him and each other. Every time we forgive, we demonstrate God’s love. And every time we accept forgiveness, we welcome new life.
Dave Edgren is a writer and school chaplain. He lives in Victoria.