How to forgive when you don’t want to?

A friend approached me, visibly upset. She needed to tell me something. What she shared shocked me, although I had suspected it: a common acquaintance of ours had been spreading slander about me. This knowledge caused all kinds of emotions and thoughts to rage through my head. It was difficult to reel them in. When I calmed down I was left with the question: how should I react?

All of us face situations where we are wronged. The degree of the offence can vary, from the grievous to the trivial. I would qualify my experience described above as relatively minor compared to the horrors that some people go through. But regardless of the severity of the misdeed, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to forgive. Our natural reaction to this command is, “No way!” So how can we move from a state of resisting to actually obeying the words of Jesus? I have found that one specific action has been of great help to me.

Before I go on I need to add one important detail: forgiving doesn’t mean not seeking justice when necessary. If a crime is involved, the perpetrator should be punished according to the law. This is for the good of everyone involved and society as a whole. What I’m talking about here is the attitude of our heart. We need to love and forgive even if the offender ends up in jail.

So, what has been so helpful in my attempts to obey the impossible command of Jesus? It’s simple, really, but oh so difficult to do: I refuse to think negatively about the wrongdoer. I fight any antagonistic thought that comes to mind. I especially keep from imagining situations where the culprit gets to suffer in return for whatever pain he or she caused me.

I sometimes feel like my mind is protected by a feeble dam that can barely hold back the huge deluge of negative thoughts trying to enter in. And when they do seep through, as they inevitably do, I have to get them back under control and kick them out again. It’s not easy, but I have found that in time the attacks become less relentless, and after a while they stop altogether.

I’m not implying that we should ignore what happened, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t add on to it with our thoughts. The mind is so good at feeding emotions like anger, hurt, and offense by using its imagination to magnify what happened. But even if we stick to the bare facts without amplification, a constant rehashing of the wrongdoing only makes things worse.

I strongly believe that the first step to forgiveness and love is to stop the negative thoughts. I have seen the same process repeat itself over and over again: I can forgive only after I refrain from feeding my anger. Our mind can move in only one direction at a time, either towards rage and bitterness, or towards forgiveness and love. Whichever we feed by our thoughts is the way it will go.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul gives us some helpful guidelines on how to evaluate our thoughts. What’s interesting is that it’s only a few verses after he encouraged two women, who had been fighting, to reconcile. Those two ladies certainly needed to hear what Paul had to say:  Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.(Phil 4:8-NIV)

Returning to my opening scene, I eventually decided to follow the way of forgiveness and love (not without difficulty). I cut out all hostile and antagonistic thoughts. I reined in my imagination. In time my hurt and anger disappeared, the wrongdoer apologized, and I can say with joy that we have a good relationship. This would have been impossible if I hadn’t put a stop to all the negativity in my mind.

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