Aug
14
2013

Man, when he does not grieve, hardly exists.  Antonio Pochia

He who has not forgiven an enemy has not yet tasted one of the most sublime enjoyments of life.  Johann Lavater

The second aspect of this process of facing the reality of our lives is learning how to apply forgiveness to your life. As a start, I like what Lily Tomlin said: “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” I like that because the truth is that I can’t change what I’ve done, be that twenty years ago or just today when I hurt someone close to me with some blunt and harsh words. Yes, I need to take responsibility and then to attempt to change how I am acting, but I can’t alter the past and make that ugly event (whatever that was) just disappear and go away. Again, we are sinners through and through, and there is only so much we can do to change that truth.

When forgiving ourselves of the sin that we do, we first have to see it and acknowledge it as we discussed above, but the next part is that you need to forgive yourself and begin to let it go. Earlier I discussed the negative cycle that we can perform—below is how the cycle of sin, guilt and forgiveness should go:

  1. We do something wrong.
  2. We feel guilty about what we did.
  3. We acknowledge what we did to God and ask for his forgiveness.
  4. In most cases, we apologize in word and action to the person we wronged. We communicate to them that we will try not to hurt them again in this way.
  5. We make active changes to stop this specific failing in our lives.
  6. We forgive ourselves of the wrong we have done to God and/or to the person/s we hurt.
  7. We relinquish the ability to change ourselves and allow God to help us make these changes.

Let’s walk through a living example in my life and discuss this process a bit. Prior to getting married, I was a fairly laid back guy, nothing frustrated me much and emotionally I was usually calm when things got a little tough. This changed noticeably the day I got married, and especially after our sons were born. Almost overnight, I became this Type A person, where everything had to be in its proper place and now even little things began to bother me in dramatic fashion. For the most part my life was stress-free and now the responsibilities of “real life” began to take over and I reacted like a lot of people do. Outbursts of anger became a natural occurrence and became my companion in the way that I would handle tension and troubles. If something was wrong—the dishes hadn’t gotten done, money was overspent, my relationship with Julie wasn’t what I thought it should be—those closest to me knew my temper too well. Over time, I became very adept with the emotions of anger and rage.

With one occurrence, my sin was exposed in a way which even to remember this event today still reminds me how my brokenness can be so damaging to others. One hectic day which seemingly was busier than most, I backed up our Toyota Sequoia into our garage door, and initially I thought it was my youngest son’s fault because of his negligence. In a sudden outburst, I screamed at him like never before. I saw a look of fear and insecurity on his face that is etched in my mind to this day. That was the day I knew things weren’t good with me. By looking at his little face, at that moment I saw in clear view what my sin had done and what it could do.

Years earlier if this same incident had occurred, I would not have gone though any of the steps I will now describe. I would have just moved on and a wake of hurt would have been left with that wave of rage that I had poured out onto my son.  If I had ignored that moment, that pain would still be evident to this day and I am positive I would not be the same person I am today, nor would my son. I would not have looked in the mirror; I would have either denied I had a problem or ignored it all together. Thankfully, God got my attention and I began to learn how to face my brokenness. This was one of the first days that I genuinely began to deal with my struggle with anger and learn forgiveness in real time. That day, I began to do things differently when I failed myself, my son and God.

LEARNING TO SAY YOU ARE SORRY

First, as each of us experiences on a regular basis when we do something wrong—in that moment in the garage, with a major dent in the garage door, I began to feel guilty. I had seen the look on my son’s face; I had hurt his five-year old soul deeply and I knew it. At that moment in time, with my bumper sitting squarely against the garage door, my son with his look of insecurity, God whispered a simple yet firm question to me: So now do you think you have a problem? In my mind’s eye, I simply nodded and in my thoughts I asked for God’s grace.  This is the first step in the process of forgiveness—I did wrong, I acknowledged it internally, and I asked for God’s forgiveness. For most, this step is very easy and one that many are used to—sadly, too many do not go any further than this. For some they can’t even see in a circumstance like this that they have done wrong; for others, the mechanics are just internal to themselves and the following steps are ignored. Now for the harder parts.

How do you apologize to a son who is welling up with tears? After seeing my youngest dissolve into tears, I realized that it wasn’t his fault at all that I had backed up into our garage door. Because of my own misjudgment, I was really the one to blame; I was the one who had been negligent. This often is the problem with an outburst of anger—in being upset, sometimes the one you should accuse is yourself. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten angry at someone when in reality, I was the one at fault. It is sadly ironic to say the least. In this instance, as I saw Micah looking at me dumbfounded and not knowing how to respond to a tyrannical madman, I turned off the car, looked him in the eyes and simply said this, Buddy, will you forgive me for yelling at you? It isn’t your fault. It was mine and I am sorry I hurt your feelings by screaming at you. I will try to never yell at you in that way again. It became one of my first apologies I had ever done to someone other than Julie, and it surprisingly freed my soul. Why? Because in the past I maybe had said I was sorry, but I had not done two additional things. First, I had not said what I was sorry about and most importantly, that I was committed to changing my behavior in the future. Previous to this, I offered generic apologies. In all the years that I have been in private practice or in my work as a pastor, I am astonished at how few people actually say the words “I am sorry” to someone they have wronged. As a Christian, these three words should be a regular part of our vocabulary. But beyond this, it is just as important to not only apologize, but to also follow this up with stating how you will attempt to change as well. I can’t tell you how many appointments I have had in which I have explained this crucial aspect of apology and the person across my desk replies, Really, I have to actually say I am sorry, why I am sorry and that I will try not to do it again? To begin to experience forgiveness toward yourself, this is one of the essential prerequisites—you not only have to say that you are sorry, but you must also communicate that you will try not to do it again.  

MOVING BEYOND JUST SAYING YOU’RE SORRY

But we can’t just stop there. Beyond this apology, I had to get help and so I began to make active changes in my life that week. I realized how much I lived a life without peace and how this was a catalyst for my struggle with anger. If a person wants to live differently with the struggles they have, they have to make active and practical changes in their life. This is where the rubber meets the road and is the gigantic difference between the person who makes strides in their personal struggles and those who don’t. It’s the difference between the person who really changes in the areas they fail and those that don’t. The practical changes for me were many, but essentially came down to one specific area that desperately needed modifying. What was this? Through counseling, I learned that I literally had to change how I think. One of the things I had read in the many books that I had poured over about anger was this—our thinking is integrated into our emotions which eventually leads to how we act. As the novelist Elizabeth Gilbert penned, “You are, after all, what you think. Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.” One of the exercises in one of the books that I read detailed that keeping a journal of your thoughts was the first step in not only changing your thinking, but also your emotions and actions. Granted, often what we think about has nothing to do with something we are feeling, but when I tried this, it was amazing to see how often my thoughts revolved around emotions of anger and vice versa. Whether it was thinking about an incident that had happened during the day that had upset me or even just listening to a news program driving on the way home from work, I was astonished how often my thoughts triggered bitter or enraged feelings. This, I had to change—I had to change how I was thinking and where I put my thoughts.

One of the most effective ways to do this is what psychologist’s call thought-stopping.  The basis of this technique is that you consciously speak a command to yourself to stop the negative and repeated thoughts you are having. The principle behind thought-stopping is fairly simple—by interrupting troublesome thinking, it serves as a reminder and a distraction, especially if you replace that negative thought with a positive one. When using this technique, one can think of I Corinthians in its command to “renew your mind.” (2:16) This is what thought-stopping does—you become aware of unhealthy thinking and replace it with helpful thoughts instead of negative ones. As an example, if I was washing the car or sitting at my desk, I would monitor my thoughts and see if there was a negative emotion attached to these thoughts. When I realized that my thinking was pessimistic or antagonistic, I would attempt to stop what I was thinking. While seemingly simple, this change slowly began to help me adjust my thinking, which inevitably began to change how I felt about something.  Previous to this “renewing of my mind,” I would just let my mind wander and let it go wherever it wanted. By putting an end to this, my thinking began to change, which unmistakably changed my feelings of anger and the regrettable actions that inevitably ensued. I was slowly learning how to become a person of peace.

The final two pieces of this process of facing your junk are connected—we will call these aspects self-forgiveness and relinquishment. On the one hand, if a person is not fully dealing with their failings—acknowledging, apologizing, and actively changing—the first part, self-forgiveness doesn’t even come into the equation. If you can get past these crucial pieces, in the grand scheme of things, the final two might be relatively easy. The first part is that you have to forgive yourself of what you did wrong, but you must really believe and live that you are a truly forgiven person. Again this may sound strange, but for many for this to occur they need to speak these truths into their lives. Literally, they must forgive themselves with words that they speak out loud. This aspect is not typically a challenge for me, but if it was, later in the day after the incident with my son I would have later gone and literally said to myself—I  am forgiven for screaming at Micah—and maybe even spoken these words more than once. As we all know, words are powerful. When we say them aloud, they can come to life. Again, in this case, it is important that the person speak in the first person and be specific about what they are forgiven for. On paper, this may seem unnecessary or silly, but this part of forgiving oneself and owning that truth is what some have trouble learning and accepting, and can keep their relationship with God at a stand-still.

A final important piece of someone genuinely living out the cycle of forgiveness is that they must relinquish that they can even change in the first place and that only Jesus can alter the way they act. On the one hand, we must make it priority to change our lives, but inevitably it is God who completes the work within us. To this day, I still struggle with anger and the incident I described happened almost fifteen years ago. I have changed, I have learned how to control my outbursts and I now understand that sometimes my anger can even be healthy, but there have also been times when I blew it even as just as two weeks ago! For some areas that we struggle, they may never be ended, and we will have to realize that we will in the future let ourselves and others down. Here is a truth—there will never be a day that I live on this earth in which I will be able to say that I am a perfect person. In our lives, there will always be areas that we struggle with even up until our last breath. With these struggles, we need to be diligent and continue to attempt to change these aspects of our lives, but at the same time, we need to relinquish this to God and allow him to complete this work in us. Even Paul late in his life shows us two important passages to meditate on—even he struggled in certain areas all the way up to his dying day:

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:18-19)

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25)

Again, a key ingredient in being Jesus’ friend is living in the tension that I am a saint and that I am a sinner—we need to learn that it is okay that we are both people. No different than Paul did, it is a reality that we will have to learn to live with for the rest of our lives—we live in a fallen world and we are broken people trying to get better each day.


In: Friend to Jesus
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