I warn you now–I’m gonna lay it out there–exposed my sinful heart for the world to see. But maybe by doing that, I’ll find what I’m looking for.
How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone?
This question seems to pop on quite a bit in Sunday school. How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone?
Well. I don’t know if I have the answer. But I do have an answer that made a difference in my life. And, it changed my perspective too.
A story of forgiveness
I was once a poor graduate student, juggling a couple of kids, graduate studies, and a fledgling photography business. Occasionally, I’d supplement my income by doing statistical consulting.
I was once contacted by a graduate student from a different department named Lisa. But this gal wasn’t your average grad student. Lisa was the CEO of a successful company and a motivational speaker “on the side.”
This gal was different indeed.
She decided late in life to get her PhD. Good for her! Problem was, as she would say, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. This was particularly the case when it came to statistics (which was my forte). And the data analysis was the final barrier to completing her dissertation.
Hence the need for soon-to-be-Dr-D. (Me).
Long story short, I did some work for her and never got paid. I won’t go into the details about why she thought she didn’t need to pay me and why I felt I needed my mula. Let’s just say I wasn’t happy. The amount in question was not trivial (at least to a struggling graduate student), and I’d earned that money, dernit!
(Or so I thought at the time).
After months of emails back and forth, some heated, some scorching, I decided the only action I could take was legal action.
And, to be honest, it wasn’t about the money anymore. It was about being right.
I filed a lawsuit and spent several hours preparing my case. I watched JAG, Perry Mason, and a healthy dose of Judge Judy (okay, so that’s an exaggeration). Come trial day, I was ready.
Except I wasn’t. I forgot the cardinal rule of Junior High mathematics–I forgot to show my work. Or, I forgot to show the judge evidence that I’d actually done the work.
The judge lifted the walnut gavel and with a stone-faced expression, she said, “I’m denying your claim.”
The sound of the gavel was like a baseball bat to the sternum. I stood there for several seconds, jaw gaping.
No. It wasn’t supposed to go like that. I was supposed to win! Whatever happened to the judges standing up for the little guy, the starving graduate student who got robbed by a hotshot CEO that took advantage of my time and expertise?
I felt as if I’d sink into the courtroom floor. My pride was broken–shattered! And with it came a consuming wave of depression. My faith in justice was destroyed. How could someone get away with doing this?
In retrospect, I really don’t understand why I was so devastated. It was only a few hundred dollars. Oh, and my useless pride. And my faith in humanity. Oh. Okay. I get it now.
But it hurt, I tell you. It hurt bad.
I walked back to my car with a vacant expression. I sat in the drivers seat, staring at the dashboard. I knew I should call my wife–let her know what had happened. Wasn’t a husband supposed to seek comfort from his wife? But, to be honest, I didn’t feel like it. I worried that I’d start sobbing uncontrollably. And I was embarrassed that I’d lost. That judge’s decision damaged my pride in so many ways.
For days I thought of little else. I tried to occupy my mind with other things, but that pit would remain in my stomach. And inevitably, I’d wonder why that pit was there only to have the emotions resurface and the anger boil like a kettle set to explode.
I knew I needed to forgive her. But how do you forgive when all you feel is hate? How do you forget when the core of your beliefs have been shattered?
What could I do? I decided to fake it ’til I could make it. I sent the CEO-gone-thief an email:
…I really hope that we can put this all behind us. This has been an unpleasant mess that I wish to never repeat again. But more important, I hope that we can remove any animosity between us. I don’t want to have to avoid you if I see you at the grocery store because there’s still feelings of bitterness between us. I pray that you will accept my email as it is intended, as a humble appeal for reconciliation, and respond likewise. Thank you and best of luck.
Sounds conciliatory, right? Sounds like I’ve forgiven, right?
No. For some reason, that huge step of humility (and I tell you, it was soooooo hard to take that step) didn’t fix anything. The bitterness remained.
So what is forgiveness?
Months passed and the sting of the event faded.
One day, I sat in Sunday school and the teacher asked the question–“How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone?”
I immediately thought of Lisa. Had I forgiven her? I did send that reconciliation email, right? But no, that bitterness remained.
So how do you know?
As soon as I asked the question, the answer came with clarity into my mind. And with that thought, I knew I had my answer.
Forgiveness means you genuinely wish that person the best.
Did I wish Lisa the best?
No. I didn’t. Every time I drove by the building of her company, I (metaphorically or otherwise) shook my fist and shouted, “I hope you burn to the ground!” (The building, that is. I wasn’t that bitter :)).
One day when I passed that same building, I saw that it had a different sign. I thought, “Good, I hope you went under, you spineless crook!”
Is that forgiveness?
No. Because I wasn’t wishing her the best.
If she came groveling back to apologize to me would I forgive her? Absolutely. But she hasn’t. I’m sure, in her mind, she still thinks she’s right. And I suppose that’s why I haven’t fully let go.
How can I possibly find the strength to forgive when she refuses to feel sorry?
Well, God does it, doesn’t He? And he died so we can do it too.
Where are we now?
I wish this story had a happy ending. And maybe it will. Maybe I’m almost there. Can I genuinely say that I wish her the best? I don’t know. I want to. Or I want to want to. I suppose, for a time, I implicitly prayed that I’d find her at a grocery store and she’d say, “Jeez, Fife. I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I’m really sorry about what I did to you.”
Yeah. That’d be nice. But God doesn’t intend for things to be easy, does He?
Nope. And so I struggle. Knowing that I’m not there yet. Knowing that, every night when I ask for forgiveness, I’m still holding a grudge.
But I’m trying. And maybe that’s enough.