Years ago, I experienced a great betrayal. It could have been a devastating experience; indeed, it almost was. Were it not for the fact that I had a strong support network around me and that I had been “building” something in my life for many years before that betrayal, I believe it would have crushed me. (See my three-part series on How I Study the Bible for insight in to how and what I was building.)
Without sharing the details, let me just say that during that season of my life my sentiments were not unlike David’s lament in the Psalms, “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers” (Ps 55:12).
My whole world was rocked. I questioned myself, my faith, the word of God, etc. In the end, however, God won out. I acknowledged that He hadn’t betrayed me; man had. And because I valued His relationship above all others, I had no choice but to follow His command in such a situation and “forgive my debtors.”
Within a few short weeks after the climax of that betrayal, I was recovering and already somewhat stabilized (I have seen others never recover from such a blow. I was truly experiencing God’s grace). I was getting back to “life as normal” when one day, as I drove into a familiar parking lot, a wave of memories suddenly washed over me—memories from my last time at this precise location, a moment in time in which the betrayal was coming to light.
My mind reeled. I was blindsided by the rush of familiarity and the wave of negative emotions that seemed to come from nowhere. I parked the car and sat there trying to get my bearings. What was going on???
I felt the anger and hurt all over again as I vividly recalled the circumstances of my last visit at this very place. I fought off the tears that were quickly filling my eyes (I was momentarily meeting up with a group of people). I was sorrowful, and I was also deeply disappointed in myself. I thought I had forgiven, and yet here I was experiencing these all-too-familiar emotions once again.
The previous few weeks since the “great betrayal,” I had been working valiantly on forgiving and moving on. Forgiveness was not optional; anything less would result in my internal destruction. And now, here I was back at square one, it seemed. It felt as if I had made no progress at all, that what I thought was forgiveness was just some kind of facade.
One Memory at a Time
As I sat in the car that day, surprised by the return of painful and vivid details, and also reeling from what I perceived as a spiritual failure (failure to forgive), I mumbled a heartfelt, though very simple, cry from the very depths of my soul. “God, how can I forgive…” and I enumerated the list of offenses that this location had evoked from my memory.
It was then that I heard His calm, quiet Voice speak within: “Forgive one memory at a time.”
I thought I had worked through a process of forgiveness during the prior weeks, but in hindsight, I see that I had really only made a choice and a commitment to forgive. The thorough act of forgiveness would only take place over time—as fresh memories of deceit, betrayal and wrongdoing were revealed or recalled. Each time a memory rose to the surface of my consciousness, I would have to work through the process again: remember it, experience the pain, make the choice once again to forgive—i.e., relinquish the right to resent, repay, be bitter—and leave any retribution (or not!) in the hands of God. Then move on.
A one-time dose of forgiveness may be possible for petty offenses, but for those offenses that might better be described as “betrayal,” it takes time. Lots of it. This does not mean that you seethe in bitterness while working through the process. No, it’s much cleaner than that. It means that you break the forgiveness—true forgiveness—down into “bite-sized” chunks and deal with each issue that must be forgiven thoroughly and completely.
The quicker we make the initial choice to forgive, the more “natural” the follow-through will be. There won’t be the struggle of “Will I?”; instead it will be more of an acknowledgement of “Here I go again” and a commitment to the completed process.
Making that initial choice to forgive was a defining moment for me. It shaped my life in ways I could not know until years later. It kept me from becoming bitter, resentful, cynical and hypocritical. Was it hard? Oh, yes! Would I do it again? Absolutely.
Setting the Offender Free
I once heard forgiveness described as “setting your offender free.” That description produced a mental picture for me of a couple of prisoners shackled together at the wrists and/or the ankles (we’ve all seen this in the movies). As I thought about that scenario, it dawned on me that neither prisoner was more or less bound than the other. They were both equally shackled.
What a revelation that proved to be! Even though I was the “victim,” the one betrayed, I was just as shackled as the betrayer if I persisted in any form of unforgiveness or retribution. This brought things into perspective for me. It motivated me to quickly and completely forgive—or as I came to refer to it, to release my offender.
From this visual, it becomes clear that forgiving others is doing yourself a favor! This sheds light on the proverb, “A kind [forgiving] man benefits himself, but a cruel man brings trouble on himself” (Pro 11:17).
This experience took place years ago, but as I said, it was a defining moment in my life. I have shared the principle of forgiving one memory at a time with many, many people, and it has proven to be just as powerful “second hand.”
Lately, new circumstances have caused some old memories to rear their ugly heads. At first, I was a little oblivious to what I was experiencing—until I began to recognize some of the internal agitation that accompanies an unforgiving heart. I began to practice the one-memory-at-a-time forgiveness, and again, I experienced the same release that I felt all those years ago.
I would add one more observation from this more recent round of releasing my offender(s): It is empowering. True forgiveness removes any sense of victimization and puts you in the driver’s seat. I mean, if you have the “key” to remove the shackles, how could you possibly be a victim or a prisoner?