I was introduced to a young woman at an event and we began chatting. I asked about her life and background and she shared the difficulties she had been through in her childhood. A harsh stepfather had caused her much pain growing up and she had left home as soon as she was able. Years later she felt convicted that she was harboring anger against her stepfather and wrote a long letter to him. She laid out all her grievances and described how what he had done had affected her life adversely. She concluded the letter with words of forgiveness. I asked what the result of the letter was and she said “nothing.” He never replied and they have had no contact in the years since. I was sad to hear this and thought to myself, “that’s not forgiveness at all” but since we had just met I didn’t want to say anything. Maybe I should have.
If I ever had a chance to see her again and if she was willing to talk about this with me, I would explain that sending that letter was not an act of forgiveness, but possibly an act of revenge. When you forgive someone, you are covering over what they have done, not pointing it out, describing it in detail and highlighting it! You are not looking to punish them or cause them pain. You are making a choice before God to forgive, whether the other person is sorry or apologizes or not. You are submitting to God in obedience despite how the other person feels or reacts. Your offender may not even agree that they have done anything wrong!
During the years I spent harboring anger and bitterness against my parents, I repeatedly tried to tell them how wrong they were, how much they hurt me. They never agreed! I would accuse them of being selfish and negligent and they would accuse me of being rebellious and overly sensitive. These discussions were not pleasant and both sides came away hurt as a result. It only caused further contention in our relationship. I kept trying, though, thinking that if I could just get them to understand how much they hurt me that they would finally apologize properly and everything would be made right.
But here’s the ironic part. I was looking for healing from my wounds and thought that remorse and apologies from my parents would accomplish that. But I know now that it wouldn’t have, even if they had said with true sorrow and tears, “You’re so right and we were so wrong. We are so sorry, how can we ever make it up to you?” This would not have fixed me or healed my hurts. What healed me is giving up my own rights and obeying Christ by choosing to forgive them! I was healed by the Holy Spirit when I submitted and obeyed. It had nothing to do with what my parents said or didn’t say.
My friend was maybe hoping for healing from her pain by making her stepfather understand all that he had done wrong. She said she forgave him in the letter, but perhaps she was secretly hoping for an apology from him too. I don’t know her heart so maybe her motives were pure, but it didn’t accomplish what she desired. She is apparently still carrying deep wounds from that relationship since she readily shared that information with me (someone she had just met)!
If I ever had a chance to talk to her again, I would remind her that her own anger and unforgiving heart is sin and she must repent of that and then make the choice to forgive her stepfather. Even if he is no longer living, she must do that thing between herself and God in obedience. And that will start her on the path to true healing and joy!