This text was the posted transcript of a sermon telecast on October 5, 1997, by 30 Good Minutes (Program 4101). A transcript of a short interview with Lewis Smedes follows the sermon.
Five Things Everyone Should Know About Forgiving
By Dr. Lewis Smedes (1921-2002)
Let’s say that you’ve been hurt. Somebody you counted on let you down. Somebody you trusted betrayed you in your trust. Somebody who promised to take care of you, instead took advantage of you. The hurt goes deep. What makes the pain worse is that you were wronged. You did not have it coming. Nobody deserves to be treated the way you were treated. It was not fair.
One thing is for sure. You cannot change what happened. There is no delete button for the past. You are stuck with it. You cannot forget what happened. You cannot erase it from your mind. It is like a video tape sewed inside your head. And every time it plays its rerun, you feel the pain all over again.
Now you have to make the hard decision. Do you want to spend the rest of your life with a pain that you did not deserve to get in the first place? Or do you want to be rid of it, healed, freed from it, so that you can go on with your life without that painful memory shadowing you?
There is one way to heal yourself. It is not one way among many. It is the only way. God invented it. It did wonders for him and does wonders for us. We call it forgiving. And God tells us to try it for ourselves. “Forgive each other,” the Good Book says, “as God in Christ forgave you.”
It is so simple. And yet people often misunderstand what forgiving is. And what it isn’t. So I want to share five simple things about forgiving just to clear up some mistaken notions about God’s way of healing unfair pain.
I. Forgiving is the only way to be fair to yourself
People have said to me, “Forgiving is just not fair. Why should I have to forgive the lout who did me wrong and let him off Scott free as if it never happened? “That just isn’t fair,” they say.
When they say that forgiving is not fair, I tell them that forgiving is the only way to be fair to yourself. Would it be fair to you that the person who hurt you once goes on hurting you the rest of your life? When you refuse to forgive, you are giving the person who walloped you once the privilege of hurting you all over again—in your memory.
Remember this: The first person to get the benefits of forgiving is the person who does the forgiving. It’s so important that I want to say that again: The first person who benefits from the forgiving is the person who does the forgiving. Forgiving is, first of all, a way of helping yourself to get free of the unfair pain somebody caused you. The most unfair thing about unfair pain is that you should go on suffering it in your bitterness and misery when there is such a simple remedy for it.
So if you think forgiving is unfair, let me tell you that once you’ve been wrongly hurt, forgiving is the only way to be fair to yourself.
II. Forgivers are not doormats
Some people have the notion that if you forgive you make yourself a doormat for people to walk on. A wimp. Nothing could be more wrong than this.
Let me tell you what one woman learned about not being a doormat and still being a forgiver. I was a guest on a radio talk show one time and a lady called in to tell us about how she had suffered the worst thing that could happen to a mother. A drunk driver in her neighborhood swerved his car out of control and hit and killed her three-year-old little girl who was playing on the grass near the curb. She died before they reached the hospital. Now, in a rage, her mother asked me how I could expect her to forgive a monster who got himself drunk, then took his car and killed her precious three-year-old daughter.
As soon as she hung up another woman called to say she had to speak to the first caller because the very same thing had happened to her. A drunk driver killed her five-year-old boy four years before, right in front of her own house. But listen to what she went on to say: She said that for two years, she lived in the fog of terrible rage. She fantasized the most horrible things happening to the man who killed her child. She wanted him to suffer more than he had made her suffer; to have nightmares the rest of his life and then burn in hell.
Well, after living in the misery of her blind, unhealed rage for two years, she woke up to the fact that the drunk who killed her son was now killing her—inside—a day at a time, killing her soul. And she was helping him do it. She was wise enough to go and see her priest who listened to her story and told her what she already knew, that the only way out of her pain was to set out on the journey of forgiveness. Yes, even for this wretched man who had done such a horrible thing to her. But he said there was something they had to do first. They had to begin a chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in their town. They had to make it known that if you forgive a drunk driver it does not mean that you must tolerate drunk driving.
Forgive those who wrong you, but do not tolerate their wrong doing. Forgive them and tell them what Jesus told
people he forgave: You are forgiven for what you did, but stop it, don’t do it again. Let me say it again: Forgivers
are not doormats.
III. Forgivers are not fools
Some people think that if you forgive somebody you once trusted, it means that you have to go back into the same relationship with him or her that you had before. If she was a friend who made a practice of betraying you, forgive her and be friends again. Not a good idea. Forgivers do not have to be fools.
Suppose he was your husband once, and that he beat you or betrayed you until you just could not put up with it anymore and you left him. Now to heal yourself, you are ready to forgive him, ready to clean the garbage of spite and resentment out of your life.
But suppose he has given you reason to believe that if you went back to him, he would soon be back at his old abuse again. Don’t go back to him. Forgive him and pray that he will be changed. But don’t go back. Remember: You may be a forgiver, but forgivers do not have to be fools.
IV. You don’t have to wait until he says he’s sorry
Some people believe that you should not forgive anyone who wronged you unless he or she crawls back on his knees, says he or she is sorry, and begs you to forgive him. I think that is a bad idea.
If you wait for the lout who hurt you to repent, you may have to wait forever. And then you are the one who is stuck with the pain. If you wait for the person who hurt you to say she’s sorry, you are giving her permission to keep on hurting you as long as you live. Why should you put your future happiness in the hands of an unrepentant person who had hurt you so unfairly to begin with? If you refuse to forgive until he begs you to forgive, you are letting him decide for you when you may be healed of the memory of the rotten thing he did to you.
Why put your happiness in the hands of the person who made you unhappy in the first place? Forgive and let the other person do what he wants. Heal yourself.
V. Forgiving is a journey.
Some people suppose that you should be able to forgive everything in a single minute and be done with it. I think they are very wrong. God can forgive in the twinkling of an eye, but we are not God. Most of us need some time. Especially if the hurt went deep and the wrong was bad. So when you forgive, be patient with yourself.
When you decide to forgive you first make a baby step on the way to healing. And then you go on from there. You may be on the way for a long time before you finish the job. And you may backslide and need to forgive all over again.
I once was in a rage at a police officer in the village where I live for abusing my youngest son for no good reason. I stomped about my house for several days in a fury of anger at the officer. I knew I would be miserable unless I forgave him. But I did. I did forgive him. I forgave him by going into my study and getting on my knees, and saying, “Officer Maloney, I forgive you. In the name of God, I forgive you.”
About a year later I saw this same office drive by in a patrol car and I had to do it all over again. Only it was easier the second time. Then, a few years later, I heard that he had been fired from the force for abusive conduct. Hearing that tasted sweet as honey to me. I secretly smacked my lips with vengeful satisfaction. Then I realized I needed to forgive him one more time. Which I did. And, who knows, I may have to do it a few more times before I’m over it.
Nobody but God is a real pro at forgiving. We are amateur and bunglers. We cannot usually finish it the first time. So be patient with yourself. Make the first step. It will get you going and once on the way, you will never want to go back.
These are the five things I wanted to tell you about forgiving somebody who wronged you. Let me go over them
- Forgiving is the only way to be fair to yourself after someone hurts you unfairly.
- Forgivers are not doormats; they do not have to tolerate the bad things that they forgive.
- Forgivers are not fools; they forgive and heal themselves, but they do not have to go back for more abuse.
- We don’t have to wait until the other person repents before we forgive him or her and heal ourselves.
- Forgiving is a journey. For us, it takes time, so be patient and don’t get discouraged if you backslide have to do it over again.
And remember this: The first person who gets the benefit of forgiving is always the person who does the forgiving. When you forgive a person who wronged you, you set a prisoner free, and then you discover that the prisoner you set free is you. When you forgive, you walk hand in hand with the very God who forgives you everything for the sake of his Son. When you forgive, you heal the hurts you never should have felt in the first place.
So if you have been hurt and feel miserable about it, our Lord himself recommends forgiving as the only way to healing. I hope that you will try it for yourself.
Interview with Lewis Smedes
Interviewed by Lydia Talbot
Lydia Talbot: Lew, a compelling message on forgiveness. What would you say—looking back over your life and your career—has been the toughest point of forgiveness for you?
Lewis Smedes: That would be very easy to answer. There is a rule that you may only forgive people for what they do to you. I had the hardest time while growing up of forgiving someone who hurt my mother.
Talbot: What was that?
Smedes: If you want to hurt me, either hurt my kids or hurt her. She had a tough time, Lydia. She was thirty years old, her husband was thirty-one. She had five little children; she didn’t have a cousin or an aunt or an uncle or any kin on the entire continent. She had no job skills, there was no welfare. And then her husband dropped dead. Practically the day after he died, she had to go out to scrub other people’s floors and take in their washing to put bread on our table. A tough life. We lived in a neighborhood with some pretty—what shall I say?—tough, religious people. Two of them got together and came over to my mother and counseled her. The best counsel they could think of giving her was that she should give two or three of her children away. And, of course, I was the youngest, so I would have been among those. I had a hard time forgiving them for that. It was a tough job.
Talbot: Are you saying she did that
Smedes: Yes, she did.
Talbot: What was your mother’s name?
Smedes: My mother’s name was Rena Smedes. A marvelous, marvelous woman. She had to be to survive. Thinking about that as I grew up made me hope that bad things would happen to them.
Talbot: You just mentioned the word “hope.” You must tell us about the new book, soon to be published, on the subject of hope.
Smedes: I think the greatest challenge in the world today is bringing hope to the twenty percent of the human family today who have no hope. Being without hope is to be dead. We can survive only if we keep hope alive. What I wanted to do, Lydia, was to look at that carefully. Why is that so? Why is hope so important to us? Why is hope to our spirits what oxygen is our lungs? What do we have to hope for? What are our reasons for keeping hope alive? That’s what I wrote about.
Talbot: And that hope is something that you learned at a very early age. Please come back and tell us more about that hope in the future.
Biography. Dr. Lewis Smedes was educated at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Free University of Amsterdam. He is ordained in the Reformed Church of America and taught for over twenty-five years at Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Smedes is the author of many popular books of theology, including Forgive and Forget, Caring and Commitment, and A Pretty Good Person. He is now retired from teaching but continues to travel as a visiting preacher and to write from his home in Sierra Madre, California. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date (10.5.97) noted above.]
9.10.20: The original URL from which this was taken is no longer accessible: http://www.30goodminutes.org/csec/sermon/smedes_4101.htm. However, a PDF file of this text (less the interview) and some additional quotes from Lewis Smedes is also available here.