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Struggling to forgive?
Amber Albee Swenson
by Amber Albee Swenson
June 10, 2024

On Memorial Day, my husband and I traveled to attend a graduation party. We had traveled an unspecified distance (still under dispute—one of the two people in the car says 15 minutes; the other claims it was closer to a half hour) when one person in the car indicated they needed to stop at the upcoming rest stop to use the bathroom. The other passenger simply shrugged and said, “Do what you need to do.”

The passenger who hadn’t initially needed to stop had been drinking a can of sparkling water. Though said passenger used the facilities at the first rest stop, he or she indicated sometime later (also open to dispute—one of the passengers claims it was 10 minutes down the road, the other 30-40 minutes) that they would not be able to make it to the destination without pulling off at the next rest stop.

Though the first one who needed to go to the bathroom mere minutes into the journey had been given grace, he or she thought this suggestion seemed unreasonable in comparison to the number of minutes that were left in the trip. The other person quickly pointed out grace had been given before. Why wasn’t grace given now?

It’s a struggle as old as sin. Alexander Pope eloquently wrote, “To err is human; to forgive divine.”

Our faults seem minor and easily forgivable in our own eyes. What the other person did to us, though, seems a little more catastrophic and harder to get over.

Forgiveness is the very crux of the Christian faith. Jesus left heaven to become a man, live a perfect life, and offer his body and blood as payment for our sin. No matter how great the sin—murder, rape, gossip—anyone who looks to Jesus to be saved is in perfect peace with God.

If it doesn’t sound fair, it’s only because it isn’t. There was nothing fair about the brutal death Jesus suffered. He had done nothing to cause God to turn his back on him. He was obedient, kind, gracious, and good.

How sweet it is to be forgiven and given a clean slate of God’s mercy every morning. Here’s the rub: God expects the joy that we feel knowing our sins are forgiven should in turn result in our willing, wholehearted forgiveness of any and every one who has ever said or done something to hurt us.

If that sounds hard, it’s only because it is. Our sinful nature wants to keep score and stack the deck in our favor.

Jesus admonished, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Plainly stated, deal with your sins. If you think you’ve got them under control, go through the commandments from the opposite perspective. Here’s what I mean: one commandment tells us to put God above everyone else. Do you fear, love, and respect God above everything in your life? If you think you can answer yes to that, then perhaps start asking in what ways you disrespect God with your thoughts, words, and actions.

Another commandment forbids us to misuse the name of God. Perhaps you take pains not to use Jesus’ name as a curse word. Ask yourself how you are doing using God’s name to pray, praise, and give thanks. Are you praying as much as you would like? Are your days filled with praise and thankfulness?

You, like me, may find you don’t need to go far to see the plank. And once you see the plank, the speck doesn’t look quite so big.

When the speck looms large, I’ve found two things helpful. The first is Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies. When we pray for our enemies, knowing they are people Jesus died to forgive, it becomes a little harder to hold on to the hurt.

Second, I’ve recently realized my hurt is the tool the devil or his evil army uses to attack me. Everyone has their thing. Some people struggle with using alcohol as a crutch or spending money to feel valued or wasting time on unimportant things instead of doing the better things that have eternal meaning. On the right day, I can struggle with some of those things too. The army of evil knows our weaknesses and knows what usually works to make us fall.

Hurt, like grief, can come out of nowhere: an email, a question, a person’s name brought up . . . and all of a sudden, the pain is back. God would have us forgive. Satan would have us wallow. God would have us use the pain in our ministry. Satan would keep us paralyzed, thinking no good could come of bad.

Forgiveness is the tool that can lift us from the hurt. As I look to the cross where Jesus shed his blood for the cruel words, horrid thoughts, and wretched actions I have taken, grace turns the pain into action. So many people are hurt. Too many are still wandering, unaware that Jesus died for them. I can’t wallow with so much kingdom work to be done.

On my best days, I don’t have time to worry how far we’ve gone, how far we have to go, and how many stops we have to make in between. Even if it wasn’t me on Memorial Day (that is neither an admission nor a denial of guilt), I’ve certainly been unbending, self-centered, and ungracious more times than I want to admit. Every day is another chance to chip away a little bit of my plank, including the part that struggles to forgive.