This afternoon I did a one-hour radio interview with Kerby Anderson and Carmen Pate on a program called Point of View. Near the end we took a call from a man who said that he struggles with resentment toward others. He asked a very crucial question. “Is there a prayer I could pray that will help me forgive, and if so, how often should I pray it?”
The last part of the question is easy to answer. When asked how often we should forgive those who have hurt us, Jesus answered that we should forgive “seventy times seven,” or 490 times (Matthew 18:21-22). He didn’t mean that we were to count and say, “298 . . . 299 . . . 300. Only 190 more to go.” He meant that our forgiveness is to be continual because we live in a world where people continually hurt us. The only answer for the anger and bitterness we feel is to discover the healing power of continual forgiveness. So I told the man that whenever angry thoughts came to his mind, he should pray a prayer of forgiveness. Sometimes with small offenses, we can forgive once from the heart and move on. But for deeper issues we will have to come to the place of forgiveness again and again.
I met a well-known pastor for lunch. I knew that he had gone through a hard time, but I had no idea how bad it was. People he thought were his friends had turned against him in a series of public, repeated, vicious attacks. They not only attacked him, they also attacked his wife. There were threats, ugly phone calls, rumors, gossip, lies spread about him. At one point he had to hire armed guards for his own (and his wife’s) protection. It was the worst story of local church conflict that I have ever heard.
What does forgiveness look like when your character has been assassinated? It isn’t easy or quick and it certainly isn’t cheap. How had he found the strength to keep on going? The turning point came when he went to his office, got on his knees, and named his enemies one by one. As he named them, he said, “Lord, I forgive _____________ for Christ’s sake.” He named them and he forgave them one by one by one. Did it change things? No, not really, not the outward situation, but it made a huge difference in his own heart. And he continues to pray and to forgive to this very day.
I don’t believe in “miracle prayers” that allow you to say a few words and then wash away the deep pain of life. But I do believe in forgiving again and again and again. Better to come back to the place of forgiveness than to live in the swamp of bitterness. Harboring resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy will die. It’s self-destructive behavior.
There is a better way. If someone objects that forgiveness costs too much, I simply reply that unforgiveness costs much more. I recommend that simple prayer of forgiveness, understanding that when we forgive those who have sinned against us we are only doing what Christ did when he forgave us first.