It’s unusual to call a policeman by his first name, but Rudy had been to our house enough times that he began to feel like a friend. Although our home in San Antonio was in a decent neighborhood, it was close enough to a dicey part of town that we got burgled or vandalized on what felt like a fairly regular basis. Jeff was driving an old silver BMW at the time, which—despite being rather beat-up looking—seemed to attract criminals who thought BMW stood for “Break My Window.” His windows were smashed several times because the burglar saw something in the car worth stealing. Once, it was a radar detector—a fairly high-priced item—but cassette tapes and coins in the console seemed to be fair game, too. I wish I could say that getting rid of the BMW put an end to our streak of crime, but that wasn’t the case. The replacement for Jeff’s BMW—a Toyota pick-up truck—was stolen right out of our garage soon after we bought it. By this point in time, we knew Rudy better than our neighbors. It was getting ridiculous.

Thankfully, we had a reprieve from our part-time job as victims of crime when we moved to Idaho. I suspect it’s because there are more cows than people in that state, so the odds were, for once, on our side. Once we moved to the U.K. however, that all changed. We were burgled the first night we moved into our house. I’m not kidding. The boxes weren’t even unpacked, for goodness’ sake! I considered this violation to be a bad sign of what was to come, and sure enough, we were burgled one more time before we moved back to the States. If this sounds unbelievable, all I can say is I wish I were making this up. If you have ever been a victim of crime, you know how unsettling the whole experience can be. I felt violated because someone came into our house and took whatever they felt like. I was furious that what we had worked hard for was unfairly taken from us. Thankfully, our crime streak seemed to end once we came back to the States, so I put it all behind me…until recently, that is.

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

A couple of days ago, Jeff told me about a news story that really got under my skin. An illegal immigrant posted a viral video online, telling other illegal immigrants that they can legally “expropriate” the homes of Americans through our squatter rights laws. The issue of squatters’ rights has been growing in the United States, as several states allow people to live rent-free in homes, while homeowners can do little about it despite shouldering the mortgage payments. As I listened to this story, I felt my anger grow. I was indignant with the injustice of the whole situation and felt a pressure growing in my chest. The intensity of my emotions confused me, and I hated that my voice was getting shrilly: “That is so unfair!” I complained. I could feel my heart go cold toward “those people” who were possibly fleeing hardship in their own countries by coming into ours. I hated that I was feeling so deeply angry with people I didn’t know. I wondered what in the world was going on.

The answer came in the middle of the next night. I woke up to the word “BMW” in my head and immediately remembered Jeff’s car windows being smashed and our property being stolen. I hadn’t thought about this time in our lives in over thirty-five years! Why was I thinking about this now? It wasn’t long before I finally made the connection. The story about the homeowners being treated unjustly by illegal immigrants triggered my own unprocessed anger for what happened to us. I never took the time to forgive the people who damaged our property and stole our things. I never released them for causing me to be fearful in my own home. Thirty-five years ago, a little seed of unforgiveness was planted in my heart, and it managed to grow into a full-blown tree of bitterness and anger. I knew in that instant that I had work to do. I needed to forgive the criminals.

“Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:13)

If you struggle to believe that it’s important to forgive those who have harmed you (or others), I encourage you to rethink your perspective. First, if you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, you are not left with any other option but to forgive. Jesus makes it clear that if we want to be forgiven, we are required to forgive others. If we don’t want to be judged or condemned, we mustn’t do that either (Luke 6:37). This message is repeated over and over again throughout the Scriptures because forgiveness is good for our souls. Seeds of unforgiveness have a way of growing roots of bitterness that rob you of being able to offer love and compassion to others. I noticed this happening in my own heart in the example above. While I don’t need to ignore wrongdoing and the need for justice, I mustn’t allow hatred to grow in my heart. That’s my responsibility. If I have any chance of learning to love my enemies as Jesus commands (Matt 5:44), I first have to commit to forgiving them.

a room that has a bunch of writing on the wall
Photo by Bailey Burton on Unsplash

It’s important to note that when we choose to release forgiveness, it doesn’t mean that the harm or hurt wasn’t wrong. The people who stole from us and damaged our property were every bit as wrong as those squatters taking over someone’s home. Every harm you have suffered is equally wrong as well, and God certainly is not happy about it. Psalm 89:14 assures us that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne and that vengeance belongs to Him (Heb 10:30). This means that no matter how much or often someone hurt us, we don’t have an excuse to withhold forgiveness or retaliate in kind; even further than that, it means we are free to forgive because God takes care of the justice. When we choose to put that vengeance in God’s hands, we free up our hearts to love those who hurt us. This is actually good news. Without God’s unending grace and mercy in my own life, I would be toast. I don’t deserve forgiveness, either.

There is one more point to make regarding forgiveness: Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation. It is possible to forgive someone without reconciling the relationship. For example, if a person isn’t safe or is unwilling to admit that circumstances need to change, it may be impossible to rebuild the trust that’s needed for reconciliation. And that’s okay…Abusive people don’t get to be in your life just because you forgive them. You can forgive and still have healthy boundaries.

It’s also possible to forgive a criminal and still want to see justice served. In other words, I can be against crime without hating the criminal. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t easy, but without forgiveness, it’s truly impossible.

Speaking from experience, I know that often, forgiving is easier said than done. I remember a time when Jeff did something to hurt me (again🙄), and I inwardly thought, “I’m done forgiving him.” I no sooner finished my thought when I heard, “Seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:22). This was a reminder of what Jesus told Peter when he asked how many times he should forgive a brother or sister who sins against him. I immediately understood that I needed to keep extending forgiveness every time I was hurt. There is no limit on forgiveness because Jesus willingly died so that I could be forgiven for my sins – which are many more than 77. The same is true for you. As a result, we have no right to withhold forgiveness from others, nor should we want to. Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. It’s just not good for our souls.

What can you do if you honestly don’t think you can forgive someone who has hurt you? I have counseled many people over the years who have struggled with this very problem, so I understand the struggle. Here’s the bottom line: You can’t give away what you haven’t received. You first have to ask for God’s grace for yourself.

Ask Jesus to fill you with an abundance of His forgiveness so you have plenty to pass on to others. Your prayer might sound something like this:

“Jesus, I am angry at Joe. I am having a hard time forgiving him, but nothing is impossible for you. Please fill me with an abundance of your grace and forgiveness so that I have plenty to pass on to Joe.”

After you ask, I suggest that you sit and wait with your hands open, expecting to receive God’s grace in a tangible way. I have witnessed countless people who have waited expectantly for God to give them the forgiveness they need to be able to forgive those who have hurt them. Sometimes, it happens quickly; other times, it seems to take much longer, but I’ve never had anyone tell me that they can’t forgive if they’ve asked Jesus to fill them first. The grace of God has no limits. It even extended to those who killed him.

This weekend, Christians all over the world celebrate Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection. The crucifixion is a visible picture of God’s commitment to forgive the sins of those who ask. Although forgiveness is free, the gift was not cheap. It cost Jesus His life. Although I plan to celebrate this weekend by worshipping with countless others across the globe, I also plan to take time to receive God’s forgiveness afresh so that I can release it to those who have hurt me. I’ll start with forgiving people who like to smash car windows…

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