Forgiveness Is Not a Feeling
“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.
Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.”
Colossians 3:13, NLT
When I first met my friend Sheila Harper, I was drawn to her instantly. Do you ever have friends like that? You meet them and right away you like them. As our relationship grew I learned why she is such a strong, beautiful woman—she has offered unimaginable forgiveness.
As a young girl, Sheila was sexually abused by her grandfather. When she was in her twenties she started to recognize the negative impact of these events on her life. And she also learned he had taken advantage of each of her sisters. This was impacting her ability to trust men in general, to trust her husband, and even to trust God. So she began to see a Christian counselor to help her find some resolution to the pain and anger she was experiencing.
She was with the counselor for a year, and felt like she made some progress, but all she could feel for her grandfather by the end of the time with the counselor was apathy. The anger and pain was mostly gone. But now in its place was just this blank sense that this didn’t matter. He didn’t matter.
Several years later, after her two boys were born and were beginning to grow into young men, Sheila and her husband decided to do some remodeling to their home. Sheila called her dad, who was a contractor, and he agreed to help. He asked to bring his father (Sheila’s grandfather) to help as well.
Sheila’s initial response was, “No way! He can’t come to my house.” But she was also in a difficult position. Since her father didn’t know about the abuse, and she had already asked him to help with the remodel—there didn’t seem to be a polite way to explain why her grandfather wasn’t allowed to come.
So she conceded. “Okay, he can come,” she told her husband, “But the boys will never be left alone with him. And I don’t want to be around him. We’ll just leave the house and let you guys do the remodel together.” She had a whole list of rules she wanted the family to follow. She didn’t want to take a picture with him, didn’t want to hug him or touch him, and barely wanted to speak to him. It was as if all the negative feelings she’d held for so long came flooding back in that instant.
Sheila prayed and prayed in anticipation of the day her grandfather would come. She begged God to give her what she needed to be in the same room with him, let alone to have him at their house for several days. When the day came for Sheila’s grandfather and father to come to the house, she and her husband stood at the door.
“Are you ready?” her husband asked.
“No!” Sheila felt like screaming. And yet, when the door swung open, and she saw her father and grandfather standing there. She felt this incredible rush of love come over her. It was as if, although her heart said, “no,” her spirit said, “yes.”
Sheila told me later she prayed non-stop through the entire visit. “God, help me,” she would say. “Give me what I need to make it through this.” And, like the faithful Father he is, God provided. She didn’t ask for love. She didn’t even want love. But she did ask God to give her what she needed, and He gave her love. Not only was Sheila able to see her grandfather for who he was, in spite of his brokenness, that weekend, she also explained the many ways he was a gift to her family.
They kept the same boundaries they had originally agreed upon. He was never left alone with her kids. But he told the boys stories, made them laugh, and worked diligently to complete the remodel.
At one point during the weekend, Sheila’s husband whispered to her, “You’re doing great!”
Sheila whispered back, “It’s not me!”
From that weekend on, the love Sheila felt for her grandfather never left her. In fact, it only grew. She made it a point to call and check on him, to see how he was feeling. She and her sisters would pray for him fervently, asking God to convict his heart so he would come to know Jesus.
When her grandfather was nearly ninety-six years old, Sheila’s sister felt prompted to make the drive to visit her grandfather and ask him about his relationship with God. At first, her sister felt the way Sheila felt when her father asked if they could help with the remodel. Her heart said, “No way!” But even as she wrestled with God, her spirit said, “Yes.” An incredible love washed over her, and she drove to visit him.
When she arrived, she didn’t waste much time (he was ninety-six, after all). She asked him, point blank, if he had met the Lord. His response shocked her.
“No I haven’t,” he said, “But I really want to.”
So Sheila’s sister led their grandfather in the sinner’s prayer, and He accepted Jesus. A few weeks later, he was baptized. Although he was so frail they had to carry him down into the water, when he rose up from the water he was a brand new man. Now, he’s in heaven.
“God is just so good,” Sheila told me, when she ended with that part of the story.
The most amazing part of Sheila’s story, to me, is the way God shaped and shifted her feelings about her grandfather when she surrendered them to Him. She felt anger toward him, resistance, and even apathy. But when she asked God for what she needed, she was given love. Perhaps it was this love—totally extravagant, undeserved love—that opened a door to a new eternity.
Surrendering Negative Feelings
Just because we have negative feelings toward a person doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven them, or that we can’t choose to forgive. This used to be confusing for me. But the more I learn to forgive, and the more women I meet who have offered radical forgiveness, the more I believe it. We must choose to forgive before the negative feelings go away. It is a decision. When we make the decision to forgive, and surrender our negative feelings to God, He heals our hurts and gives us what we need.
When we relinquish our right to get even, He can restore the most broken places.
Is there someone you need to forgive? Are you still waiting for it to “feel” right?
If forgiveness isn’t a feeling, what is it? It is:
- Taking your hurt to God and being honest with Him about how you feel.
- Trusting God to be your defense.
- Praying for the one who hurts you.
- Not returning evil.
- Refusing to get revenge or make the other person pay.
- Not talking to others about it.
- Eventually wanting what is best for them.
If you’ve experienced an offense and you are still hurting, I want to encourage you. It is not God’s desire for you to be harmed in any way. The hurt you experience in response to wrongdoing is a natural response. Don’t try to pretend like it doesn’t hurt. But let me encourage you to not stay in your place of pain. (Trust me, bitterness is a destructive poison in our hearts.) Choose to take steps toward forgiveness and ask God to heal the pain you feel.
When you choose to forgive, it says more about you than it does about the person you’re forgiving. Forgiving says you know you are redeemed, restored, and forgiven. And I believe your feelings will change as you take steps to forgive. Like Sheila, you will experience an abundant, beautiful life.
Clarensau, Kerry, A Beautiful Life: Discovering the Freedom of Selfless Love. Influence Resources, 2014. Used by permission.
KERRY CLARENSAU is director of Women’s Ministries for the North Texas District Council, Assemblies of God, and is the author of Secrets: Transforming Your Life and Marriage, Redeemed: Embracing the Transformed Life, A Beautiful Life: Discovering the Freedom of Selfless Love, and Fully His: Make the Life God Offers Your Own. She previously served as Assemblies of God National Women’s Ministries Director.
SHEILA HARPER is the founder of Save One, which offers abortion recovery help for men, women, and family members/friends, through group study, online study, or answering questions and giving encouragement through self-study. You can find Sheila’s curriculum at My Healthy Church.