Forgiveness is rewarded not just in the afterlife but also in this life. It is the key to happiness in this life. Forgiveness dissolves feelings of anger and hatred and resentment and leaves peace, gratitude, and joy in their place. Such feelings make us happy. Feelings of anger, hatred and resentment make us feel unhappy and miserable. So forgiveness rewards itself in this life.
Jesus told his disciples how to pray and that prayer included “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt 6:12). He continued and taught them that if they did not forgive, neither would they be forgiven. That means that in the kingdom of heaven they will not be forgiven and not even find entry into the kingdom of heaven. However, isn’t there reason to believe that even in this life, an unwillingness to forgive results in unhappiness? Just consider what a person is like who does not want to forgive. They hold a grudge and because they do, they are angry that something bad has happened to them. They nurse the anger and rehearse the slight or harm done to them over and over again. They continue to see themselves as a victim. Even if they are not being harmed now they continue to feel harmed. And they have to keep up a feeling of hostility toward the one who harmed them until they can get even. Getting even may not be possible so they are also frustrated that justice is not done.
I have an uncle who was put on the street when he was 16 just after his father had died. His step-mother had her attorney call him and tell him to get going. Although he went to live with one of his older sisters and everything turned out okay, he continued to nurse anger and resentment that this happened to him. When one day he ran into this attorney on the street he punched him out and stuffed him down a manhole to get back at him. Although a police officer witnessed this he sided with my uncle and didn’t press charges. My uncle tells this story with relish because it showed how he got vindication, however, this hasn’t always happened with other people who have harmed him. He holds his grudges as a habitual response to any perceived slights. He has developed a self-righteous attitude toward other people because he always sees himself as the victim and never as a victimizer. And he is an unhappy person because he is alienated from people since he sees himself as superior to them.
On the contrary, my mother, who experienced the same thing, responded with forgiveness. She didn’t hold onto a grudge and didn’t develop a habit of responding to slights with anger and grudge holding. She was grateful that her sister has taken her in and had helped pay for her college. She decided to be grateful where her brother chose to be resentful. She now has many friends, gets along with people, and has empathy for others who may also suffer. As a result she has peace of mind and experiences joy knowing that she is also forgiven by God for any of her failings.
Forgiveness is a command of Jesus and not optional for the Christian. And yet forgiveness and mercy are difficult. Let me give you a tip I got from my friend Steve Brown of Key Life. When I find it difficult to forgive, I tell God how I honestly feel and that I don’t want to forgive, but I tell him to make it a contract with me to change my heart so that I can forgive and then I give it over to him. Forgiveness doesn’t always come easily and quickly but when I faithfully do this and continue to pray for the person who I don’t want to forgive, my heart gradually changes. The feelings of hurt and humiliation begin to disappear. I don’t feel like a victim anymore and my anger transforms into an honest appraisal of the person who hurt me and a realistic picture of the harm that was done. I begin to see where they are failing but I also see where I can pray for their betterment. And finally I also begin to see where what happened actually was to my greater benefit and that perception results in gratitude. Gratitude is a wonderful feeling and is completely conducive to happiness. In time a feeling of peace and joy reasserts itself and I see myself as the recipient of goodness not harm. And this is the basis of happiness.
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