a voice crying out in the postmodern wilderness

The Power to Change the Past

The Power to Change the Past

Forgiveness is a morally and emotionally complicated act. Children don't understand it, and they just say sorry when their parents make them and they move on to other behaviors rooted in pain avoidance or pleasure-seeking. We adults pretty much do the same.

I read an article today written in the 80s by Lewis B. Smedes. The article is called Forgiveness - The Power to Change the Past. I beg you to read it, as Smedes' words are so profound they seem other-worldly. (If you will reach out to me and ask, I'll email it to you as it came from the archives of Christianity Today and may not be easy to find.) I must credit the late Mr. Smedes with what follows here, as I'm not sure which are my thoughts and which are his. 

The 3-Step Process

Forgiveness, Smedes says, is a 3-step process: suffering, spiritual surgery, and starting over. Suffering is what we experience when we're hurt by someone. We sit in that hurt for a while, shedding tears and writhing in the reality of what happened. Then comes spiritual surgery, which is the act of divorcing the wrong from the person who wronged you. This is emergency surgery which must be done as soon as the forgiver is able.

Smedes says:

"When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You disengage that person from his hurtful act. You recreate him. At one moment you identify him inerradicably [sic] as the person who did you wrong. The next moment you change that identity. He is remade in your memory."

When we go into spiritual surgery to forgive someone, we walk into the operating room washed not in iodine but in the blood of Christ. Jesus' act on the cross made forgiveness possible, and the act itself was the pinnacle of forgiveness. From Christ's pinnacle on the cross all flows downhill. 

After spiritual surgery, we start over in our relationship with the offender. No longer are they the offender, or even the former offender. They're a new creation. The old has passed away. We must begin again.

A Painful Process

Let's be real though - forgiveness is hard. It often feels like walking into the wind. On hot coals. Sometimes it feels utterly impossible. It is possible, though. Hard but possible.

Forgiveness does not require restitution or answers or excuses for what was done. It does not even require justice be done as a condition precedent. Let me say that again so it sinks in: forgiveness does not require justice be done first. The act of forgiveness is so painful because the forgiver executes justice by internalizing the pain and absolving the offender of the offense. Justice is done through forgiveness, and the one forgiving must hold the pain in her shaking hands.

And then she must release it.

Ambiguity is Unavoidable, So Dance Instead

Human behavior is incomprehensible sometimes. We want answers. Why did you do that to me? How could you? They cannot answer because they don't know. They, like you and me, are a mix of depravity and holiness and somehow they went astray. It could have been temptation from Satan or simply a bad choice - or a mix of both. You, the offended, will never know. You cannot remain vigilant for answers so you can store the pain in nice little file folders in your brain. Relationships don't logically reduce like a fraction, they melt like chocolate when surrounded with love.

Forgiveness isn't a deposit in our karma bank. It is, as Smedes says, to "dance with the beat of God's forgiving heart." 

If, instead of seeking perfect answers, we will seek the heart of God and let him lead, we can then dance the dance of forgiveness. There will be unresolved questions and details which are never revealed, but it doesn't matter. Love does not require logic or historical documentation. It's just love.

Forgive Today, Be Forgiven Tomorrow

In my own life, I have found it important to remember my own sinfulness when I am working to forgive someone else. While I may forgive you today, I will probably need your forgiveness tomorrow because I am no lily white saint.

Jesus even says we must forgive if we want to be forgiven. He says:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15 ESV)

There is an important reciprocity in forgiveness. There is something in it for us. We must practice it if we want to experience it for ourselves. 

The Long Game

Love is a choice, not a feeling. So is forgiveness. Don't be surprised if you need to perform spiritual surgery twice or even twenty times. It's a long game.

We must remain committed to the holy act of forgiving. It is a shift in mindset. I choose to forgive you. I choose to experience those reminders of what you did and yet remain committed to forgiving you. I will make this choice again and again over time.

When it's hard, that means you're doing it right. It is contrary to base human nature to lovingly absolve someone of their wrongdoing. 


Most of us have done things we're not proud of. Some of us have done things which cause us to live in dreadful shame. We must know that forgiveness is offered in Christ, first and foremost. That is why he went to the cross. 

Self-forgiveness is crucial after we've experienced God's forgiveness. We must internalize the grace of God and let it soak into our souls. We must release ourselves.

If you've hurt someone, you can ask for forgiveness but you cannot make others forgive you. You can, however, forgive yourself. You can self-perform surgery on your identity and transform from offender to imperfect but loved child of God. It will not change the hurt. It's possible that those you've hurt will hate you for what you did, and that's hard. Avoid the temptation to grow bitter if you've forgiven yourself but others haven't forgiven you. You can only control you.

What Now?

Most of us have someone in our lives whom we have not fully forgiven, so I these truths are universally applicable. I need to heed them and so do you. Living as sinful beings in a crowded and broken world, we're going to bump into one another and hurt each other.

Bring yourself before the Lord and ask for his help and guidance. Ask for the strength to forgive. And then do it, looking the offender in the face and telling them you've forgiven them. Do the surgery and remove the stain on their character. And remember this is a long-term battle which is not yet over. It'll take time.

Consider who God might be calling you to forgive. Then scrub in, pray, and go change the past through the miracle of forgiveness.

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