Burying the Hatchet: Why Forgiving Others Is So Hard Yet So Liberating

In hindsight, taking a job on the night shift probably wasn't the best idea. Oh yeah, it had its perks. During those triple digit Texas summers, laboring under a waxing moon was a far sight better than beneath a taxing sun. The boss was snoozing away at home. And I got a thrill from maneuvering my semi through the darkness down the serpentine trails that meandered from one gas well to another. But, those perks notwithstanding, the bad outdid the good. My dark thoughts, during those long and lonesome midnight hours, were stained a deeper, more dangerous hue. The most traumatic moments of my life were still a raw memory. And not only was I unwilling to face up to the enormity of the wrongs I'd committed against others. I was also unready to forgive some people who had hurt me deeply. Truth be told, I wanted a pound of their flesh.

You ever been there? Holed up in that lightless lair where those with broken hearts, wounded pride, shattered dreams, bereaved hopes, and lives void of life crawl to hide from a world that holds no attraction for them anymore? Men may become monsters there, for it is a place of dehumanization. It’s an anti-Eden, where Adams are blown back into dust. But amidst all the losses incurred there, when everything seems to be slipping away, we tend to cling tenaciously to one thing: the resolve not to forgive those who have done us wrong.

The most significant, life-changing sentence you may ever speak is a mere three words: I forgive you. Yet not just to say that, but to mean it, and to live a life shaped by those words, may be the hardest thing you'll ever do. Here's why, and here's why there's nothing more frightening, and more liberating, than burying the hatchet for good.

There's a whole passel of reasons we're tightfisted with forgiveness. Maybe the offender isn't a bit sorry for what he did—or he doesn’t meet our repentance requirements. Or, we're afraid that if we forgive him, he might interpret that absolution as a free pass to repeat his abusive behavior. Or we withhold forgiveness punitively, a weapon of silence whereby we make people pay for what they've done. Or we might simply hate their guts, and we'll be damned if that lowlife is gonna hear one nice word from us. This is just a sampling of the myriad of reasons we keep those three words, ''I forgive you,'' locked deep within the vault of our hearts.

I believe, however, that lurking behind every reason we don't forgive is one fundamental impulse: the desire, real or perceived, to control the offender. For instance, I dangle forgiveness in front of her, like a carrot before the horse, until finally she does my will. Or, I offer to overlook everything if, and only if, he apologizes. Or, the people who’ve hurt me need to see my pain, so they themselves feel remorse. But if I forgive them, I’ll send the message that I’m okay—and I’m not okay, and as long as I’m not, they shouldn’t be either. In every instance, forgiveness, which is a free gift, morphs into a self-serving tool of manipulation whereby I seek to control another person. Inside our clouded minds, we convince ourselves that we’re doing what’s ultimately best for us.

I get it. We are all about self-protection, especially when we've been rode hard and put up wet. We’ve been used, and, by God, we’re bound and determined that’s not going to happen again. So we initiate the wall-building campaign, erecting protective barriers around ourselves, each one saying loud and clear, “Never again.” Never again will I trust a man to be faithful to me. Never again will I bare my soul to another person. Never again will I set foot in a church. And to fortify these “never again” vows, we make a promise to ourselves that we’ll forgive others only when such forgiveness will benefit us. It becomes a weapon in our arsenal, a tool in our belt—call it what you may, forgiveness becomes self-serving. Far from being a gift we grant to another, it is a boon we bestow upon ourselves. Who cares if it soothes the conscience of the offender? What matters is if it makes me feel better, gets me what I want. I’ll manipulate forgiveness, for, ultimately, it is mine to give to whomever I desire, under whatever conditions I choose, to achieve whatever ends serve me best.

I swallowed that thinking whole, and here’s what happened. I didn't realize what I was up to at first. Years ago, I bounced along those oilfield roads, fuming and fretting, night after night. And all the while I was engaged in the process of creating a god. From the junk yard of my past, I assembled the scrap metal of self-preservation, self-righteousness, and unalloyed selfishness, to weld together a hollow divinity. In its core, I stuffed myself: a god without divinity, offering forgiveness with conditions, to sinners without love.

Among the other mistakes we make when we stuff ourselves inside a self-made god, is the assumption that forgiveness is ours to give, or not give, as we see fit. But forgiveness, like life itself, does not have our name scrawled on it. It is not our property, much less our tool or weapon. It originates in the one true God, flows from him in Christ to me, and through me by the Spirit to others. So, when I forgive, it is not I who forgive but Christ who forgives through me. I am but pressing into the palm of a fellow transgressor the coin of freedom with which Christ has enriched me. I give only what I first received. I am not a god; I’m a fellow beggar, no better and no worse, but just as in need of absolution as every other sinner.

I have the heart of a mule, so it took me a while to realize this, to face up to my own sins, to seek forgiveness, and to discover a God who had already forgiven them. He had buried the hatchet inside the flesh of his own Son, who, even as he hung there spit-covered, blood-splattered, mocked, hated, abandoned, pierced, gasping, and ultimately dying, prayed the most remarkable prayer ever spoken: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Having received such a free and full forgiveness from the God to whom I owed a debt I could never repay, who was I to turn around and demand anything from those who “owed me”? They didn’t owe me an apology; they didn’t owe me repentance, tears, promises of improvement, vows never to repeat what they’d done. Nothing is what they owed me. So I crawled out of the hollow divinity I’d fashioned, threw it in the trash to rust, and said those frightening yet liberating words: I forgive you.

Very often, the very thing that we think will preserve us, destroys us. Ironically, in an effort to control others, sin took full control of me. There is a better way, a road that leads to freedom and joy. That way is Christ, whose forgiveness washes over us and into others, so that, together, we discover what a joy it is to bury the hatchet in an unmarked grave.