What do I do when forgiveness feels impossible?

I didn’t get much sleep last night. Memories of slander and of shunning and contempt aimed at someone I love had me wrestling with bitterness and anger.

Feelings of hurt and anger are nothing new. Not with me. Not with anyone who has a soul. Even God feels hurt and angry if we’re to take the Scriptures as evidence.

To be in relationship is to be vulnerable, to be open to hurt. And vulnerability means hurt is inevitable, because we humans excel at relational destruction.

This is why reconciliation and forgiveness are such huge themes throughout the Scriptures. Genesis 3-11 shows the range of relationships that are broken and in need of reconciliation — between us and God; between husband and wife; between siblings; between genders; between nations and ethnicities; between humans and creation. God’s great plan is for the restoration and recreation of all of these mangled relationships.

God stepped into the middle of our relational chaos in the man Jesus so that we could throw our stones at him, instead of at one another. More than his wrath at our sin, it was our sinful wrath that he wanted to drain from us as we poured it out on the Innocent One.

OK. I get this. I get the biblical call to forgiveness. I get that it is at the very heart of God, the very heart of the Scriptures, the very heart of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray — “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” I get that it is one of the key ways we participate in what God is doing in the world, refreshing what has grown salty and barren.

But there are times when I’ve tried to forgive and yet I wrestle with my unforgiveness in the middle of the night like Jacob at the Jabbok. So, what do I do then?

Forgiving the first time is almost easy. Forgiving for the 100th time, as the same old slight rises to the surface, is the hardest. Not only do I have a hold on the hurt, but the hurt has a hold on me. And so I wrestle with opposite impulses: I want to forgive and move on and I want to defend myself and lash out in retribution.

In my wrestling with unforgiveness, I find the Psalms to be such helpful companions.

Do not remember the sins of my youth
    and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
    for you, Lord, are good. [Psalm 25:7]

David, in Psalm 25, is lonely, afflicted, and dealing with enemies. He looks for rescue and refuge in God. But as he considers the sins of his enemies against him, he is reminded of his own sins and turns to God for forgiveness.

We see the same thing at play in the beloved Psalm 139. David starts with

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me. [Psalm 139:1]

And then he considers how complete God’s knowledge is, how it reaches into every place where human knowledge can’t go. But then we get to the real point the psalm, which ironically is the part almost everyone skips over: the angry verses (19-22). David rages in anger that has boiled over into hatred. He is so consumed by it that he has to turn inward to consider his own sinfulness. But he doesn’t trust himself to see into the darkness of his heart. He needs the One for whom darkness isn’t dark, the one who is familiar with the hidden and secret places within us. And so he ends with these words:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. [Psalm 139:23-24]

He beseeches the Searcher. Know me. Test me. See me. And finally, when my anxious thoughts and offensive ways have been exposed for what they are, lead me.

These and other prayers scattered throughout the Psalms remind me that it’s not just those who have hurt me who have darkened hearts (and they do), but mine is darkened as well. This doesn’t excuse the wrongs of others. Those things are still wrong. But these prayers move me out of my squeezed down world of self-pity and self-righteousness and into a much larger God-shaped world, where he sees what is broken in me just as much as what is broken in others.

This divine perspective on the state of my soul doesn’t solve the problem of a hateful person who persists in doing me wrong, but it does teach me a humility and a self-awareness that does the soul work necessary to prepare me for a potential reconciliation if the other person ever becomes ready to engage in it.

In other words, when I know my own need for forgiveness, I become much more willing to offer forgiveness to others. It’s when I’ve forgotten my need for forgiveness that I become stubborn and unwilling to move toward others, reaching for reconciliation.

And so, after an exhaustingly sleepless night of bitterness, I pray:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.