by Wayne Geiger
Ricky Jackson spent some time in prison. In 1975, when Jackson was 18 years old, he was accused and convicted of a brutal robbery and murder. He was sentenced to death. Sometime later, his sentence was reduced to life in prison. All along, Jackson proclaimed his innocence.
Then, in 2013, new overwhelming evidence was brought to light. Jackson was, what he has been saying all along, innocent. He was finally released as a free man. Jackson spent 39 years in an Ohio prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He did the time—but didn’t do the crime. He served the longest prison term for an exonerated defendant in American history.
The thought of being incarcerated for that length of time—and being innocent the entire time—is beyond our imagination. Think of all the things that he missed and the moments he will never have back. Almost four decades behind bars.
You may be a prisoner. True, you are not locked up. There are no bars restricting your freedom and there is no prison guard. But nonetheless, you are a prisoner. It’s a prison of your own choosing. Your prison is not physical but emotional and spiritual.
Like most people, it could be that sometime in the past, someone has hurt you deeply. Thinking of them and the incident brings up issues of anger and resentment. It’s now causing you consistent and deep pain. You refuse to let go of the anger and resentment because you believe it gives you a sense of empowerment and control. In love, please understand, the unforgiveness you are harboring in your heart is slowly eating you alive. You are a prisoner. Your cage is locked from the inside. You need to let it go.
Forgiveness is something that I have personally experienced. Extending forgiveness to others is something that I have had to do. Extending forgiveness to some people was easy. Extending forgiveness to others was a process. To be honest, there were times when I didn’t want to do it. Times when I felt I was justified in my anger and times when I just thought it was plain unfair. But, as a Christian, I understand that extending forgiveness is not optional. I am commanded to forgive.
You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker, “I’m not perfect—just forgiven.” That message is not meant to be an excuse to live out a lifestyle that is inconsistent with the gospel. Instead, the phrase should flow from a heart that understands the depth and sacrifice of forgiveness.
Forgiveness originates from the heart of God and is the pearl that was produced from a heart of pain. The Bible says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son” (John 3:16). God did not have to forgive. He chose to.
None of us can say, “It’s not fair! God you don’t understand!” God understands the price of forgiveness. It cost Him His Son.
God wants His children to act like Him. That means, God wants His people to extend forgiveness to others. The Bible says, “[bear] with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:13). People who have been forgiven should be the first to forgive.
A couple of truths about forgiveness:
First, please understand, when you forgive someone who has hurt you, it doesn’t automatically release them from the responsibility. Extending forgiveness is not about them. It’s about you.
When you forgive it allows you to move on. The chains of anger and resentment that once held you prisoner fall helplessly to the ground removing that tremendous weight from your heart. You no longer allow that person to have control over you.
Second, extending forgiveness does not mean that they are free from any penalty. Your forgiveness does not excuse their behavior or remove future retribution. It just means that you won’t be the one to do it.
You don’t have that kind of power anyway. That judgment belongs only to God and they will have to deal with Him about that.
The Bible reminds the believer, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Rom 12:19-20).
Our tendency is to bury and harbor the anger and bitterness in our heart. It’s a defense mechanism. We’re instinctively trying to protect a wounded heart. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
The workers at Yellowstone Park say that the powerful grizzly bear prefers to eat alone. However, he will allow one animal to eat with him: the skunk.
The bears come often to eat at the place where garbage is dumped. The grizzly can fight and beat almost any animal in the park, but it lets the skunk share its meal. It could easily kill the little creature in a fight, but it doesn't.
He knows the high cost of getting even and decides it’s not worth it. Executing your own vengeance will always cost you something and it always leaves a mark.
Finally, extending forgiveness does not mean that you have to maintain a relationship with that individual. If I choose to try to pet a neighbor’s dog through the fence and that dog tries to bite me, I can forgive the dog. But, at the same time, I’m not going to stick my hand through the fence again and try to pet him.
I’ve learned my lesson. That ship has sailed. In the same way, extending forgiveness does not mean that you allow someone to be a place where they continue to hurt you. You just move away and move on.
Forgiveness is not trite, it’s never easy, and it’s never free. God understands that. However, extending forgiveness is in our best interest. It breaks the chains of bitterness and hate that held us down and sets the prisoner free—us.
It also says, “God you are the only One who can judge, and I release my hurt and pain to you knowing that you will bring justice.” In the end, it releases our mind and heart to be able to live in joy and freedom.
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Church Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.