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Grieving to Forgiveness

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Keith McLaughlin, Vice President of Healing Care Ministries

“I will not forgive him!”, I shouted with as much strength as I could through the sobs. My mom was holding my head back with a crumpled handful of paper towels under my nose. The blood felt like a stream flowing out of a hose on a warm summer day. My eyes were watering, primarily because of the anger and embarrassment. A few moments before, I was engaged in an unsanctioned boxing match that had turned from friendly to bloody in a matter of seconds. My opponent was a kid I had just met about fifteen minutes before. “You need to forgive him and apologize for trying to hurt him” my mom implored as she was slowing the flow of blood. “You don’t understand what he did. He needs to apologize to me," I said. The debate continued well after my nose stopped bleeding and I did eventually apologize and muttered the words, “I forgive you” as I shook his hand. This was my first real adventure to live out the idea that I must forgive because my Heavenly Father forgives, Matthew 6:14-15. I didn’t like it.

The whole incident began when my mom invited a work friend for coffee to introduce me to her son. The possibility of a new friendship for both of us was alluring. When the woman arrived with her son, I was already playing with my cousin, Mike. After the introductions were made, we were encouraged to go to my room and play. Mike and I had been engaged in one of our favorite activities of the moment, boxing. It probably isn’t boxing as you might picture it. We only had one pair of boxing gloves and we didn’t really want to hurt one another.

We had very clear rules to keep it safe and still a bit challenging. The first and most important rule was that hitting was only allowed with the hand that had the glove. You could block with your offhand, but no hitting. Second rule was that we couldn't hit above the shoulders. The neck and face were absolutely off limits. Third rule was we boxed for one minute and then switched gloves. This third rule ensured that each combatant spent equal time punching with their weak hand. After asking my potential new friend if he would like to give it a go, he was game. I covered the rules for him a second time to make sure everything was clear. I have to admit that I was a bit excited to measure my young self against this stranger and felt a bit of pressure to perform well in front of Mike. Our family honor was on the line, if even in the smallest of ways. In order to be a gracious host, I gave him the right glove while I slid my hand into the left. For the first thirty seconds everything was going fine. Even with my left hand I was able to get some good shots to the body and block most of his advances. In a moment, things took an unfortunate turn. He threw and landed a right hook to my left ear. It stung and I was instantly angry over the breaking of the rules, “No hitting above the shoulders,” I said. He apologized and I hoped it was a mistake. It wasn’t. When we started boxing again, his first punch was a jab straight to my nose. I was enraged. I started simultaneously yelling, crying and swinging widely at his head. He dodged the blows and went running upstairs to his mom.

After the incident, my parents decided it was time to help me understand the importance of forgiveness. We walked and had a conversation that I’ve had with my own children filled with statements like, “Jesus forgives us, so we have to forgive other people” and “holding onto unforgiveness keeps you trapped in anger”. All of the insight shared as we walked our property was true. However, I was still upset at being wronged because my new friend ignored the rules and bloodied my nose. I didn’t hear it. There was a mixture of embarrassment, rage and loneliness in that moment. While I have since discovered that I am capable of forgiveness, in that moment there was no forgiveness extended despite the words of apology or handshake.

To understand my inability to forgive on that day, we need to first consider the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a releasing, a canceling of indebtedness. It is the recognition that an offense has occurred, be it financial, emotional or relational. Scripture references this concept of forgiveness as a debt being canceled many times.

  • The parable of the Unmerciful Servant – Matthew 18:21-35

  • “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” – Matthew 6:12

  • ...“having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” - Colossians 2:14-15

The key to the idea of counting the cost of a debt is lived out before us as Jesus heads to Gethsemane with His disciples, hours before his crucifixion. He withdraws to a solitary place in the garden to pray. His soul is overwhelmed to the point of death. He is so filled with the stress of the upcoming cost of the sins of the world, he sweats drops of blood. In those three hours of prayer, Jesus considers all that the brokenness of this world is going to cost him.

There are many aspects of suffering we are all aware of connected to his death. There was anguish, mocking, beating and torture. Just as the Father was grieved as physical connection was lost with humanity because of the fall, Jesus was ultimately physically separated from his followers, his friends, his brothers and sisters. The loss was immense and paying the cost for the sins of the world is beyond our human ability to comprehend. While our scriptural account encapsulates those three hours of prayer with the words, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me: yet not my will, but yours be done.” I believe in those three hours, there were more words expressed and much grieving for all that he was losing and about to endure. Jesus' statement “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” is empowered by his grieving in the garden.

Jesus’ example of forgiveness includes a critical aspect of the process of forgiveness. In order to move to forgiveness there must be an acknowledgement of the cost of the offense. In order to fully move toward forgiveness, we must be able to identify what was lost in the exchange. In financial terms, this can be quantified by dollars and cents. In emotional and relational offenses, the process requires a bit more reflection. We must have time and opportunity to discover the emotions triggered by the loss and the space to express them.

I want you to imagine for a moment that you are having lunch with a couple of friends. Not your best friends, just a couple friends that gather to catch up on life when schedules align. As you’re in the midst of conversation, friend one says, "Oh shoot, I forgot that I owe you money."

In an act of grace, as Jesus directs us to forgive, your response is, “Don’t worry about it. The debt is forgiven.”

This exchange seems to prompt friend two to make the same statement. And again, you respond with “Don’t worry about it. The debt is forgiven.” As you continue in that conversation, friend one returns to the topic. “Are you sure you don’t want that money? I can write you a check for the $50 when we get back to my car.” You can probably say with honesty, “No, the debt is forgiven.” The $50 probably won’t impact your life to any great measure and your friendship would not be impacted. The second friend then follows up with, “I’m so thankful you are forgiving because I’m not sure how I would have paid back that $50,000 I owe you.”

There is a bit of absurdity to this example, but I believe it still serves the purpose. The response and reaction to the second friend could be varied but if you are committed to the idea of forgiving the debt, it’s going to take a bit more work. Could I forgive someone of that type of debt? I believe the answer for all of us is yes. The key will be allowing the full impact of the loss to be identified and expressed. If I simply move to, “Well…I said I forgive the debt…so…”, I don’t believe the issue would be settled within my heart. Each time I paid my mortgage or made a car payment, each time money got tight in my checking account, I would be holding that debt against my friend. I would be muttering under my breath about the loss and being taken advantage of in the situation. I would be irritated whenever the name came up in conversation and I would be busy whenever he or she wanted to meet for lunch again. The weight of the debt would bind me to unforgiveness.

The path to forgiveness demands that we consider each debt. We must know the loss we have suffered and express the pain to the Lord. For significant debts, we may need to return to that grief more than once as we move through the process of forgiveness. When we fail to truly comprehend the cost of the debt we are wiping out, we lose the ability to truly be free. We must grieve our way to forgiveness in order to celebrate the freedom forgiveness brings. This is my further adventure into living out the idea that I must forgive because my Heavenly Father has forgiven me (Matthew 6:14-15.) It is not easy, but I am grateful for it.


Keith has been actively discovering renewed life on his journey of healing for fifteen years. He graduated in 2003 from Ashland Theological Seminary with a Master's of Divinity and served for 18 years as the lead pastor of two churches in Ohio. His desire is to position others to take this journey toward wholeness with Jesus. Keith currently lives in Bellville, Ohio with his amazing wife, Michelle, and their five children. When he is not spending time with others on the Healing Care journey, he can be found outdoors enjoying the gift of God's creation in many ways.

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