In hindsight, taking a job on the night shift wasn’t the brightest idea. It did have its perks. During those triple-digit Texas summers, laboring under a waxing moon was 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 the bad far outweighed the good. My dark thoughts during those lonesome midnight hours were stained a deeper, more dangerous hue. The most traumatic months of my life were still a raw and bleeding memory. 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 dreams and wounded pride crawl to hide from a world that holds no attraction for them anymore? Men can become monsters there, for it is a place of dehumanization.

But amidst all the losses incurred there, when everything seems to be slipping away, we tend to cling tenaciously to one thing: the resolve never 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 to say that, 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.

Why Not Forgive?

We’re tightfisted with forgiveness for lots of reasons. Maybe the offenders aren’t a bit sorry for what they did—or they don’t meet our repentance requirements. Or we’re afraid that if we forgive them, they might interpret that absolution as a free pass to repeat their bad behavior. Or we withhold forgiveness punitively, so we can use that weapon of silence to make them pay for what they’ve done.

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 think, however, that lurking behind every reason we don’t forgive is one fundamental impulse: the desire, real or perceived, to control the offender.

Controlling Forgiveness

For instance, we dangle forgiveness in front of someone, like a carrot before the horse, until they finally do our will. Or, we offer to overlook everything if, and only if, they apologize. Or, the people who’ve hurt us need to see our pain, so they feel remorse. But if we forgive them, we’ll send the message that we are okay—but we are not okay, and as long as we’re not, they shouldn’t be either.

In every instance, forgiveness, which is a free gift, morphs into a self-serving tool of manipulation whereby we seek to control another person.

I get it. Self-protection is high on our list of priorities. We’ve been hurt so we’re bound and determined it’s not going to happen again. So we initiate the wall-building campaign. We erect 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.

Forgiveness 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.

A Junkyard God

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 junkyard 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.

We make the wrong 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 us, and through us by the Spirit to others.

So, when we forgive, it is not we who forgive but Christ who forgives through us. We are but pressing into the palm of a fellow transgressor the coin of freedom with which Christ has enriched us. We give only what we first received. We are not gods. We are fellow beggars, no better and no worse, but just as in need of absolution as every other sinner.

They Owe Me Nothing

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 the God who had already forgiven them. He had buried the hatchet inside the flesh of his own Son, who, even as he hung there as one 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” (Matthew 18:28-29)?

They didn’t owe me an apology; they didn’t owe me repentance, tears, promises of improvement, or vows never to repeat what they’d done. They owed me nothing.

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.

Unmarked Grave

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.