by Annette Bridges. © 2006. All rights reserved.

Every Easter Sunday, I’m reminded of a lesson I learned well over 20 years ago. This was a lesson that taught me how to forgive and, in the many years since, showed me the power of forgiveness to transform a relationship completely and permanently.

My neighbor had an “I know best” attitude on everything, and frequently shared his unwanted viewpoints with me. I found him opinionated and arrogant. You might be wondering why I couldn’t just ignore him or not associate with him. Well, he was a relative, and avoiding him was impossible.

One warm and sunny spring Saturday — the day before Easter Sunday — he finally overstepped his bounds one too many times, and I accused him of such. He staunchly defended his behavior with his own angry outpouring of accusations. The scene ended with hurt feelings on both sides. I walked away in tears, ready to pack up and move far away, much to my husband’s dismay. I felt he had spoken to me in such a way that was unforgivable and irreconcilable, and I could see no other alternative.

As I said, it was the day before Easter Sunday. When Sunday morning arrived, I welcomed the opportunity to get away from the ranch (and my neighbor) for a few hours.

Have you ever attended church and felt like the sermon was directed right at you?

The sermon, of course, was all about Christ Jesus — his enemies crucifying him, his friends deserting him. The fact that he never stopped loving — friend or foe— astounded me. I sat awestruck and humbled. Jesus made forgiveness look natural and easy. In fact, he instructed, “If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them” (Luke 6:32).

Clearly, Jesus intimately knew divine Love — and this knowledge healed and transformed the lives of multitudes. His life proved love’s power over hate, violence, apathy and fear. And Jesus’ love enabled him to conquer death and the grave. His unconditional love enabled him to forgive all those who directed evil at him.

Love for my neighbor was most definitely missing from my heart. I was full of self-righteousness as I justified my actions and feelings toward him. Now, sitting there listening to how Jesus loved even his enemies, I asked myself: Where was my love? I suddenly had a deep desire to love as Jesus loved. So, I prayed to stop judging and critiquing this man’s every action and word. And I forgave him.

Here’s the thing. As I forgave, I felt free from the effects of another’s wrong intentions. Forgiving wasn’t erasing history or exonerating. But forgiving was relinquishing the destructive power of anger that would have continued to imprison me and determine my actions, thoughts and words. I wasn’t putting the heavy baggage of another’s bad behavior on my back. Forgiveness dared me to imagine a better future with my neighbor — one that was based on the blessed possibility that my hurt would not be the final word on the matter.

Yes, by the end of that Sunday service, I was feeling nothing but compassion and love for him. The power of Christly love and forgiveness filled my heart and replaced my hurt. I felt resurrected from anger and self-justification that had prevented me from seeing a solution. I knew I could choose a new basis for my relationship with my neighbor grounded in unconditional love, understanding and gentle communication.

I wanted to learn more about love, the unconditional love God gives all His children. I felt like I had gained a glimpse of what Christ Jesus referred to as the second great commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31).

I returned home from that Easter church service transformed and later that day received an apology from my neighbor. I apologized, too. We made a mutual commitment to promote harmony. And, you know, I can’t recall harsh words between us in the 25 years we’ve been neighbors since.

Forgiveness may be the most powerful step that people, and even nations, can take to bring about transformation, progress and growth. Forgiveness can change our world.