What Do You Mean Forgive?!?
....and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us...
They are words heard in many churches every Sunday. Buried deep in the middle of the Prayer of Jesus (aka the Lord's Prayer) is this line about forgiveness. But is that really what we want?
Be honest with yourself. Do you really want to be forgiven just as well as you forgive others? Or do you want a whole lot more forgiveness than you often offer?
Forgiveness is hard. Several years ago I was leading a study on the Prayer of Jesus. The week we were talking about the chapter in our study book “Jesus' Prayer Calls Us to Forgiveness” more than one member of the group shared how much they struggled with forgiveness. I also have struggled with it. How do you forgive people who have harmed you or your loved ones, who have caused physical and emotional damage? Why should we?
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)
Forgiveness is at the heart of living as a person of The Way. Forgiveness is at the heart of how we are able to form civil societies. If we, as individuals and as communities, are unable to forgive then life quickly begins to amount to grudge holding and revenge seeking. And that damages all of us.
But forgiveness is hard. It denies our need (or is it really only a want?) for payback, for “justice”. Telling each other, telling ourselves, to forgive makes it sound like we discount the damage done. And surely there are some things that are unforgivable. Right????
Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge [NOTE see a review I wrote here] describes forgiveness as choosing “To condemn the fault but to spare the doer”. This, Volf argues, is what God does with God's people. God recognizes the wrong done but chooses to waive the punishment. And then Volf has the nerve to suggest that this is what God wants US to do with each other. Acknowledge that a wrong has been done, but don't try for payback, don't hold it against the other, erase the debt, live as though no wrong had been done.
That is hard. It doesn't seem to make sense. Why should we forgive? I don't mean the little things, I mean the big ones, the ones where forgiveness seems impossible. God wants us to forgive those too?
Yes. God wants us to forgive those too.
In the end we forgive because forgiveness leads to health. Sometimes that is the health of the other, sometime it is our own health and well being. After all, there is an old proverb which says “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. When we are unable to forgive we are holding on to anger and hurt.
For many years I carried a grudge against classmates in my Junior High years. They had hurt me. I couldn't confront them (either at the time or later). But neither could I forgive them. Eventually I had to. Holding on to that hurt was still hurting me. Holding on to that hurt was keeping me from living. (Mind you it took several months of therapy to realize that and find a way to let go.) I will never forget, but I had to forgive. I had to stop letting those words and actions control my life.
As people of faith we proclaim that we are forgiven. As people who have been forgiven, we are challenged to go out and forgive others. We are, in the end, able to forgive for the same reason we are able to love. Because we are loved, because we have been forgiven, we can be people of love and forgiveness. We can make the choice.
It will not be easy. But anyone who promises that life can be easy is probably selling something. But if we are to be the people God created us to be we need to forgive each other, we need to forgive ourselves, and we need to accept forgiveness from others. We do it so that we can be healthy. We do it so that our neighbours can be healthy, we do it so our relationships can be healthy. And we do it because God is at work in us.
Maybe, if we are honest, we want to be forgiven better than we are able to forgive. But with practise we get better. The more we forgive the better we are at it. And our model is God, who has forgiven us already.
Now who do you need to forgive?