Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors….For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matthew 6:12, 14-15
Mercy triumphs over judgment.
[NOTE: The Sunday before last, November 2, I returned to teaching at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ after an eleven month rest. It felt rather odd but yet comfortable. (I know that doesn't make sense, but welcome to my world. ). I decided to return to teaching with a series on forgiveness that was stirred by my recent reflections on The Shack as well as my journey over the past year (and the cumulative effect of previous years). The four lessons are: (1) Receiving forgiveness, which I posted last week, (2) Giving Forgiveness, which is this week's post, (3) Forgiving Self, and (4) Forgiving God.]
Giving forgiveness is exactly that–it is an act of grace, a gift. Forgiveness is not owed; it is not a debt we must pay any more than it is a debt God must pay when he forgives us. As such, forgiveness cannot be demanded, coerced, or even expected by offenders. Forgiveness is something we give.
At one level, giving forgiveness is therapeutic and healthy. It does something for us and inside of us, including lowering blood pressure and decreasing heart rates. It releases negativity; it vents the poison that can corrupt our souls. It is freedom from repressed negative emotionis. When we refuse to forgive we fuel a cancer that devours us. Consequently, forgiveness is something we do for ourselves. We forgive that we might live without resentment and bitterness. We forgive for the sake of our own health. The practice of forgiveness ultimately transforms.
But forgiveness is much more than a humanistic act of self-transformation. Forgiveness is participation in the divine life. It is being with others in the way that God is with us. It is to love as God loves. When we forgive we participate in God’s redemptive movement within the world. We stand with God as we forgive others; we participate in his own forgiving act.
Viewed in this way, forgiveness arises out of the work of God’s Spirit in our hearts. It arises out of our own experience of having received forgiveness from God, the empowerment of the Spirit to forgive as God forgives, and the sense of security/assurance that we are beloved by God no matter how others may treat us. Forgiveness is God’s work in our own hearts.
Remembering our own mistakes and sins empowers forgiveness; if God has forgiven us, then who are we to withhold forgiveness from others? Are we better than they? And, ah, that might be the very problem that hinders us….our pride, our sense of superiority, our self-righteousness.
What hinders forgiveness is our own resentment and bitterness. We humans tend to wallow in self-pity, blame everyone else for how we feel, and fail to act positively with our negative feelings. This resentment and bitterness leads to negative actions such as revenge so that we return evil for evil instead of forgiving the evil done against us.
Yet, when we have experienced hurt through the offense of another, anger is a natural and healthy response. There is nothing ungodly about a rape victim’s anger toward their assailant. There is nothing ungodly about a abused wife’s anger toward her husband. There is nothing ungodly about anger toward one’s sexual abuser. Part of the process of forgiveness may, in fact, involve confronting the other person with what they have done. Forgiveness does not mean that what the other person did is OK, but it does give the forgiver space to be OK about their past. Forgiveness does not necessarily remove the hurt and pain of the past offense. Forgiveness prevents resentment or rids one of resentment, but the hurt may well remain. That hurt will take time to heal.
Actually resentment and bitterness arise out of our own woundedness. Life has wounded all of us–we have been betrayed, neglected, and attacked by others and even (as it may seem) by God. As a result we want to protect ourselves, rely on our own self-sufficiency, and blame everyone else rather than take responsibility for our lives. Thus, we resent others when they hurt us. We resent rather than forgive because this is how we think others have treated us. Our negative self-image, developed through childhood and other life experiences, yields a negative reaction to hurt in the form of resentment. Unchecked, this resentment leads to revenge.
Forgiveness releases the other person to God. Instead of taking matters into our own hands or grabbing the offender by the throat with threats, we let go. We let go and let God handle it. Anger becomes ungodly when it turns to revenge. When we return “evil for evil,” then we become an abuser rather than the abused. When we take vengenance into our own hands, then we become judge, jury, and executioner…we become God.
This does not mean that the forgiver must now reconcile with the forgiven. Reconciliation is a different matter altogether. Forgiveness–as an act of grace toward another–can happen without reconciliation since the other may not receive the forgiveness, may not think they need forgiveness, or may not want to renew (or begin) the relationship. It only takes one to forgive but it takes two to reconcile. While forgiveness may pave the way for reconciliation, forgiveness does not necessarily lead to reconciliation and reconciliation is not required for forgiveness.
Reconciliation may actually take much longer than forgiveness since reconciliation invovles a synergistic, cooperative process of mutual understanding. That takes time, intimacy, and trust. Reconciliation assumes rebuilt trust and that is a painful, time-consuming process.
Forgiveness does not mean the offense was insignificant or that it did not hurt or there was no reason for anger. Rather, forgiveness is our decision to let God handle the justice, to let go of the other person’s throat, to let go of the resentment, and to let go any personal desire to punish. Postively, and more significantly, forgiveness means desiring for that person what you desire for yourself and treating that person the way God treats you. In short, it is to love them, even if they–in their minds–are our enemies.
We can only love when we feel loved by God. Our acceptance of God’s own forgiveness and our experience of the divine circle of love surrounds us with safety and security. We forgive out of that secure place–the place where we hear God say, “You are my beloved no matter what your past; you are loved.” That love overflows into forgiveness for others.
At bottom, “to forgive is divine” (Alexander Pope).
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Love covers a multitude of sins.
1 Peter 4:8
P.S. Here is a chart I designed to communicate the point of this lessson for the class I was teaching.