15 December 2017

The Task of Forgiveness – Always Possible?

Part 1

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Matthew 6:9-15)

Of all the requests the Lord guides us to make when He teaches us how to pray, this phrase – or at least

the second half of it – composes the least popular section of the prayer. Asking us to relate to those who offend us, who literally ‘trespass’ on our lives and leave behind wounds that are sometimes almost beyond bearing, in the same gracious, merciful way in which our Father deals with us, seems to present us with a task that we can hardly imagine ourselves ever being able to accomplish. Yet, these are the words of Jesus, specifically the words He uses to help us to understand how to express to our Father our relationship with Him and so we just cannot choose to skip past them and move on to the more palatable phrases that follow.

Okay – but how on earth (literally!) are we to do this? Well, it is absolutely vital that we understand what forgiveness really means, why it is so important and how it might be possible for us to exercise it. Ironically, it might be best to start by grasping what forgiveness is not….

Forgiveness is not forgetting.

Simply trying to forget painful experiences is not something we should try to do, because all of life’s experiences, even painful ones, have much to teach us. Forgiveness is what allows our emotions to begin to heal but the emotional core must be confronted.

Forgiveness is not something we do because we feel like doing it.

If we wait until we feel like forgiving, it will never happen. God requires us to forgive those who offend us (“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15). Since God requires us to forgive, it must be something that we are able to do. Forgiveness is an act of the will; it is a choice to submit our wills and emotions to the will and heart of God. Forgiveness is not saying, “What you did is okay.”

It is not denying the hurt and the consequences of the injury nor condoning the one who causes the hurt; it is not tolerance. In fact it is just the opposite: it is recognizing that the hurt and its consequences are real and wrong, that they will have to be lived with, and the actions of the one who caused them are not to be tolerated or condoned.

Forgiveness is not releasing the offender from responsibility for his/her actions.

There may be consequences that result from a person’s choices and actions, whether legal, social and/or relational. Forgiveness is not avoiding these consequences. Many people hold on to anger, thinking that it will even the score and/or protect them from further hurt. Internalized anger in truth only harms one person—the one who holds it and it keeps the burden of responding with ultimate justice in the wrong hands, when there is One who is willing and able to bear that for us: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) So, while forgiveness does involve surrendering our right to even the score (something that in fact only God is able to do) it does not require us to deny our emotions, personal boundaries and personal respect. It does not require us to remain in situations where sin is allowed to go unaddressed. Even while Jesus was surrendering his life in ransom for the world, he maintained his dignity and demanded respect from his accusers. (John 18:19-23)

This is not contrary to his teaching to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 6:38- 39) which is often misunderstood and misapplied. Remember, the natural response to threat is to fight (return harm for harm and accelerate the violence), flee (run away, avoiding not only further harm but also correcting the evil) or freeze (repress our reactions, do nothing and allow evil to go unaddressed). Jesus, however, offers a different path of courage, dignity and righteousness: to live in the reality of being children of God who are able to reveal the evil, refrain from committing evil, and return a blessing instead. In Jesus’ culture, when given an open faced slap with the left hand to the right cheek, offering the left cheek is a statement of being equal, or having even more dignity than the aggressor (reflecting a right-handed blow as one would give an equal or superior). When Roman soldiers of the first century would force a subjugated person to carry his gear for a mile, offering to go with him for a second mile would proclaim the truth of the person’s freedom. If someone steals your coat, allowing him to take your tunic (which in Jesus’ culture was unique to each individual) would declare to the entire community the unrighteousness of his confiscation of your tunic which leaves you naked. This kind of behaviour has sometimes been referred to as the power of passive resistance—which seems to be an oxymoron—and is of the type employed by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The kind of selfsacrifice that Jesus is talking about here is not that which would appease evil, but expose it.

Forgiveness is not a ‘done and dusted’ act.

Although the decision to respond to God in obedience and choose to forgive an offender is the necessary first step, it represents the beginning of a process of becoming a person of compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Each time we choose to forgive as God in Christ forgives us, it becomes a little less difficult to do so the next time: “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.” (Proverbs 19:11)

Forgiveness is not the same as extending trust.

We are commanded to forgive those who sin against us – not to trust them. Because no one but God is entirely trustworthy, forgiveness always includes the element of risk but it is a risk taken on the basis of what we know of someone. “Because of the miraculous signs Jesus did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many began to trust in him. But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew human nature. No one needed to tell him what mankind is really like.” (John 2:23-25 NLT) (Luke 6:12-13)

Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation.

Forgiveness is but one of the steps that may or may not lead toward reconciliation. Forgiveness does not require anything of the offending person; it is something that takes place within an individual heart. God does not hold us responsible for other people’s choices — only our own – and forgiving someone does not necessarily make reconciliation possible. Of course, it is one of the blessings of forgiveness that it is sometimes the catalyst for the restoration of relationships if both parties are following the leading of God in the situation. God calls us to live in peace but it is vital that we understand that this is not a call to intimate relationship with those who have proved themselves utterly untrustworthy. “Do not repay evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:17-18)

So, what is forgiveness?

It is the mechanism through which wounds are healed and snares are untangled in ‘the Land of Thorns and Thistles.’ This side of Eden, the law of sin and death holds sway and the prince of this world — the accuser — has dominion. But Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, to give us a “new” commandment of love and a new way of living in grace, mercy and forgiveness. Matthew 18:21-22: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me – up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” We must forgive as often and as many times as we are hurt. How often must you use anti-septic cleanser and a bandage? The answer is ‘as often and as many times as you get cut.’

This article is part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 follows in the July/August issue

Jill Harshaw

Leader, Community Life Team & Lecturer in Practical Theology Belfast Bible College