Perhaps one of the most telling marks of a follower of Christ is her ability to forgive others. Jesus and the biblical writers say it often enough: “If you won’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven”, “this is how your heavenly Father will treat you if you do not forgive your brother from the heart,” “forgive as God forgave you, in Christ,” etc.
We have to be careful not to turn this into a new kind of legalism: “You earn your forgiveness by forgiving others.” I think the overall point is that someone who has experienced forgiveness becomes a forgiving person. One’s ability to forgive is a demonstration of how one understands his own standing with God.
But how does one forgive, and more basically: what is forgiveness?
Simply put (and this definition is very simplistic), forgiveness is to release someone from his or her debt. You hurt me, I release you from the payment you deserve: to be hurt in kind. The down side of this is that I experience the pain you deserved to receive. If you hit me, I still suffer the blow but you do not. In this way the one who forgives bears the punishment of the one forgiven.
However, forgiveness is not acting as if the offense was nothing or even a simple thing to release. We may not realize this, but forgiveness is an act of judgment. When I forgive you, I am saying you have done something wrong–otherwise there would be nothing of which to forgive! (If you don’t think this is true, walk up to a stranger and say “I forgive you.” See how he reacts!)
Part of forgiveness is to condemn the wrong that took place. Actually to look it in the face and say: “This was wrong, unjust, evil. It should not have happened.” The wrong should never be glossed over but recognized for what it is. This is not to say one should dump a guilt trip on the offender. But it is important for both offender and forgiver to see the wrong and to recognize the pain it caused.
But then, the one who forgives releases both the offender and herself: the offender from consequence and contempt and the forgiver from the burden of carrying the grudge. This does not mean the offense is totally forgotten. Such might be humanly impossible. But the offense is no longer placed in the front of one’s mind to review and rehash.
So how does one forgive? There is no simple three step formula that makes forgiveness easy. I think though we learn to forgive by pouring our hearts into the mind of Christ. The more we look at his character by reflecting on his life in the gospels, the more we become a people who forgive. This is not an academic study of Jesus. We follow Paul’s dictum in 2 Corinthians 3:18: we contemplate him with unveiled hearts. In other words we seriously meditate on Jesus’ life with an openness and desire to be molded into his image. By placing ourselves in the environment of the life of Jesus and by embracing an attitude of openness, the Spirit transforms us into his image (“from one degree of glory to another”).
This doesn’t happen all at once. It takes a lifetime of practice. As Miroslav Volf suggests, forgiveness takes place in “droplets”. You forgive someone and later that night you stay awake wondering “Why did I do that? I am still angry!” But the next day you meditate on Jesus and you think, “No, this was right. I must forgive.” And you struggle with it until it is integrated into your life. In this way forgiveness becomes more of a journey rather than a punctiliar event.
But one thing we must never do: rationalize or justify our desire to withhold forgiveness. “Of course you should be angry, look what they did!” It may be natural not to want to forgive. The person’s crime may be heinous. But our example is the one who was led to the slaughter and did not open his mouth. Our example is the one who was tortured to death on a cross and yet still said, “Father forgive them, they don’t understand.”
People discuss passages in the Bible and how challenging they are. But when it comes to forgiveness, I tend to agree with Mark Twain. “It isn’t the part of the Bible I don’t understand that bothers me. It’s the part I do understand!”
Forgiveness is not an option for the follower of Jesus.
So what are your thoughts?