Of all the expectations placed on Christians, forgiveness may be the most difficult. Theoretically, we can love our enemies and neighbors, at least from a distance. We might even be able to turn the other cheek – it gives us the moral high ground and makes us feel good about our personal holiness. But forgiveness is, I think, far more challenging. Since you know that I love word searches of the Bible (English, of course), I was curious about just how often “forgive” and “forgiveness” appear in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. I was surprised by the numbers – you might be too.
Forgive appears 58 times – 22 in the New Testament, and 16 times in the Gospel.
Forgiveness appears 16 times – 14 in the New Testament, and only 6 times in the Gospel.
I thought it would be far more than that. Jesus was really clear about the necessity to forgive others, even 7 times 70 (which means, way more than you might want to). Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, although it is, to be honest, really hard to forgive while still remembering what was done to you. And I think it is a matter of privilege, maybe even arrogance, to say that all sins (except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, whatever that is) must be forgiven. The damage done by, for example, rapists and murderers, is incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it, and to tell someone who was raped as a child to forgive the rapist is, at the very least, insensitive, and at the most – well, I don’t know, because it never happened to me. I would never tell someone who went through that that they must forgive the evil done to them to reap eternal reward.
Jesus forgave people who repented, and people who didn’t. Those who didn’t were usually victims, like the woman caught in the act of adultery. When Jesus confronted the crowd, He pointed judgment back on them, telling them that they were free to throw stones at the woman and kill her – as long as they were themselves without sin. The other aspect of this story is unspoken – if she was caught in the act, where was the other actor? Unequal punishment is a crime against God – this was not judgment, it was a mob attempting murder.
I have had much to be forgiven for in my life, and I am no different from anyone else. I have also had much to forgive, and that has been far harder for me to accept. A person asking for forgiveness puts the other in a position of power, and that position can be an uncomfortable place to be. The next step is atonement, and we have not always expected this when we have been in the act of forgiving. In 12 Step theory, making amends is one of the earliest aspects of recovery. I believe that making amends is essential to healing – not just for the injured party, but for the person who did the damage.
To me, the most important benefit of forgiving others is that our spirits can become weighed down if we don’t. As I said, some crimes are so heinous that I, at least, would completely understand not forgiving the person who did the crime – and I think God would understand as well. Many of the grudges we hold, though, are of little consequence, and the burden of carrying them does more damage to us than to the person who hurt us, often without knowing they did anything at all. I think it is healthy to take the damage done to us and use it to make the world better, but I absolutely do not believe that these bad things happen because God wants to teach us something! I think it is dangerous to our physical, psychological, and spiritual health to allow vengeance – which is often the outcome of not forgiving – to hollow us out. I also think we need those who cause us pain to make amends – for their sake, and ours. Forgiveness without expectation is cheap grace. We should always hope for repentance and renewal and redemption from those who have injured us.
Prayer – We are all guilty of something God, and we are all in need of forgiveness. Teach us how to live our lives the best we can, so that we can please You. Amen.
Today’s meme caught my eye and made me think.