Forgiveness alters the laws of relationships the way Superman defies the laws of physics. Forgiveness doesn’t make sense. Perhaps that is why throughout the centuries the church has declared as part of its central faith tenet, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” That’s a powerful statement, let it sink in…if you really believe it then you believe that debts can be cancelled, laws bent, and scoreboards erased.
Give a cup of cold water to your friend? Sure! A stranger? Perhaps. An enemy? No.
We want to do to others as they have done to us or before they can do to us. This is our default, which is why we struggle with Jesus' command to, "Love your enemies." (Matthew 5:44) This command is so difficult that Paul in his letter to the Roman church reminds us of it, as if to say, "Take Jesus seriously." (Romans 12:14-21)
Forgiveness is a cup of cold water that we give to our enemies - after we have swallowed our own pride.
Forgiveness is easy to understand - but hard to practice. It takes faith.
Frederich Buechner writes, “To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, ‘You have done something unspeakable, and by all right I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.’ To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride.”
We are imperfect people and cause offense daily. We offend God, we offend each other, and without forgiveness we wouldn’t last very long. Thankfully forgiveness is made possible through Jesus Christ and his cross. (Hebrews 9:22,28) This forgiveness was not free, but has been paid for by Christ's work on the cross. He has paid the price for our sin and set us free from this debt we owe to God.
We receive forgiveness only after we acknowledge our faults and surrender them. (1 John 1:8-9). Acknowledging our faults is difficult, it goes against our natural inclination. Don’t believe me? Go to a school playground and watch as the teacher says, “Johnny, tell Jimmy that you’re sorry…” The boy will shuffle his feet and grudgingly says, “You’re sorry.” That’s how it goes! Why? Because we don’t want to admit we’re wrong!
This is a real problem for us as believers. Brennan Manning writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel, “At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is a pseudo-repentance and a pseudo-bliss.” To our situation the Apostle John reminds us in 1 John 1:8-9, that if we say we don’t sin…we’re only fooling ourselves. God knows we sin and so does everyone else around us. It’s time we owned it.
As believers we have had our forgiveness provided for through Jesus Christ and have accepted it. The cycle of forgiveness doesn’t end there. Believers are to extend forgiveness as Christ does. How do we do this?
Forgiveness starts with identifying the sin. As Christians we’re quick to jump on “forgive and forget” but it starts with full knowledge and awareness. In Luke 17:3-4 Jesus talks about forgiveness and reconciliation, the first part of it is to name the sin as sin. Identifying sin should lead to repentance, which should lead to forgiveness. Forgiveness then leads to reconciliation and restoration.
Forgiveness ends with giving up our right to be right. In other words if I forgive you I release my claim to restitution – I can only forgive unconditionally, not with conditions. “I’ll forgive you if…” Is no statement of forgiveness. That is making restitution and paying back the debt. Forgiveness says, “You’ve sinned and you can’t pay back the debt, instead I release you of it.”
Forgiveness is really difficult, especially when you’re forgiving a very painful situation. You might even be forgiving someone who isn’t sorry. Forgiveness is necessary for our spiritual well-being. It’s been said that not forgiving (carrying a grudge) is like drinking poison but expecting the other person to die.
Ronald Rolheiser in his book Holy Longings has some helpful thoughts on forgiveness that he takes from the death of Christ. He describes forgiveness in terms of the cross - in terms of our forgiveness.
- Good Friday, the loss of life, real death
- Easter Sunday, receiving new life
- The 40 days, a time for readjusting to the new and for grieving the old
- Ascension, letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling
- Pentecost, receiving new spirit for the new life that one is already living.