I doubt that there is anything as close to the heart of the Gospel as forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of the most counter-intuitive acts a human being can do. It does not make sense from a humanistic point of view.
Forgiveness has the ability to set us free from a great deal of suffering and bondage. The power of not forgiving weighs us down and slowly breaks our spirit apart. Yet forgiveness is one of the most difficult things we can do as human beings.
There are also a lot of bad ideas about forgiveness out there, so as we begin this discussion this week let’s start with what forgiveness is NOT.
1) Forgiveness is not reconciliation, reunion or restoring of the relationship. Forgiveness can lead to these things (which we will see), but forgiveness is something that always needs to happen, while reconciliation is not always possible.
2) Forgiveness is not a one time thing. Forgiveness is something we have to return to and return to often. It is a journey. Sometimes we may be trying to forgive a pain that we have carried around for years, do we really expect that I can reverse all of that in five minutes? Or with a simple thought of “I forgive you.” No! Forgiveness is a journey we must come back to over and over again.
3) Forgiveness is not forgetting, tolerating or excusing the wrong that has been done. A lot of times I think one of our hold ups to forgiveness is that we think if we forget then we are letting a significant wound or grievance off the hook. If anything, forgiveness means we need to acknowledge our wounds more. But what forgiveness does is set us free from those wounds.
Forgiveness CANNOT take those deep hurts for granted. Forgiveness acknowledges our pain and gives us the power to not let those hurts determine our future Forgiveness gives us and the ability for tomorrow to be different from today. Forgiveness does not downplay the hurt – it gives us hope to be free from it.
4) Forgiveness is not an invitation for someone to continue to harm us. When someone causes us pain and harm forgiveness is necessary, but that in no way means we have to continue to get hurt. Sometimes to be free of what we are carrying we need to forgive the wrong, but also need to remove ourselves from certain situations where we could continue to be harmed.
Forgiveness does not mean you stay in the relationship. Forgiveness does not mean you just take what people give out. It does not mean they do not have consequences for their actions. It means that you no longer let them have power over you.
Wendell Berry says this:
To give offense (intentionally) is to attempt a taking of power. To take offense is to grant that power. To forgive is to see that the offender, in fact, does not have the power he or she is attempting to take. [To forgive is] to see that you do not desire to have power over the offender. Forgiveness is a new kind of power. One we find fully expressed in the cross.
In our story this week, Jesus says we must forgive “from the heart.” Forgiveness is something that happens within the person who has been wronged. It is something that goes on inside of you. Forgiveness is where you stop allowing the hurt and a person to have control over your life. Forgiveness sets YOU free. As we will see in a minute, it has the power to set others free, but others may not always want that. But just because they donʼt want it, does not mean you canʼt experience the freedom that forgiveness offers. Forgiveness is between you and God.
Further, the Bible almost always connects forgiveness of others to our ability to receive grace from God. God lavishly pours out grace and blessing that is always available. What we find in the words of Scripture is that not forgiving others blocks us from living in the flow of God’s grace. God’s grace does not stop, but something about not forgiving blocks our ability to receive.
Forgiveness is difficult. In fact, forgiveness is a kind of death. It can be tremendously difficult to let go of old hurts and wounds. Especially the deep and abusive ones. But while forgiveness is a kind of death, it is the kind of death that leads to resurrection.
For anyone who needs to begin the journey of forgiveness, I highly recommend Lewis B. Smedes’ The Art of Forgiveness. It is very practical and helpful in a difficult journey.