Nobody likes to forgive. Few people like to even talk about it.
But because I think it’s always relevant for each of us individually and is now even more relevant for our society collectively, I want to broach the subject.
It’s a painful topic.
People hurt us frequently, be it emotionally, physically, or both. We also hurt others, often unintentionally, but sometimes on purpose.
There seems to me to be a lot of confusion regarding what forgiveness actually is.
I often hear people talk and act as if to forgive someone means to forget something happened.
That’s not true. Forgiveness does not equate to forgetting.
It does mean that we no longer judge or condemn someone for something they have done: we don’t treat them in accordance with their past actions.
Forgiveness is a state of mind and way of being; it’s a process, not a one-time thing.
It is refusing to let negative thoughts about someone have a home in your head – when they arise again (as they will), we banish them and affirm again that we are choosing to forgive. Over and over. For as long as it takes; maybe even forever.
No one truly wants to do that – it’s incredibly hard, and we so often feel justified in our pain; in truth, that justification may be legitimate.
Forgiveness isn’t denying that someone hurt us. It isn’t ignoring the pain. Healing the pain is a separate subject, but it’s also true that choosing to forgive is part of that healing process.
That’s one reason why it’s important to forgive. Refusing to forgive results in your own stunted healing and emotions, which in turn affects the people you love because it certainly impacts who you are as a person and thus how you interact with people in general.
It’s pretty common for us to agree in principle with forgiveness, but set boundaries: “I’ll forgive people for ____, but I will never forgive _____.”
That is a statement coming from a hardened heart. Quite likely hardened for good reason, but that doesn’t make the hardening something healthy to hold on to.
I think the proportion to which we refuse forgiving others demonstrates the level of disconnect we have with how much hurt we’ve caused; with how much forgiveness we need from other people.
On one hand, I’d say this is a negative result of our cultural hyper-individualism: we’ve lost a sense of corporate responsibility.
On the other hand, this may be a result of relativizing our personal level of guilt: because we haven’t done “x” (something we believe is incredibly abhorrent), we feel justified in our lack of forgiveness for “y.”
While the type of moral guilt is different in kind between my personal actions and those of a group to which I belong, there remains nonetheless a true level of guilt applicable to the individual that comes from a collective: guilt by association, if you will.
There are also certainly levels of heinousness associated with specific actions, making particular things more difficult to forgive than others, but that we have all caused grief in the lives of others which would call for someone else to forgive us is undeniable – we’ve all hurt people, and though some may have hurt others more intensely than we have, that doesn’t change the fact that we, too, are responsible for pain.
For the Christian, forgiveness isn’t an option. It’s a clear, direct, and all-inclusive command from God, repeated several times in scripture.
Just a handful as examples, from the English Standard Version:
- “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” – Mark 11:25
- “But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” – Matthew 6:15
- “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” – Ephesians 4:32
- “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” – Matthew 18:21-22
It should be grounds enough for the Christian to forgive all simply because God said to. He didn’t recommend it: He commanded it.
But on top of that, the prayer Jesus modeled explicitly states that God forgives us for our mistakes according to the exact mode in which we forgive others.
Seeing as I am hopeful that God will be abundantly merciful to me, so I must be extravagant in my forgiveness of others.
The path of forgiveness is one of humbleness, humility, and mercy in the face of the worst kinds of evils we can inflict on each other.
I do hope that those I’ve hurt in life – both knowingly and unknowingly – are aware of how deeply sorry I am.
I also hope those that have hurt me – both knowingly and unknowingly – can rest in whatever peace may come in the continual and active forgiveness I practice towards them as needed through the grace of God.