I am often asked about Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness: “Do we have to forgive everyone, no matter what they’ve done to us?” “Can we forgive someone who has not asked for forgiveness?” “What do we do when we cannot forgive someone?” Like many concerns that arise from trying to live the Christian life, these questions take some things for granted that we need to get on the table if we are to find satisfactory answers. For instance, what does it mean to forgive? And, is it always right to forgive? In this post I’d like to consider into some of these fundamental questions.
When someone injures or insults you, you get angry. Your first impulse is to injure and insult them in return in an act of revenge. To forgive means to renounce the act of revenge and let go the emotion of anger. I don’t want to place too much weight on this, but you can see a hint of the meaning of forgiveness even in the English word “forgive.” Instead of “giving it to them” you forgo that pleasure. And the Greek word aphesis begins with an “a” (alpha), which often negates the idea of the root word. So, forgiveness is a negative idea. It’s about not doing something that feels so natural, that is, taking revenge and harboring anger.
But what about justice? We always feel that injustice has been done when someone injures or insults us. The desire for revenge is the impulse to put things back into balance. But what happens when we forgive? Aren’t we allowing injustice to stand? Or worse, are we even justifying injustice by not punishing it? Forgiveness does not seem to address this problem. It does not put things right again. And we can’t convince ourselves that the injustice done does not matter. Something ought to be done about it! Because of Jesus’ teaching, we feel we ought to forgive, but it doesn’t seem quite right. Perhaps, these problems are part reason we find it so difficult to forgive.
I think it has now become apparent that forgiveness makes sense only if we believe that God can and will make things right. We can “let go” injustice done to us because God never lets it go. Our power to forgive derives from our faith that God’s love refutes every insult and God’s power will heal every injury. In forgiveness, we deny the power of the enemy to lessen our dignity with insult or do us lasting harm with injury. We trust God to punish injustice or atone for it or overrule it and make it work for our good. Either way, God can do what we cannot. Forgiveness, then, is not an act of injustice but an act of faith.
To be continued…