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Forgiveness is an Unnatural Act
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “What’s so Amazing about Grace?” published in 1997.
In 1898 Daisy was born into a working-class Chicago family, the eighth child of ten. The father barely earned enough to feed them all, and after he took up drinking, money got much scarcer. Daisy, closing in on her hundredth birthday as I write this, shudders when she talks about those days. Her father was a “mean drunk,” she says. Daisy used to cower in the corner, sobbing, as he kicked her baby brother and sister across the linoleum floor. She hated him with all her heart.
One day the father declared that he wanted his wife out of the house by noon. All ten kids crowded around their mother, clinging to her skirt and crying, “No, don’t go!” But their father did not back down. Holding on to her brothers and sisters for support, Daisy watched through the bay window as her mother walked down the sidewalk, shoulders a droop, a suitcase in each hand, growing smaller and smaller until finally she disappeared from view.
Some of the children eventually rejoined their mother, and some went to live with other relatives. It fell to Daisy to stay with her father. She grew up with a hard knot of bitterness inside her, a tumor of hatred over what he had done to the family. All the kids dropped out of school early in order to take jobs or join the Army, and then one by one they moved away to other towns. They got married, started families, and tried to put the past behind them. The father vanished—no one knew where and no one cared.
Many years later, to everyone’s surprise, the father resurfaced. He had guttered out, he said. Drunk and cold, he had wandered into a Salvation Army rescue mission one night. To earn a meal ticket he first had to attend a worship service. When the speaker asked if anyone wanted to accept Jesus, he thought it only polite to go forward along with some of the other drunks. He was more surprised than anybody when the “sinner’s prayer” actually worked. The demons inside him quieted down. He sobered up. He began studying the Bible and praying. For the first time in his life he felt loved and accepted. He felt clean.
And now, he told his children, he was looking them up one by one to ask for forgiveness. He couldn’t defend anything that had happened. He couldn’t make it right. But he was sorry, more sorry than they could possibly imagine.
The children, now middle-aged and with families of their own, were initially skeptical. Some doubted his sincerity, expecting him to fall off the wagon at any moment. Others figured he would soon ask for money. Neither happened, and I in time the father won them over, all except Daisy.
Long ago Daisy had vowed never to speak to her father---“that man” she called him—--again. Her father’s reappearance rattled her badly, and old memories of his drunken rages came flooding back as she lay in bed at night. “He can’t undo all that just by saying ‘I’m sorry,” Daisy insisted. She wanted no part of him.
The father may have given up drinking, but alcohol had
damaged his liver beyond repair. He got very sick, and for the
last five years of his life he lived with one of his daughters,
Daisy’s sister. They lived, in fact, eight houses down the street from Daisy, on the very same row-house block. Keeping her VOW, Daisy never once stopped in to visit her dying father, even though she passed by his house whenever she went grocery shopping or caught a bus.
Daisy did consent to let her own children visit their grand father. Nearing the end, the father saw a little girl come to his door and step inside. “Oh, Daisy, Daisy, you’ve come to me at last,” he cried, gathering her in his arms. The adults in the room didn’t have the heart to tell him the girl was not Daisy, but her daughter Margaret. He was hallucinating grace.
A11 her life Daisy determined to be unlike her father, and indeed she never touched a drop of alcohol. Yet she ruled her own family with a milder form of the tyranny she had grown up under. She would lie on a couch with a rubber ice pack on her head and scream at the kids to “Shut up!”
“Why did I ever have you stupid kids anyway?” she would yell. “You’ve ruined my life!” The Great Depression had hit, and each child was one more mouth to feed. She had six in all, rearing them in the two-bedroom row house she lives in to this day. In such close quarters, they seemed always underfoot. Some nights she gave them all whippings just to make a point: she knew they’d done wrong even if she hadn’t caught them.
Hard as steel, Daisy never apologized and never forgave. Her daughter Margaret remembers as a child coming in tears to apologize for something she’d done. Daisy responded with a parental Catch-22: “You can’t possibly be sorry! If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t have done it in the first place.”
I have heard many such stories of ungrace from Margaret, whom I know well. All her life she determined to be different from her mother, Daisy. But Margaret’s life had its own tragedies, some large and some small, and as her four children entered their teenage years she felt she was losing control of them. She too wanted to lie on the couch with an ice pack and scream, “Shut up!” She too wanted to whip them just to make a point or maybe to release some of the tension coiled inside her.
Her son Michael, who turned sixteen in the 1960s, especially got under her skin. He listened to rock and roll, wore “granny glasses,” let his hair grow long. Margaret kicked him out of the house when she caught him smoking pot, and he moved into a hippie commune. She continued to threaten and scold him. She reported him to a judge. She wrote him out of her will. She tried everything she could think of, and nothing got through to Michael. The words she flung up against him fell back, useless, until finally one day in a fit of anger she said, “I never want to see you again as long as I live.” That was twenty-six years ago and she has not seen him since.
Michael is also my close friend. Several times during those twenty-six years I have attempted some sort of reconciliation between the two, and each time I confront again the terrible power of ungrace. When I asked Margaret if she regretted any thing she had said to her son, if she’d like to take anything back, she turned on me in a flash of hot rage as if I were Michael himself. “I don’t know why God didn’t take him long ago, for all the things he’s done!” she said, with a wild, scary look in her eye.
Her brazen fury caught me off guard. I stared at her for a minute: her hands clenched, her face florid, tiny muscles twitching around her eyes. “Do you mean you wish your own son was dead?” I asked at last. She never answered.
Michael emerged from the sixties mellower, his mind dulled by LSD. He moved to Hawaii, lived with a woman, left her, tried another, left her, and then got married. “Sue is the real thing,” he told me when I visited him once. “This one will last.”
It did not last. I remember a phone conversation with Michael, interrupted by the annoying technological feature known as “call waiting.” The line clicked and Michael said, “Excuse me a second,” then left me holding a silent phone receiver for at least four minutes. He apologized when he came back on. His mood had darkened. “It was Sue,” he said. “We’re settling some of the last financial issues of the divorce.”
“I didn’t know you still had contact with Sue,” I said, making conversation.
“I don’t!” he cut in, using almost the same tone I had heard from his mother, Margaret. “I hope I never see her again as long as I live!”
We both stayed silent for a long time. We had just been talking about Margaret, and although I said nothing it seemed to me that Michael had recognized in his own voice the tone of his mother, which was actually the tone of her mother, tracing all the way back to what happened in a Chicago row house nearly a century ago.
Like a spiritual defect encoded in the family DNA, ungrace gets passed on in an unbroken chain.
Ungrace does its work quietly and lethally, like a poisonous undetectable gas. A father dies unforgiven. A mother who
once carried a child in her own body does not speak to that
child for half its life. The toxin steals on, from generation to
Margaret is a devout Christian who studies the Bible every day, and once I spoke to her about the parable of the Prodigal Son. “What do you do with that parable?” I asked. “Do you hear its message of forgiveness?”
She had obviously thought about the matter, for without hesitation she replied that the parable appears in Luke 15 as the third in a series of three: lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. She said the whole point of the Prodigal Son is to demonstrate how human beings differ from inanimate objects (coins) and from animals (sheep). “People have free will,” she said. “They have to be morally responsible. That boy had to come crawling back on his knees. He had to repent. That was Jesus’ point.”
That was not Jesus’ point, Margaret. All three stories emphasize the finder’s joy. True, the prodigal returned home of his own free will, but clearly the central focus of the story is the father’s outrageous love: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” When the son tries to repent, the father interrupts his prepared speech in order to get the celebration under way.
A missionary in Lebanon once read this parable to a group of villagers who lived in a culture very similar to the one Jesus described and who had never heard the story. “What do you notice?” he asked.
Two details of the story stood out to the villagers. First, by claiming his inheritance early, the son was saying to his father, “I wish you were dead!” The villagers could not imagine a patriarch taking such an insult or agreeing to the son’s demand. Second, they noticed that the father ran to greet his long—lost son. In the Middle East, a man of stature walks with slow and stately dignity; never does he run. In Jesus’ story the father runs, and Jesus’ audience no doubt gasped at this detail.
Grace is unfair, which is one of the hardest things about it. It is unreasonable to expect a woman to forgive the terrible things her father did to her just because he apologizes many years later, and totally unfair to ask that a mother overlook the many offenses her teenage son committed. Grace, however, is not about fairness.
What is true of families is true also of tribes, races, and nations.
I have told the story of one family that spans a century of ungrace. In j history similar stories span many centuries, with far worse con sequences. If you ask a bomb-throwing teenager in Northern Ireland or a machete-wielding soldier in Rwanda or a sniper in the former ) why they are killing, they may not even know. Ireland is still eking revenge for atrocities Oliver Cromwell committed in the seventeenth century; Rwanda and Burundi are carrying on tribal feuds that extend long past anyone’s memory; Yugoslavia is avenging memories from World War II and trying to prevent a replay of what happened six centuries ago.
Ungrace plays like the background static of life for families, nations, a institutions. It is, sadly, our natural human state.
I once shared a meal with two scientists who had just emerged from the glass-enclosed biosphere near Tucson, Arizona. Four men and four women had volunteered for the two-year isolation experiment. All were accomplished scientists, all had undergone psychological testing and preparation and all had entered the biosphere fully briefed on the rigors they would face while sealed off from the outside world. The scientists told me that within a matter of months the eight “bionauts” had split into two groups of four, and during the final months of the experiment these two groups refused to speak to each other. Eight people lived in a bubble split in half by an invisible wall of ungrace.
Frank Reed, an American citizen held hostage in Lebanon, disclosed Upon his release that he had not spoken to one of his fellow hostages for several months following some minor dispute. Most of that time, the two feuding hostages had been chained together.
Ungrace causes cracks to fissure open between mother and daughter, father and son, brother and sister, between scientists, and prisoners, and tribes, and races. Left alone, cracks widen, and for the resulting chasms of ungrace there is only one remedy: the frail rope-bridge of forgiveness.
In the heat of an argument my wife came up with an acute theological formulation. We were discussing my shortcomings in a rather spirited way when she said, “I think it’s pretty amazing that I forgive you for some of the dastardly things you’ve done!”
Since I’m writing about forgiveness, not sin, I will omit the juicy details of those dastardly things. ‘What struck me about her comment, rather, was its sharp insight into the nature of forgiveness. It is no sweet platonic ideal to be dispersed in the world like air-freshener sprayed from a can. Forgiveness is achingly difficult, and long after you’ve forgiven, the wound—--my dastardly deeds—--lives on in memory. Forgiveness is an unnatural act, and my wife was protesting its blatant unfairness.
A story from Genesis captures much the same sentiment. When I was a child listening to the story in Sunday school, I could not under stand the loops and twists in the account of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. One moment Joseph acted harshly, throwing his brothers in jail; the next moment he seemed overcome with sorrow, leaving the room to blubber like a drunk. He played tricks on his brothers, hiding money in their grain sacks, seizing one as a hostage, accusing another of stealing his silver cup. For months, maybe years, these intrigues dragged on until finally Joseph could restrain himself no longer. He summoned his brothers and dramatically forgave them.
I now see that story as a realistic depiction of the unnatural act of forgiveness. The brothers Joseph struggled to forgive were the very ones who had bullied him, had cooked up schemes to murder him, had sold him into slavery. Because of them he had spent the best years of his youth moldering in an Egyptian dungeon. Though he went on to triumph over adversity and though with all his heart he now wanted to forgive these brothers, he could not bring himself to that pointy not yet. The wound still hurt too much.
I view Genesis 42—45 as Joseph’s way of saying, “I think it’s pretty amazing that I forgive you for the dastardly things you’ve done!” When grace finally broke through to Joseph, the sound of his grief and love echoed throughout the palace. What is that wail? Is the king minister sick? Joseph’s health was fine. It was the sound of a man forgiving.
Behind every act of forgiveness lies a wound of betrayal, and the pain of being betrayed does not easily fade away. Leo Tolstoy thought he was getting his marriage off on the right foot when he asked his teenage fiancée to read his diaries, which spelled out in lurid detail all of his sexual dalliances. He wanted to keep no secrets from Sonya, to begin marriage with a clean slate, forgiven. Instead, Tolstoy’s confession sowed the seeds for a marriage that would be held together by vines of hatred, not love.
“When he kisses me I’m always thinking ‘I’m not the first woman he has loved,” wrote Sonya Tolstoy in her Own diary. Some of his adolescent flings she could forgive but not his affair with Axinya, a peasant woman who continued to work on the Tolstoy estate.
“One of these days I shall kill myself with jealousy,” Sonya wrote after seeing the three-year-old son of the peasant woman, the spitting image of her husband. “If I could kill him (Tolstoy) and create a new person exactly the same as he is now, I would do so happily.”
Another diary entry dates from January 14, 1909. “He relishes that peasant wench with her strong female body and her sun burnt legs, she allures him just as powerfully now as she did all those years ago . . Sonya wrote those words when Axinya was a shriveled crone of eighty. For half a century jealousy and unforgiveness had blinded her, in the process destroying all love for her husband.
Against such malignant power, what chance stands the Christian response? Forgiveness as an unnatural act---Sonya Tolstoy, Joseph, and my wife express this truth as if by instinct.
I and the public know
What all school children learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
W. H. Auden, who wrote those lines, understood that the law of nature admits no forgiveness. Do squirrels forgive cats for chasing them up trees or dolphins forgive sharks for eating their playmates? It’s a dog- eat-dog world out there, not dog-forgive-dog. As for the human species, our major institutions—financial, political, even athletic—run on the same unrelenting principle. An umpire never announces, “You were really out, but because of your exemplary spirit I’ll call you safe.” Or what nation responds to its belligerent neighbors with the proclamation, “You are right, we violated your borders. Will you please forgive us?”
The very taste of forgiveness seems somehow wrong. Even when we have committed a wrong, we want to earn our way back into the injured party’s good graces. We prefer to crawl on our knees, to wallow, to do penance, to kill a lamb—--and religion often obliges us. When the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV decided to seek the pardon of Pope Gregory VII in 1077, he stood barefoot for three days in the snow outside the papal quarters in Italy. Probably, Henry went away with a self-satisfied feeling, wearing frostbite scars as the stigmata of forgiveness.
“Despite a hundred sermons on forgiveness, we do not forgive easily, nor find ourselves easily forgiven. Forgiveness, we discover, is always harder than the sermons make it out to be,” writes Elizabeth O’Connor. We nurse sores, go to elaborate lengths to rationalize our behavior, perpetuate family feuds, punish ourselves, punish others—--all to avoid this most unnatural act.
On a visit to Bath, England, I saw a more natural response to being wronged. In the Roman ruins there, archeologists have uncovered various “curses” written in Latin and inscribed on tin or bronze placards. Centuries ago, users of the baths tossed in these prayers as an offering to the gods of the bath, much as moderns toss coins into fountains for good luck. One asked for a goddess’s help in blood vengeance against whoever stole his six coins. Another read, “Docimedes has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and his eyes in the temple where she appoints.”
As I looked at the Latin inscriptions and read their translations, it struck me that these prayers made good sense. Why not employ divine power to assist us with human justice here on earth? Many of the Psalms express the same sentiment, imploring God to help avenge some wrong. “Lord, if you can’t make me thin, then make my friends look fat,” humorist Erma Bombeck once prayed. What could be more human?
Instead, in a stunning reversal, Jesus instructed us to “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” At the center of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught us to recite, lurks the unnatural act of forgiveness. Roman bathers urged their gods to abet human justice; Jesus hinged God’s forgiveness on our willingness to forgive unjust acts.
Charles Williams has said of the Lord’s Prayer, “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause.” What makes the “as” so terrifying? The fact that Jesus plainly links our forgiven-ness by the Father with our forgiving-ness of fellow human beings. Jesus’ next remark could not be more explicit: “If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
It is one thing to get caught up in a cycle of ungrace with a spouse or business partner and another thing entirely to get caught in such a cycle with Almighty God. Yet the Lord’s Prayer pulls those two together: As we can allow ourselves to let go, to break the cycles to start over, God can allow himself to let go, break the cycle, start over.
John Dryden wrote of the sobering effect of this truth. “More libels have been written against me, than almost any man now living,” he protested, and prepared to lash out against his enemies. But “this consideration has often made me tremble when I was saying our Saviour’s prayer; for the plain condition of the forgiveness which we beg is the pardoning of others the offences which they have done to us; for which reason I have many times avoided the commission of that fault, even when I have been notoriously provoked.”
Dryden was right to tremble. In a world that runs by the laws of ungrace, Jesus requires—--no demands—--a response of forgiveness. So urgent is the need for forgiveness that it takes precedence over “religious” duties: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus concluded his parable of the unforgiving servant with a scene of the master turning over the servant to jailers to be tortured. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart,” Jesus said. I fervently wish these words were not in the Bible, but there they are, from the lips of Christ himself. God has granted us a terrible agency: by denying forgiveness to others, we are in effect determining them unworthy of God’s forgiveness, and thus so are we. In some mysterious way, divine forgiveness depends on us.
Shakespeare put it succinctly in Merchant of Venice. “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?”
Tony Campolo sometimes asks students at secular universities what they know about Jesus. Can they recall anything Jesus said? By clear consensus they reply, “Love your enemies. More than any other teaching of Christ, that one stands out to an unbeliever. Such an attitude is unnatural, perhaps downright suicidal. It’s hard enough to forgive your rotten brothers, as Joseph did, but your enemies? The gang of thugs down the block? Iraqis? The drug dealers poisoning our nation?
Most ethicists would agree instead with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that a person should be forgiven only if he deserves it. But the very word forgive contains the word “give” (just as the word pardon contains donum, or gift). Like grace, forgiveness has about it the maddening quality of being undeserved, unmerited, unfair.
Why would God require of us an unnatural act that defies every primal instinct? ‘What makes forgiveness so important that it becomes central to our faith? From my experience as an often-forgiven, 0 person I can suggest several reasons. The first is theological. (The other, more pragmatic reasons, I will save for the next chapter.)
Theologically, the Gospels give a straightforward answer to why God asks us to forgive: because that is what God is like. ‘When Jesus first gave the command, “Love your enemies,” he added this rationale: “...that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the goody and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
Anyone, said Jesus, can love friends and family: “Do not even pagans do that?” Sons and daughters of the Father are called to a higher law, in order to resemble the forgiving Father. We are called to be like God, to bear God’s family likeness.
Wrestling with the command to “love your enemies” while being persecuted under Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer finally concluded that it was this very quality of the “peculiar ...the extraordinary, the unusual” that sets a Christian apart from others. Even as he worked to undermine the regime, he followed Jesus’ command to “Pray for those who persecute you.” Bonhoeffer wrote,
Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God. Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them. .. . We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves.
Why did Bonhoeffer strive to love his enemies and pray for his persecutors? He had only one answer: “God loves his enemies—--that is the glory of his love, as every follower of Jesus knows.” If God forgave our debts, how can we not do the same?
Again the parable of the unforgiving servant comes to mind. The servant had every right to resent the few dollars his colleague owed him. By the laws of Roman justice, he had the right to throw the colleague into prison. Jesus did not dispute the servant’s personal loss but, rather, set that loss against a master (God) who had already forgiven the servant several million dollars. Only the experience of being forgiven makes it possible for us to forgive.
I had a friend (now dead) who worked on the staff of Wheaton College for many years, during the course of which he heard several thousand chapel messages. In time most of these faded into a forgettable blur, but a few stood out. In particular he loved retelling the story of Sam Moffat, a professor at Princeton Seminary who had served as a missionary in China. Moffat told the Wheaton students a gripping tale of his flight from Communist pursuers. They seized his house and all his pos sessions, burned the missionary compound, and killed some of his closest friends. Moffat’s own family barely escaped. When he left China, Moffat took with him a deep resentment against the followers of Chair man Mao, a resentment that metastasized inside him. Finally, he told the Wheaton students, he faced a singular crisis of faith. “I realized,” said Moffat, “that if I have no forgiveness for the Communists, then I have no message at all.”
The gospel of grace begins and ends with forgiveness. And people write songs with titles like “Amazing Grace” for one reason: grace is the only force in the universe powerful enough to break the chains that enslave generations. Grace alone melts ungrace.
One weekend I sat with ten Jews, ten Christians, and ten Muslims in a kind of encounter group led by author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, who hoped the weekend might lead to some sort of community, or at least the beginnings of reconciliation on a small scale. It did not. Fistfights almost broke out among these educated, sophisticated people. The Jews talked about all the horrible things done to them by Christians. The Muslims talked about all the horrible things done to them by Jews. We Christians tried to talk about our own problems, but they paled in contrast to stories of the Holocaust and the plight of Palestinian refugees, and so mainly we sat on the sidelines and listened to the other two groups recount the injustices of history.
At one point an articulate Jewish woman, who had been active in prior attempts at reconciliation with Arabs, turned to the Christians and said, “I believe we Jews have a lot to learn from you Christians about forgiveness. I see no other way around some of the logjams. And yet it seems so unfair, to forgive injustice. I am caught between forgiveness and justice.”
I thought back to that weekend when I came across these words from Helmut Thielicke, a German who lived through the horrors of Nazism:
This business of forgiving is by no means a simple thing. We say, “Very well, if the other fellow is sorry and begs my par don, I will forgive him, then I’ll give in.” We make of forgiveness a law of reciprocity. And this never works. For then both of us say to ourselves, “The other fellow has to make the first move.” And then I watch like a hawk to see whether the other person will flash a signal to me with his eyes or whether I can detect some small hint between the lines of his letter which shows that he is sorry. I am always on the point of forgiving . .. but I never forgive. I am far too just.
The only remedy, Thielicke concluded, was his realization that God had forgiven his sins and given him another chance—the lesson of the parable of the unforgiving servant. Breaking the cycle of ungrace means taking the initiative. Instead of waiting for his neighbor to make the first move, Thielicke must do so, defying the natural law of retribution and fairness. He did this only when he realized that God’s initiative lay at the heart of the gospel he had been preaching but not practicing.
At the center of Jesus’ parables of grace stands a God who takes the initiative toward us: a lovesick father who runs to meet the prodigal, a landlord who cancels a debt too large for any servant to reimburse, an employer who pays eleventh-hour workers the same as the first-hour crew, a banquet-giver who goes out to the highways and byways in search of undeserving guests.
God shattered the inexorable law of sin and retribution by invading earth, absorbing the worst we had to offer, crucifixion, and then fashioning from that cruel deed the remedy for the human condition. Cal vary broke up the logjam between justice and forgiveness. By accepting onto his innocent self all the severe demands of justice, Jesus broke for ever the chain of ungrace.
Like Helmut Thielicke, all too often I drift back into a tit-for-tat struggle that slams the door on forgiveness. Why should I make the first move? I was the one wronged. So I make no move, and cracks in the relationship appear, then widen. In time a chasm yawns open that seems impossible to cross. I feel sad, but seldom do I accept the blame. Instead, I justify myself and point out the small gestures I made toward reconciliation. I keep a mental accounting of those attempts so as to defend myself if I am ever blamed for the rift. I flee from the risk of grace to the security of ungrace.
Henri Nouwen, who defines forgiveness as “love practiced among people who love poorly,” describes the process at work:
I have often said, “I forgive you,” but even as I said these words my heart remained angry or resentful. I still wanted to hear the story that tells me that I was right after all; I still wanted to hear apologies and excuses; I still wanted the satisfaction of receiving some praise in return—if only the praise for being so forgiving!
But God’s forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that does not demand anything for itself, a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking. It is this divine forgiveness that I have to practice in my daily life. It calls me to keep stepping over all my arguments that say forgiveness is unwise, unhealthy, and impractical. It challenges me to step over all my needs for gratitude and compliments. Finally, it demands of me that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged and that wants to stay in control and put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive.
One day I discovered this admonition from the apostle Paul tucked in among many other admonitions in Romans 12. Hate evil, Be joyful, Live in harmony, Do not be conceited—the list goes on and on. Then appears this verse, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
At last I understood: in the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving another, I am trusting that God is a better justice-maker than I am. By forgiving, I release my own right to get even and leave all issues of fairness for God to work out. I leave in God’s hands the scales that must balance justice and mercy.
When Joseph finally came to the place of forgiving his brothers, the hurt did not disappear, but the burden of being their judge fell away. Though wrong does not disappear when I forgive, it loses its grip on me and is taken over by God, who knows what to do. Such a decision involves risk, of course: the risk that God may not deal with the person as I would want. (The prophet Jonah, for instance, resented God for being more merciful than the Ninevites deserved.)
I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying. Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain. I have to approach God again and again, yielding to him the residue of what I thought I had committed to him long ago. I do so because the Gospels make clear the connection: God forgives my debts as I forgive my debtors. The reverse is also true: Only by living in the stream of God’s grace will I find the strength to respond with grace toward others.
A cease-fire between human beings depends upon a cease-fire with God.
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