As We Forgive Those by Elisabeth Elliot
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “Love has a Price Tag,” published in 1979.
A young minister leading a Bible study recently cited a reference in the Psalms to sin.
“I don’t care what you say!” a middle-aged woman blurted out. “I’m not going to forgive my mother-in-law! What she did to me I could never forgive.”
The minister had not mentioned forgiveness, or any specific sin, but the Word of God, sharper than any two-edged sword, had pierced the woman’s heart. Her outburst was a dead giveaway of the resentment that smoldered beneath the surface.
A girl I’ll call Sandra phoned several months ago to tell me that she had just been asked to be godmother to her friend Vicky’s child. It was impossible, Sandra said, to consider such a thing since Vicky, once a close friend, had hurt her very deeply. The two couples had vacationed together and their friendship disintegrated over a series of trivial but unforgivable hurts. They had hardly seen each other since, and now here was Vicky expecting Sandra to be her child’s godmother. What was Sandra to do?
“Forgive her,” I said.
“Forgive her! But she isn’t even sorry. I don’t think she even remembers how she hurt me!”
Nevertheless, I told her, if it was her Christian duty she was asking me about, there was no question as to what it was.
“You mean I’m the one who has to make the move?”
“Do you expect God to forgive you for your sins?”
“Then you must forgive Vicky.”
“Is there someplace in the Bible that actually says that?”
“Remember the Lord’s Prayer? `Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ (see Matt 6:9-13). That’s followed by a pretty plain statement: `If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matt 6:15, NKJV).”
I could almost hear Sandra catch her breath on the telephone. There was a pause.
“I never thought of that. And I said that prayer just this morning. So . . . . I can’t expect to be forgiven unless I forgive?”
She didn’t see how she could do that. I agreed most emphatically that she could not—not without God’s grace. Everything in human nature goes against that idea. But the gospel is the message of reconciliation. Reconciliation not only to God, but also to His purposes in the world, and to all our fellow human beings. We talked for a little while about the absolute necessity of forgiveness. It is a command. It is the road to restoration of ruptured friendships. It releases us from ourselves. I promised Sandra I would pray for the grace of God to work in her and in Vicky, and that she would be enabled freely and completely to forgive.
“But what if she still isn’t sorry?”
“We don’t pray, `Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who ask us to.’ We say `as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ It’s not a matter of ignoring what’s been done. When God forgives He doesn’t merely overlook our trespasses. He doesn’t ask us to overlook others’ trespasses either—He asks us to forgive them. So that means our Christian obligation is to forgive anybody who has invaded our rights, our territory, our comfort, our self-image, whether they acknowledge the invasion or not.”
A week later I learned that Sandra’s and my prayers had been answered far beyond what either of us had had faith to expect. Not only did Sandra forgive, but Vicky even apologized, and the two were reconciled.
To forgive is to die. It is to give up one’s right to self, which is precisely what Jesus requires of anyone who wants to be His disciple.
“If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps, he must give up all right to himself, take up his cross and follow me. For the man who wants to save his life will lose it; but the man who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25, Phillips).
Following Christ means walking the road He walked, and in order to forgive us He had to die. His follower may not refuse to relinquish his or her own right, territory, comfort or anything that the follower regards as his or hers. Forgiveness is relinquishment. It is a laying down. No one can take it from us, any more than anyone could take the life of Jesus if He had not laid it down of His own will. But we can do as He did. We can offer it up, writing off whatever loss it may entail, in the sure knowledge that the man who loses his life or his reputation or his face or anything else for the sake of Christ will save it.
The woman who hates her mother-in-law is wallowing in offenses. Her resentment has grown and festered over 27 years, and it is “fierce in proportion as it is futile,” as John Oman wrote. Her bitterness, the minister tells me, has poisoned her own life and that of the church of which she is a member.
The Bible tells a story about a man who, being forgiven by the king a debt of millions of pounds, went immediately to one who owed him a few shillings, grabbed him by the throat and demanded payment (see Matt. 18:21-35). We react to a story like that. “Nobody acts like that!” we say, and then, grabbed, as it were, by the truth of the story ourselves, we realize, “Nobody but us!”
When Jesus, nailed to a Roman cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34), He wielded a weapon against which Caesar himself had no power. The helpless, dying Son of God, a picture of defeat, proclaimed the victory of inexorable love. Who can stand up to the force of forgiveness?
Several times people have come to me to confess bitterness that they have felt toward me about which I had known nothing at all. They knew I had known nothing. Were they then taking occasion to air a grievance that ought to have been a matter between them and God? Was this a pious method of expressing sinful feelings that they should have asked God to cleanse? The Bible does not tell us to go to one against whom we have a grievance. It tells us to go to one who has a grievance against us: “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” (Matt. 5:23-24, NIV). We are commanded to forgive anyone who has trespassed. We are not told to call his attention to the offense. We are to ask the forgiveness of anyone against whom we have trespassed. This may be a long journey for us, geographically or emotionally and spiritually. But if we mean to be disciples of the crucified we must make that journey and slay the dragon of self-interest. We thereby align ourselves with God, acting no longer independently of Him or for our own “rights.”
Those who bear the Cross must also bear others’ burdens. This includes the burden of responsibility for sin as well as the sharing of suffering. What room can there possibly be for touchiness or a self-regarding fastidiousness in the true burden-bearer? Forgiveness is a clear-eyed and cool-headed acceptance of the burden of responsibility.
The life of St. Francis of Assisi exemplified his own profound understanding that “it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
If we too intend to take up the Cross we commit ourselves to the same quality of life. Then we can with truthfulness sing
I take, 0 Cross, thy shadow for my abiding place.
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of thy face,
Content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss,
My sinful self, my only shame; my glory all the Cross. [65-72]