Forgiveness: Our Holy Center
By Ray Waddle
Do a Google search for "Christian forgiveness" and 864,000 entries suddenly appear — sermon outlines, position papers and trivia facts. (By one count, the word shows up in the Bible seven times, a divine number.)
Even with all this easily accessible information about forgiveness, practicing forgiveness isn’t easy.
The modern climate is not forgiving — a divisive election season, mob violence on the basketball court, reality shows reeking of revenge, painful debate about America’s wartime objectives and methods, daily reports of domestic abuse, cutthroat competition and crimes of rage.
Terrorism — the bitter opposite of forgiveness and reconciliation — defines our era’s fears.
Many of us would rather change the subject than forgive. Has it ever been different? You might say human history is the story of the consequences of our choosing retaliation over reconciliation.
And yet: Forgiveness is unavoidable. It’s an urgent daily possibility, the crown of human potential. And it’s at the center of the Christian message.
Many Christians have made forgiveness the defining principle of their own lives. They know Jesus preached forgiveness and lived it. He also died praying for it. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do," He called out from the cross with His last breath.
Forgiveness was not just the theme of some of Jesus’ parables or His dramatic Good Friday plea. Forgiveness ignites a chain re-action across the New Testament, connecting redemption, grace, reconciliation, mercy, justification and salvation. It’s the bridge between heaven and earth.
Forgiveness is really what the Bible is about — the long narrative of human sin and God’s willingness to forgive. In the Bible, psalms ask God for mercy, prophets urge people to repent and reconcile, and finally Jesus enacts God’s forgiveness and reconciliation in an ultimate way.
"It’s at the heart of Christianity, the heart of the cross," says the Rev. Marjorie Thompson, director of Pathways in Congregational Spirituality at The Upper Room in Nashville, Tenn., and author of Companions in Christ, The Way of Forgiveness: Participants’ Book [Upper Room Books, (800) 972-0433, www.upperroom.org].
Jesus’ very existence was God’s way of restoring us, intensifying the showering of divine mercy upon us. Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection embodied God’s act of forgiving humanity for breaking the connection to divine life through rebellious egotism and sin. Our own prayers and actions were not enough to heal the break. Jesus the Redeemer restores the relationship. This notion of divine forgiveness releases in us a new power to forgive. It places upon us a divine duty to forgive. In 1 John, it says: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God."
"Without God’s gift of forgiveness, we can’t truly forgive others — we don’t have that capacity," Thompson says.
Forgiveness is hard. But it looms as an engine of cosmic truth and healing, like a divine strategy for mental health and repair of the soul. Surely we could not function without forgiveness. It is the only way to redeem wrongs, hurts and evils — at home and across the hemispheres. It’s the only way the fallen world renews itself to face tomorrow. Anger and regret would consume us otherwise.
"Forgiveness grants us freedom," Thompson says. "There’s freedom in forgiving others. It frees us from the corrosive bitterness of anger. You release yourself from the bondage of being tied up in knots over someone who has wounded you."
Even so, debates crackle about Christian forgiveness. How does forgiveness happen?
In the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:4, NRSV), Jesus says, "And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us." (The version in Matthew 6:12 says, "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.")
And in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus declares, "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses" (Mark 11:25).
Some commentators interpret such passages to say God’s forgiveness depends on us repenting first and forgiving our neighbor. But others say God’s forgiveness is unconditional. God’s power does not depend on human action. Regardless, we should feel inspired to forgive others because of what God has done for us.
"The cross becomes the standard for interpreting other verses," Thompson says. "What’s extraordinary about Jesus’ forgiveness from the cross is that He does it for people who haven’t repented. That’s the depth of the Christian witness to the grace of God. He extends forgiveness before we have repentance.
"It’s this extraordinary show of love for us that moves us to repentance and forgiveness. It’s extraordinarily empowering to be forgiven when we don’t deserve it."
What does forgiveness look like? There’s no one path or timetable. Some people have the capacity to forgive in a flash. For others, it’s a long process. It can take years — and involve entire communities, transforming behavior, redeeming prejudice and atrocity.
"Forgiveness is a process that extends over time," says the Rev. Joretta Marshall, author, academic dean and professor of pastoral
theology and counseling at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
"It involves repentance, acts of reparation — not just ‘I’m sorry,’ but a change of behavior. Jesus talked about forgiveness as one of the essential qualities of the Kingdom. Forgiveness is a holy thing, a good thing. It leads people toward wholeness."
Forgiveness should also lead to reconciliation, but this isn’t always possible. One person can forgive. But it takes two to reconcile — the offending party and the offended one.
Reconciliation is sometimes impossible — for instance, if one party dies or continues to deny any responsibility for the hurt.
"Forgiveness nevertheless should lead people to empathy, understanding and grace," Marshall says. "Take racism. We’re not even close (to reconciliation). But every time we confront white privilege or abuse of power, when we face the fact and confess our role in a racist culture, we move a little closer."
It’s up to people — individuals, small groups, large assemblies and beyond — to stand up for forgiveness and reconciliation and make it happen, against the odds. The alternative — resentment, woundedness, hatred, violence — is no Christian alternative.
"It’s hard for nations to make a Christian response," Thompson says. "It’s up to individuals and churches to practice alternatives in a world of violence."
Ray Waddle is a writer based in Nashville, Tenn., and author of A Turbulent Peace: The Psalms for Our Time.