Colossians 3.13 (NRSV) Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
When it comes to forgiveness, the questions for us in the doing are many. Here, then, are but a few:
1. Is it necessary that they ask for our forgiveness? No. In Luke 23.34, Jesus’ first words from the cross were, Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing. Full reconciliation or restoration may require some acknowledgment on the part of the other person. Or it may not. But in order to forgive someone the harm they have done me, it is just not necessary, biblically speaking, to wait for them to say sorry.
2. May we withhold our forgiveness for any reason? No. In Matthew 18, Peter famously asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone – the proverbial problem of the repeat offender. Jesus’ answer is clear – if you expect forgiveness from God, you’d do well to be prepared to forgive others as often as forgiveness is required. Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a decision. We may have to make the decision over and over again, but make it we must.
3. For whom do we make the decision? For ourselves first. And for the other. It has been said that refusing to forgive someone is like drinking poison ourselves and expecting the other guy to die. We forgive because bitterness, anger, resentments, grudges, eat us alive from the inside out. But forgiveness also benefits the other person, whether they seek it or not, recognize it in that instant or not. It is a gift we give – the same gift that was given to us – by God’s own self.
4. How do we do it? There is lots of good advice in the Bible and elsewhere about how to forgive. There is no one blueprint, but there are some common features:
a. first, we decide – as an exercise of our will rather than an experience of our emotions, we forgive. It is both a choice and a commitment, for the act of forgiving does not end with our decision.
b. sometimes we have to pray to even be willing to be willing to forgive. When we’re stuck in not being able to exercise our will to forgive but know that we should, simply ask God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Pray for a heart, a mind, a spirit, made willing to forgive.
c. we don’t minimize the hurt, the harm, the need for forgiveness. Accept the reality of your past is how Rabbi Falcon puts it. This thing happened. It shouldn’t have. But it did. We need to admit to ourselves that this unforgiven thing done to us matters and it matters a lot.
d. we include the living and the dead – we may be holding grudges and hurts against people who are long dead and well beyond the need for our forgiveness for what they did, but we may still need to do the work of forgiving them.
e. we do the work, whatever it takes. No one else can do this work for us. We have to do it ourselves.
f. don’t judge ourselves harshly if it comes up again We may think we’ve done the work, that we’ve actually forgiven. And then something happens and it all comes back up again. That’s okay. Forgiving is not forgetting in the sense of not remembering. Forgiving is forgetting in the sense of not holding it against someone into the indefinite future. So when we find the old resentments, have come back, we simply need to do a refresher. When Jesus told Peter that seven times of forgiveness wasn’t enough and that it might be as much as 70 x 7, he might have meant to keep forgiving repeat offenses. And he might have meant that it’ll take us a long time to complete our own forgiving work. Both are true. And both require leaning on God’s grace a great deal.
g. we must finally understand the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. God desires that we be reconciled to each other. But this side of heaven, that is not always possible or even desirable, principally because it depends on both parties being equally willing, equally healthy, equally able. And that isn’t always true. Consider repeat patterns of behavior, like domestic violence or child sexual abuse. The work of both forgiveness and reconciliation is as practical as it is spiritual. It requires addressing what is the best for all concerned. And God always desires the best for each and all of us. It is not best to place someone sexually attracted to children in the company of children. It is not best to place one’s self in the physical sphere of someone who represents present physical or psychological danger. It is not best to enable someone to continue their own self-destructive patterns.
Forgiveness is an act of strength, not weakness. Forgiveness is ours to give, not the other’s to demand. One may ask for forgiveness, but one may not demand it.
It is our job to forgive. It isn’t easy. But it is necessary.
To forgive is to first understand that what happened is not okay. Never was. Never will be. To forgive is to first understand that what happened is not okay and then to say, I will love you anyway. Just like God loves me.
Perhaps the best prayer I’ve ever read/seen/heard about the important work of forgiveness, from Rabbi Falcon, May no one be punished on my account. Amen.