Forgiving people who will never deserve it
Your life will be inescapably colored by the wrongs done to you and your response to them. We must decide now to never let evil define us, nor allow it to ruin our relationships forever.
To begin, let’s look at this one cool story in the Gospels about Jesus instructing Peter to forgive his brother seventy-times-seven times.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Now, for any first-century Jew who knew the scriptures, the biblical echo here would ring out clearly. This is a reference to the book of Daniel, where Daniel asks an angel how long the Hebrew exile in Babylon will endure. Will it be seventy years, as Jeremiah has foretold? No – the angel tells Daniel it will seventy times seven years [Daniel 9:2, 24].
This is how long it will take to remove the effects of sin, because God has to deal not only with the exiled state of his people but with the root causes for their exile in the first place.
By using this language, Jesus is teaching his disciples that not only our sin, but the causes and the effects of our sin must also be addressed. Jesus has introduced us to a new way of living – a way of forgiveness, a way of releasing others from their trespasses against us, and we are called to embody it.
When we understand forgiveness as the strange, powerful thing it really is, we begin to realize that God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others, is the knife that cuts the ropes of sin. When we forgive then our anger, our fear, and our lust for revenge fall away from us like parcel strings.
Forgiveness, then – including God’s forgiveness of us, our forgiveness of one another and our forgiveness even of ourselves – is a central part of deliverance from evil.
When we forgive someone we not only release them from the burden of our anger and its possible consequences; we release ourselves from the burden of whatever it was they had done to us, and from the crippled emotional state in which we shall go on living if we don’t forgive them and instead cling to our anger and bitterness.
We also need to recognize that, sometimes, forgiveness is a decision we make well before we ever feel better about what has occurred. True forgiveness means working toward the point where you can behave as if nothing had ever happened…but it did happen, and – in the meantime – you can’t simply pretend it didn’t so you have to work towards reconciliation after the sin has been dealt with.
As with every other spiritual discipline, the only way to forgive someone is through hard work: prayer, thought, moral attention to your own state of mind and heart, and moral effort to think and behave in certain ways when what would come naturally would be something very different.
In fact, I find that the only way I’m ever able to forgive anybody is by praying specifically for God to bless them – for good things to happen to them, in them, and around them – even if I know they’re still in the wrong.
And this is hard – but, the difficulty involved reminds us that forgiveness doesn’t just happen. So, when we sin against others, we begin to appreciate just how much is involved in their forgiveness to us. Now, one thing I should make clear – I don’t think we should ever just pretend that something bad didn’t happen or that the things that did happen really weren’t that bad and we should just get over it – what I am trying to do here is reinforce the fact that un-forgiveness hurts us and the decision to push that offense out of our hearts will help us in the long run.
So, for example, if someone I know steals money from my desk while visiting my office and I catch them, then a healthy process of forgiveness might look like this:
I confront them about their crime
They repent and ask for my forgiveness
They return the money
I tell them I will find it difficult to trust them in the future, that I do not want them to ever be in my office alone again
But I tell them I’m willing to continue our friendship and have forgiven them
And then I invite them back into my life in a safe capacity as soon as I feel comfortable, preferably sooner rather than later so that: They know I am serious about forgiving them; I am reminded about my own need to forgive.
What I most certainly should NOT do includes [but is not limited to]: pretending I didn’t see them steal; letting them keep the money they took dishonestly, even though they may need it [charity and justice should not be mixed this way, all reference to Les Miserable to the contrary] ; telling them everything is okay and inviting them to house sit for me while I’m out of town; giving them carte blanche, a key to my office, and entrusting them with my valuables.
When we forgive others we not only release them from the burden of their guilt, but also release ourselves from the burden of always having to be angry. This is important. The more we learn to forgive, the more our lives will be whole, and the more we’ll be able to see beyond the evils and injuries of this world into the brightness and sweetness of the next.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com