I am continuing some of my pastoral reflections on forgiveness.
One of the most useful insights I ever received into the subject of forgiveness came from meditating on the commands, “Love, pray and do good for your enemies,” and “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Jesus forgave perfectly. Like his miracles, Jesus’ forgiveness was immediate, total and perfect. Even on the cross, he prays that those who are crucifying him will be forgiven. I, on the other hand, will never forgive or love perfectly, in any relationship. That includes those I am called upon, as a follower of Jesus, to forgive.
Jesus never “cuts me any slack” on this matter. I am commanded to “be perfect” as my Father in heaven is perfect. So to follow Jesus is to see what a perfect God does, and to imitate it imperfectly, as best I can at any point.
Our Father gives to those who ask him, and as imperfect fathers, we still give to our children the good gifts that bring them and us joy, even if we never give as perfectly as our heavenly father. We enter enter promise-keeping relationships, even though we know that our lack of perfect love and perfect faithfulness will cause pain.
So when we come to the command to forgive others, I believe we are on a “journey toward” perfect forgiveness, but we accept that, at any point, we are not at our destination. In grace, we become more forgiving toward others, but our goal is progress along the way, and we don’t abandon the journey because of a lack of perfection, setbacks, struggle or little evidence of progress.
Prayer for others, and for our own process of channeling God’s forgiveness into experience, is the engine that drives this journey. It is in prayer that God’s grace to me and my calling to be gracious and forgiving toward those I struggle to love and forgive come together. As I make progress in prayer, I will make progress in forgiveness.
Let’s put this into a concrete situation. Let’s suppose that you take a job you’ve always wanted. You move your family across the country and incur a lot of expense to take this job. Then, suddenly, after less than three months, your job is dissolved without warning, your employment is terminated due to financial considerations, and the persons who hired you have nothing more to say than “sorry.”
This kind of unfair situation would challenge anyone to forgive the person who had caused such pain, trouble and financial distress. No doubt, this situation would put great strain on any marriage and would cause hurt and bitterness that would last for years.
Can a Christian instantly forgive this wrong? Some may do so, but most of us will begin a journey to forgiveness that will last many years. What are our goals?
-to release this person from the debt of having wronged me.
-to transfer that debt to God and to give him full rights as judge over this case.
-to consciously say and believe that “Jesus Christ was crucified for the sin of wronging me and my family.”
-to feel that it would be wrong to hold this person accountable when I am no longer the one responsible for the debt.
-to repent as soon as possible of roots of bitterness and resentment that take the place of forgiveness and dependence on God, particularly the easy temptation to fall into the role of “victim” in future situations or to seek pity as a victim.
-to never speak badly of this person, but to speak graciously, truthfully and with love and kindness.
-for my communications with this person to be free from bitterness and unforgiveness.
-to refuse all options of revenge, no matter how small, and to give God COMPLETE rights of punishment and vengeance.
-to begin to see this person through the compassionate eyes of Jesus Christ.
-to see my own sins as greater than the sins of others against me.
-to actively love this person, and to find opportunities to demonstrate that love.
-to be willing to move toward a Christlike sacrificial love in my relationship to this person.
-to, if it is prudent, forget entirely the wrong that was done. (It may not be prudent to do so.)
Reading this list- each one of which could be keyed to scripture passages and Biblical examples- it is not hard to see why the idea of a “journey of forgiveness, fueled by prayer” is important.
To attempt to arrive at all these places immediately, or even in a short time, is likely to be impossible for most of us. The call of Jesus to discipleship is the call to make forgiveness and love a lifelong quest in sanctification and Christlikeness. Satan will seek to discourage us in this journey, but we must not be discouraged. We must be encouraged in the scriptures and stay on the path.
I want to briefly mention the place of the “forgiveness journey” in marriage. The great enemy of forgiveness in marriage is a mentality of “war,” where we constantly are seeking to protect ourselves, secure ourselves, arm ourselves and inflict other wounds on those who have hurt us. “Surrender” in a marriage means trusting God at deep levels of vulnerability. This is a journey where the encouragement and prayers of the community are vital. Many marriages can be saved if the partners can undertake the “journey of forgiveness” rather than despair of forgiveness in the relationship that can cause us the most pain.
There are, of course, the kinds of hurts where marriages cannot continue, and the journey of forgiveness is undertaken in a new chapter of life. Should the seriousness of marital failure mean the marriage is over, the journey of forgiveness cannot end.
Let’s pray for one another as we all have many paths of forgiveness to walk. May Christ be magnified and look great in the “weakness” and “strength” as the Gospel flows through us into the wounds and hurts we all carry.