I’ve spent years, decades, really, trying to understand forgiveness. As a little kid — well, I was never little, but you know what I mean — as a young kid, I heard Bible passages mentioning forgiveness, and I heard people say, “Do you forgive me?” or “Please forgive me.” It seemed to me that if person A would ask, person B would say, “I forgive you,” and poof, that was the end of it.
That bothered me. How could the matter be over, just like that? Person B would suddenly feel fine about person A, and A wouldn’t even remember having done something hurtful? A and B were, in that instant, friends again, as if nothing had happened? And I, the observer, was left still asking, Is this magic? How can everything be fine again so easily?
That’s the kind of kid I was. Absent minded, very busy thinking Deep Thoughts.
Turns out, maybe everything wasn’t fine. Maybe they didn’t understand forgiveness any better than I did. I noticed A and B didn’t trust each other quite as much any more. They might act cordial, but slowly, they might drift apart. When I first tried forgiveness, giving or receiving it, it felt strange and unnatural, and the hurt didn’t simply vanish, as I’d expected. This forgiving business obviously wasn’t magic.
I put the whole matter away to wait for more information, experience, wisdom, maturity, or all of the above. Maybe I’d understand forgiveness when I got older.
I’ve been called a late bloomer, and I guess it fits, because I think I started getting a handle on this forgiving thing somewhere in my fifties. Someone had hurt me profoundly, and the experience for me when we parted ways was traumatic. I carried the pain for years, but then one day, I told a therapist that, to my astonishment, I could now think about that person without reacting at all. I knew that if we met, I’d feel relaxed, and I, at least, could have a friendly conversation. I never tried to make that happen, but I started to think, Maybe this is what forgiveness is all about.
Then I found this definition of forgiveness and copied it in my blog: “Forgiving you just means I no longer dwell on what a jerk you were to me. It doesn’t mean you’re no longer a jerk.” Listen to the first part again, the more important part. “Forgiving you simply means I no longer dwell on what you did to me.” Look at the wonderful freedom there. That’s life-giving. That freedom is what you get when you forgive. Hey, maybe forgiving is a bigger favor to yourself than to the one forgiven. Those wrongs against you are in the past, and you’re not lugging them around with you; you have set that burden down, and you can walk with a much lighter step.
But how about “forgive and forget?” Is that realistic? John F. Kennedy, Jr., said, “Always forgive them, but never forget their names.” And yes, why would we, or why should we, forget? We say God forgives our sins, but do you really think God forgets them? Would you really say God forgets things? I don’t.
If we forgive, we let go of the hurt and stop dwelling on it. The hurt is behind us. It may still exist, but it’s where it belongs, behind us. And whether it’s in front of us or behind us, if we keep looking at it, we won’t be watching where we’re headed, and we could walk into even worse harm.
But this isn’t always easy. Ceasing to dwell on the hurt takes strength and maturity. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Wow, is that ever true. If forgiveness is letting go of hurt from others, doing that can be really hard. To forgive, you have to grow up, and that’s hard, too. The media present us with mostly negative examples of maturity. Consider TV’s so-called reality shows, such as the “Housewives” franchise. Forgiveness is usually impossible for those poor women, because being shallow and immature, they fall for the slightest encouragement to make even more drama.
So who can we learn from about how to forgive? I first think of Bishop Desmond Tutu. After the official end of apartheid in South Africa, he formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In my view, this used trauma to treat trauma, but it had a positive effect. People who had suffered torture and other horrors could tell their stories and have them recorded by sympathetic authority. People who had committed atrocities could confess and request amnesty from prosecution. Bishop Tutu is a small man, but I see him as a tower of strength just for setting up and participating in that commission. What a lesson in discipleship.
I think of Doctors Martin Luther King, Senior and Junior, who both refused to let the injustices and ignorance of many white Americans poison their minds.
I think of Nelson Mandela, who said, “Forgiveness liberates the soul; it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”
And we see what a truly powerful weapon forgiveness is in the fearless Yeshua ben Yusef, whom we call Jesus. He was executed by the slow, sadistic method the government loved to use for criminals they wanted to make an example of, which they certainly did. Hardly able to breathe from the pain, Jesus asked God to forgive his torturers. Talk about being strong…
One more example, though, one really close to home: family members. Parents can have terrible things happen thanks to thoughtless, careless, or just inexperienced children and still love them and care for them just as much. Forgiveness can happen just as often, maybe more often, between spouses. And sibling rivalry can get ugly, but as children mature, forgiveness can flower.
I remember thinking, as a youngster, that my parents were so cruel, so unfair, and so unreasonable. I promised myself that I’d remember, and I’d grow up to be a better parent who would really listen to my kids. Then I grew up. My parents became real friends, and I heard their words coming out of my mouth when I dealt with my kids. My brother and I fought viciously as boys, and as adults loved each other deeply.
See, dwelling on what a jerk somebody was to us is carrying the pain, nursing it, keeping it alive and active. What healthy person would do that? It’s a way to create one’s own hell.
Speaking of which, I read of a wise woman who thought that God did not create Hell for people, or people for Hell; she said that Hell was always chosen. Many chose to have their reward on earth: they chose money or power over God. “There’s a parable in the Bible about a rich man, who, while he was alive, had all good things,” she says. “The finest of wines, or whatever. And there was a beggar who would sit at the table of the rich man, and he would get the crumbs. They both died, and the poor man, Lazarus — he had a name by the way; the rich man was just the rich man — Lazarus was taken to Heaven, to the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man ended up in Hell. From Hell, the rich man looks up — apparently, Hell is nearby — and he sees Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, and he says, ‘Abraham, can you send Lazarus with something wet, just to ease the thirst I’m feeling?’ And Abraham says no. “There’s a great chasm that cannot be passed once death happens; there’s no more traveling back and forth.” When I read this, I saw a connection with forgiveness, which is our chance to cross that chasm while we’re alive.
Setting the anger down and walking on took me a long time to learn, but what a privilege it is, and what a reward you get in walking lighter. I wish I could tell you more about how to do it, because forgiveness is a demand of discipleship. Comedians are some of our brightest thinkers, and Lily Tomlin offers a hint about this: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”
How NOT to do it? Stay with people who encourage drama and carrying a grudge. Just as chronic anger is a symptom of mental illness, refusal or inability to forgive is sentencing oneself to a personal hell.
To meet this demand of discipleship, prayer and wise friends help immensely. Give yourself time. Keep a journal. Each day, write down three things you’re thankful for. That’s huge. Send thank you notes. Developing an attitude of gratitude is a magical mental medicine.
Something my brother told me seems to fit here, too. As a pastor, he went to lots of funerals, and he might see people overcome with grief, out of control. “You know why people cry at funerals?” he said to me. “Unfinished business.”
While we’re still here, we need to do our best to learn all we can about giving and receiving forgiveness, and thus make our souls lighter. No more unfinished business. One day, maybe soon, it’ll be too late.
Copyright ©2016 James L. Evans
Luke 16:19-31, Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message
There was once a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, has been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.
Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, “Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.”
But Abraham said, “Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.”
The rich man said, “Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.”
Abraham answered, “They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.”
“I know, Father Abraham,” he said, “but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.”
Abraham replied, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.”