What does it mean to truly forgive a person?
Forgiveness is the one issue that it seems every person must deal with, and must deal with on a regular basis – even if we don’t consciously think about it.
On the one hand, we are all wronged, hurt, abused, and violated. And this happens on a regular basis. The world we live in is an endless cycle of abused trust, hurt, pain and suffering. This has been the process ever since Cain invited Abel out into the field under false pretext and attacked and killed him. This is the earliest biblical example of a violation of human rights, and ever since then no one has escaped being caught up in this cycle of abuse.
The fact that we can relate to this so well is due to the fact that we notice this abuse most clearly when we are personally wronged. We notice abuses most clearly and lucidly when they happen to us. At least that seems to be the normal process. It is one thing to hear of people’s property being confiscated by the government in some other country – that may bother me a bit – but if the government were to confiscate my property it is at that point that I am passionate enough to take up arms!
The point is that the farther away someone is from me the less passionate I am for the cause of justice. If someone in my immediate family is being wrongly treated then I feel the weight of the injustice and the wrongness of the situation. Let it happen to someone I don’t know in a country I’ve never heard of, and, as a general rule, it will not affect me. The only exception to this, as far as I can see, is when someone unknown suffers the same injustice as I have suffered. A victim of a rape will have instant sympathy when he or she hears of another rape victim, because deep down they instinctively know what it is to suffer in that way.
This brings us back around to choice of forgiveness. What does it look like to truly forgive in situations in which we suffer injustice. These things may happen on a large scale as we mentioned in some of the examples above, or it may be on a smaller scale – perhaps my electrical company has unfairly overcharged me, or the auto mechanic is taking advantage of my helpless situation and making me pay twice as much as I otherwise would have.
Whatever the scenario we are each faced with the choice of how we will handle these various situations. The natural inclination, I think, is to hold on to the pain and embrace resentment. I say this is the “natural” inclination simply because this is my observation of others and myself.
When I am in a situation where I suffer price-gauging at the hands of that dastardly auto mechanic my first reaction is to justify the resentment that I feel. I may play back in my mind the wrongness of his actions from a variety of angles: “He was wrong for doing this and for that….and he really had no cause to do such and such….and, of course, the look on his face told the whole story of how ridiculous and depraved this character really is….”
If I am really resentful, then I will dialogue with a friend or acquaintance about the seedy auto mechanic, reviewing all of his antics and garnering support for my resentment. The point is this: I want to justify and hold on to the resentment I feel.
On the other hand, we are faced with the issue of forgiveness when we, ourselves, commit the wrongdoing: When we become the abusers. The tables turn, and I am no longer the victim but the perpetrator of the wrong.
When the role is reversed I want to justify myself, but in this situation I want to justify myself against any need for forgiveness. I refuse to accept forgiveness because there is no basis for it. If I am the seedy auto mechanic, then there are a host of reasons why I was perfectly justified in overcharging. In fact, when I look at all the “facts” of the situation it may just be the case that I wasn’t overcharging at all! It’s economics, after all, isn’t it? Supply and demand. My customer doesn’t have to use my services….There are a myriad of ways to justify myself if I am the seedy auto mechanic.
The above cycle is the cycle of sin. The undeniable reality of abuse and wrongdoing that infects the creation by a perpetuation of evil and the justification of that evil. And, furthermore, the justification for withholding forgiveness. It is, of course, the brokenness of the world, which we all must partake in. It becomes so natural that for us to exist in this darkness is like the fish in water – it is a part of our element. And because it is a part of our element we must justify ourselves. We justify resentment and we justify our abuses.
This justification is natural. And, to the surprise of many (Christians included) it is modeled in the biblical text. Psalm 137 is an example of dealing with abuse and resentment. It reveals the necessity of facing pain and the importance of understanding the depths of resentment. It shows us that in some cases resentment is a necessary path to the ultimate goal of forgiveness.
But this begs the question of where forgiveness falls on this whole wicked scheme of things. Forgiveness, I say, never occurs until the fullness of wrongdoing is understood. I can’t forgive until I understand that I am not obligated to forgive. Justice is on my side! I have been wronged and would be perfectly justified in holding it against this person for all the rest of my days. Especially if that seedy auto mechanic never expresses the least bit of remorse.
I can never forgive until I understand that I am not obligated to forgive. I can never forgive until I can look all of my pain in the face – for all its ugliness – and then, after all of that still say, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they do.” True forgiveness is truly understanding resentment and justice. But understanding resentment and justice is still not true forgiveness.