One of my favorite verses is “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be recognized as Christians” (isn’t that what …“they shall be called the sons of God” really means?). Sadly many of us are recognized for other things, not such pleasant things as loving, peacemaking attitudes. Granted our culture has become a hostile, adversarial mess, but then we believers are to be “in the world but not of the world,” right?
I confess that it’s not easy when so many things tend to make a person upset, if not downright angry. It is bad enough to deal with people who behave with selfishness, stupidity, or malice. Yet, Jesus did indeed tell us to love our enemies! Was he serious? “…bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Man, but that is a tough word to follow! (Yeah, I know that some of those words aren’t in all the manuscripts for Matthew 5:44, but I think a bit of over emphasis couldn’t hurt)
So which are you? The one who needs to love an enemy or the one who chose to be an enemy by choosing to persecute or engage in vicious, hurtful behavior? To some extent most of us fall into both categories; we have done wrong things against other people, and we have been the ones wronged. That is why Jesus taught us all to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Recently my friend Michelle posted this on Facebook, “We forget that forgiveness is greater than revenge. People make mistakes. We are allowed to make mistakes. But the actions we take while in a rage will haunt us forever. Pause and ponder. Think before you act. Be patient. Forgive and forget. Love one and all. If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Forgiveness is the key. Moreover, forgiveness anchored in God’s forgiveness paid in the blood of Jesus Christ his Son on a cross enables us truly to release the debt we feel and to have our debts released as well.
Over a number of years of teaching Biblical peacemaking, I always found we needed extra time when we taught about forgiveness. I think few have ever really been taught; they’ve heard the word but never learned to practice it, or even how to practice it. Furthermore, we live in a culture of increasing anger, hostility, and alienation, where the burden is almost always placed on the “offender,” the one with the wrong attitude and the wrong behavior. It colors everything in our society from race and gender relations to ideological differences to dealing with those at school, work, neighborhood, or home. It is evidenced by the ugly nastiness you can read in the comments to nearly any subject posted online. We make game shows from who can make the nastiest put down. We enjoy, not just the great talent found in a show like “American Idol,” but the dismissal of those not so blessed. Decades of first listeners and then viewers spend hours with their favorite soaps, where people behave badly as a general rule. Songs not only consider the hurt of love gone wrong, but some performers seem to revel in pure ugliness. Is it any wonder that people, even church folks, struggle to comprehend and practice forgiving each other.
Have you? Have you ever actually forgiven someone, let the offense go, and returned to loving that person as before? That is forgiveness. Don’t say, “Oh, that’s alright” and then harbor ill will afterward. Don’t even keep track. Jesus said, when asked, to forgive 70 times 7 times, while I doubt few ever even forgive 7 times (Matthew 18:22). When God does it—and let’s face it, he’s forgiven us countless times, even for the very same failing—it involves grace, and we need grace, too. No one says forgiving is easy, but it is the standard God has given; and it is the key to peace.
Have you ever asked for forgiveness? Please, don’t tell me you’ve never needed to ask. Asking for forgiveness is not saying, “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry” just expresses regret, and maybe at that only regret for how things worked out. “I’m sorry” tends to be something we try to measure or evaluate: “Was he really sincere?” Was she truly sorry” Were they sorry enough?” This is typical when a public figure is caught doing or saying something wrong; everyone has an opinion as to whether the person was truly sorry or just doing damage control. That’s easy; it’s both! Usually the sides line up depending on ideology and politics, whoever has the loudest voice prevails; some will be humiliated and ruined, and some will be welcomed back into the fold.
Truthfully, most of these occurrences are not the public’s business. If a President commits adultery, as many apparently have, that sin is between him and his spouse, although voters do have the right to consider his trustworthiness after that. If a coach or an actor uses a certain word, that lies between that person and any to whom it was directed, but that is nearly impossible now, in this age of political correctness. In any event, the correct action is to seek forgiveness from the one or ones injured by the act…and from God who most is offended by human sinfulness.
One area where I particularly find public involvement regrettable is criminal trials, where media coverage and public commentary often work at cross purposes to justice. As with personal situations, people are often more than willing to engage in “mind-reading,” speak with knowledge they do not have, and condemn or vindicate where they clearly lack the facts. Even our President has done so, more than once! “Innocent until proven guilty” is our standard. Our gossip-rich, news-oriented culture fosters public judgment, often before even the most basic facts are known. Mind you, this isn’t directly the realm of forgiveness, although victims of crime may forgive those who have harmed them, and are often wiser to do so. Victim/offender reconciliation has often freed both parties to move on in their lives without doing harm to considerations of justice.
Seeking forgiveness does not involve a convincing performance of regret, multiple utterances of “I’m so sorry,” or promises in blood never to screw up again. It is not the duty of the one asked to evaluate the sincerity of the asking or place conditions on forgiving. Yes, it is a risky, costly, very counter-intuitive choice, to forgive, but it is the one commanded…and it is worth the price! Restoration, reconciliation, peace, love, and closure are priceless benefits of forgiving.
Forgiving does not require being asked, although the results will be limited by the lack. We act like and feel that not forgiving somehow punishes the offender, and often the offender is happily pursuing his or her life oblivious to our anger. Who then is being harmed? Holding on to anger harms the angry person; all that negative emotion is inside, like an infection, making us sick at heart. Forgiving in this case is necessary for one’s healing, even if the offender cannot be included in the process.
Every day, it seems, I read or hear about the bad things people do and the angry responses of others, some even on “my side” of the religious or political spectrum. I see people hurt by others, and I see those harmed respond with anger and an unforgiving spirit. Sometimes, people important to me are hurt; sometimes I am! I occasionally wonder if I have been the one who hurt, more often unintentionally at this point of my life, but sometimes carelessly or angrily. Other virtues—kindness, patience, mercy, and silence (which is often golden)—can be helpful, but forgiveness is indispensable!
Having said that, is there someone, perhaps more than one, whom you should forgive? Are there others whom you should ask for forgiveness? This is the most basic of godly virtues, something we have no business ignoring in favor of other matters. God doesn’t need our crusades for truth or delineations of orthodoxy. The Church is not ours to “manage.” The greatest commandment after loving God is loving your neighbor, and you cannot do that without the discipline of forgiveness. He warns us of “vain repetitions, and what could be a worse example than our saying the Lord’s Prayer while we routinely ignore “as we forgive our debtors?” Finally, considering all the good it does, why would anyone not want to be in the forgiving business?