Don't Wait to Forgive

If we really understood what forgiveness is, we might find ourselves actually looking forward to it.

When we think of forgiveness, most of us think of a wrong forgotten and a relationship restored. In short, all is well and everything is back to normal. If you've been hurt, or more importantly if you've hurt someone else, you know how untrue that is. Some wrongs can never fully be forgotten and some relationships can never be repaired. When damage is done, loss is inevitable.

One of those losses might be the relationship. Reconciliation is an ideal goal but it's not the goal of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a change of attitude, not a change of circumstance. And some circumstances, particularly in cases of abuse, might never allow for change let alone reconciliation.

This is why we often make repentance precede forgiveness. If we've already started with the assumption that forgiveness leads to reconciliation, then repentance becomes the safeguard against having to forgive the indifferent. As Jesus said:
If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying "I repent," you must forgive them.
Then again, if forgiveness depends on repentance, Jesus' words of forgiveness to those who knew not what they were doing would be rather void. It's better to read that passage not as a condition but as a reminder that we have no reason to withhold forgiveness.

Except for that healing process, of course. Even a broken bone produces a cry of pain and anger followed by a period of mourning over the loss of the limb's function. So when someone hurts us, rushing these responses would feel superficial and insincere. But that's just another assumption.

Forgiveness is not the goal of healing; healing is the goal of forgiveness. In other words, the healing process can't start until we forgive. Healing begins by changing our attitude and letting go of the anger that leads to hatred. It's not a dismissal of anger at the injustice, but rather anger directed at the offender.

It's also not the final nail in the coffin of mourning. Just like some things can never be forgotten or repaired, some losses can never be mourned long enough. Only a bankrupt theology would see joy and sorrow as a false dichotomy rather than the two sides of a human being's emotional coin.

But we can't start the healing process and let go of the anger until we understand that forgiveness is not weakness. It's not a loss of justice, dignity, or pride. Forgiveness is power. It's the power to confront another person with a soul-changing choice: accept it or reject it. The penal system can only administer physical consequences, but forgiveness puts a spiritual fork in the road--one leading to life and one leading to death.

In this way, forgiveness is more like throwing a punch than taking a beating. It's difficult but only like exercise is difficult. We're not absolving any evil or absorbing any debt; we're simply exercising God's power in the world.

That power is love. Forgiveness is love in action poured out in the person of Christ. It's a love that includes those we consider enemies, not just repentant friends. If God didn't choose to withhold it from anyone then we are left with no pretense to do so ourselves. As unnatural as it feels, we ought to treat it not like an unthinking reflex, but like the muscle memory of a skilled musician. When we do, we might be surprised by how easy it becomes to rejoice in suffering.

photo credit: 06/06/2015 APB Cycle I Round 1 Match Flyweight (52 Kg) Sofia, Bulgaria via photopin (license)