Christian Spirituality > Forgiveness > in your own language.
forgiveness [ Old English forgiefan ; akin to give, gift ] to renounce anger, resentment, vengeance, and punishment against someone. The word-field includes pardon, excuse, condone, exonerate, to let go of, to absolve, to remit, propitiation, expiation.
God's forgiveness is the key act in making us right with God. Each of us has actions and attitudes which get in the way of God's purposes and how God has taught us to be. God forgives these
freely, through what is done by Jesus the Christ. Now that we're forgiven, our task is to forgive others. Forgiveness by itself does not make the relationship healthy again. But it does clear away your own resentments, your inner stake in the conflict. Forgiveness of others is done with clear eyes, working to reduce the opportunity to do the wrong again. You are sowing the seeds for that person's repentance. But it must not be conditional; Jesus calls you to forgive anyway even if they blow you off. You do your part, because Christ did His; they must deal with theirs.
On what was wrong with the sacrificial system, which was still in use in Jesus' day.
Forgiveness is not just a thought or a fleeting emotion. It is an action; it doesn't happen unless you do or change something. And it is also a decision; you choose to do it. You are led to, sometimes driven to, that action through the power of the Holy Spirit. It can be personal - you forgive yourself and accept God's forgiveness. And it can be between groups. But for most of us most of the time, the form of forgiveness is interpersonal, one-on-one. Even then, there is a ripple effect which benefits those beyond just the two.
You can also seek forgiveness in the dictionary. But you'll only find the word 'forgiveness'; you'll have to turn to God for the actual thing itself.
When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray using what is known to us as 'the Lord's Prayer', forgiveness was very much a part of it:
"Forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us" (BCP, p.364, right column).
The Apostles' Creed is was intended by the early church as a summary of core Christian teachings. In the Third Article, it says:
"I believe in the Holy Spirit;
the holy catholic [universal] Church,
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting."
The Creed is firstly referring to Christ's forgiveness of everyone's sins. But it means more than just that. Christ's forgiveness of our sins has a duty that comes with it: we are to forgive the sins of others. It's a core matter of the Christian faith and Christian theology for us to forgive the sins of others as God did for us. Neither Jesus (in His prayer) nor the Creed are saying "I believe in punishing others until the life is stomped out of them." They don't say, "I believe in holding on to the sins done against me and mine, forever", or "I believe in my right to really stick it to 'em!". The Creed says, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins". The Lord's Prayer says, "Forgive us.... as we forgive..." What Jesus did for me, I do for others. Is this for the sake of decency, or public peace? Good reasons, but not good enough for a Christian. Or, perhaps, in order to use the wisdom of religions and sages? That would be good, except that most non-Christian religious or secular-philosophical systems don't give forgiveness the central role Jesus gave it. No. Christians forgive because we're forgiven by Christ, and Christ told us to do the same to others. It is part of the Christian's definition of themselves. Our forgiving is rooted in our forgiven-ness.
That said, one of the biggest challenges is to forgive someone who has not forgiven others because of the extreme nature of the wrongs. Some things (such as rape, murder, or the Holocaust) bring so much hurt that the person (who is, after all, a human being not God) may simply not find it in them to actually forgive those who did it. I firmly believe God calls on us to forgive even those sorts of wrongs. That is part of what Jesus meant when He spoke of forgiving 70 times 7 times, and when He said to love your enemies. It's an amazing sign of God's truth and love when it happens. But none of us can stand in judgement on it. We can hope they do it, we can work toward healing that hurt, but we have no standing, under any circumstance, to demand that anyone forgive. That's their own matter before God. The Christian is called to forgive even those who find that they can't forgive. The truth is, no matter how good or strong your faith is, you may find that if you have been done this sort of wrong, you may be the one who's unable to forgive. Jesus may then be calling you to forgive yourself for not forgiving.
The sense of being "well" when someone's forgiven comes in the context of God's kingdom. In the immediate case, it means wellness in the context of core matters and acts of faith, such as confession, bearing one's cross, and self-giving to others. In forgiveness, the Holy Spirit liberates the imagination, so you can envision a reconciled relationship and a reconciled life. When you don't forgive, your attitudes not only block the Spirit from acting through you, but block others from relating to you more fully.
Forgiveness has direct effects on physical and mental health:
However, those are secondary matters. The best, most powerful, and most truthful, reason to forgive is that you are forgiven by God, and God calls on you to spread it around.
What Forgiveness Does Not Do
When you pray as in the Lord's Prayer, you ask God to forgive you as you forgive those who wrong you.
It does not say that those who wrong you will forgive you for your actions against them, or will change their mind about you.
It says nothing about those who wrong you asking you, or even God, for forgiveness for what they have done. What 'they' do is not in the picture. It has no part in your being forgiven by God. It does not relieve you of your duty before God to forgive others.
Forgiveness does not cause reconciliation; it clears the way for it. If the other party has not forgiven, or if the various sides have not taken steps beyond forgiveness to change the situation, there is no reconciliation. A 12-step observation here: you can't change someone else, you can only change yourself. (Whether your changes change others is between them and God, and is not in your hands. God does work to change them, but it is their decisions which make it happen, not yours.) Christ bids us to turn around our thinking toward others. Some relationships are best put behind you; some wrongful actions are best left in the past.
Christ doesn't ask us to pretend we are not being wronged, or to be silent or still as other people are wronged, or to approve of actions and attitudes that are harmful. Nor is He calling us to 'forget' the harm done by that wrong, in a way that releases them from responsibility. The wrong is still there, and the wrong is still every bit as wrong. But in forgiveness, we share with them the grace God gave to us for the wrongs we did. Jesus taught us to pray for God to give us what it takes to do so.
Forgiveness gets rid of guilt, but that's not what it is most directly about. It's in part about letting go and getting on with the life of following Christ even as we screw up, even as others screw us up. (You don't forget; you move ahead.) It's also about what Jesus did through His death, and staying focused on that no matter what we feel like or what our mental state is, or what the situation appears to be.
Forgiveness does not require amnesia. No amount of forgiveness can make a wrong right or kind or just or God-pleasing. There are still practical consequences that can come from the wrong, responsibilities that must be met, and restrictions that may have to be enforced even after the person is forgiven. Forgiveness does not require a lobotomy; you suffered due to the wrong, and that suffering helped make you who you now are. It is also not an anesthetic: at times you may still feel the hurt, at times the memories may punch back at you from behind. Forgiveness is not the act of a zombie; it takes the use of a brain to figure out how to bring about justice or reconciliation from the situation, and then it may require fast action. Using your mind helps prevent your becoming someone's dupe, or worse, (in 12-step language) an enabler, one whose actions make it so the person(s) can avoid facing up to what they're doing. God was no dupe in forgiving you; you don't have to be a dupe when you forgive others. The Spirit calls on you to forgive. The way forward often has many steps, and you may still have to figure out what those are even after you forgive. Forgiveness sucks the Viper's poison out of the past, making the past a part of the living instead of the rotting.
Yes, you want the big payback, don't you? But you can't get it all back. Yes, maybe the money or the property. If you work it right, you might even get more esteem from others than you had before. But you can't get back what the killers killed, nor the time spent on it. No amount of vengeance restores a lost relationship. You can collect money for the pain and suffering, but it won't stop you from suffering the pain. So why not leave such things as punishments to God, or to legal authorities, and leave the idea of the big payback behind? Moving ahead with your life will be a lot easier without all that heavy baggage weighing you down.
In Jesus' day, the thing to do when you were in need of being forgiven by God was to offer a ritually-clean sacrifice at the Temple, through the official priests in Jerusalem. If you didn't have a ritually-clean animal, you could buy one for a hefty price, and pay for it in Temple currency which, if you had other coinage, could be exchanged for such coins, for a steep fee. People were already getting quite restless about this; they saw the lavish life the Temple crowd lived, and saw how some of them (notably Caiaphas, as archaeologists have discovered) loved the Greco-Roman culture of their conquerors. Even more, as Jews spread out all over the region, they were further from Jerusalem, and thus further from being forgiven by sacrifices, but their need for forgiveness was not the slightest bit less important. And there were some who sensed that the Temple could eventually be destroyed if Rome was displeased enough with Jewish rebellions; Jesus believed that too, and saw it as a justified judgement on what the Temple represented.
When Jesus went to the Temple to overturn the money changers' tables, it was not a just a challenge to the Temple cultus, it was a rejection of the whole system. It was a rejection that he had begun to proclaim in Galilee when he not only healed people, but also pronounced them to be forgiven. But who gave him that authority? Jesus was, even then, claiming that the Temple system was no longer the place to become forgiven by God. This was now his job, and it could be done anywhere He was. Once he died and returned, he then gave this authority and duty to his gathered followers, through the apostles. So now, wherever people believe in Jesus, there is forgiveness. Even in Jerusalem, even where the Temple once stood.
"Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: It is a permanent attitude."
-- Martin Luther King Jr.
"To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."
-- Lewis B. Smedes
"The goal of forgiveness and the goal of justice is reconciliation, not retribution."
-- Brian Zahnd, *UNconditional?* (Charisma House, 2010) p.122; emphasis is in the original.
"Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future."
-- Paul Boese
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|ver.: 24 July 2012|
Forgiveness. Copyright © 2011-2012 by Robert Longman.