Unless we forgive, we cannot be forgiven, but since we are all sinners and in need of forgiveness, this means we must forgive: it is the way to life. But forgiveness is not easy. In fact, it’s sometimes one of the hardest things human beings are called to do. How do we do it?
What is forgiveness, so necessary and yet sometimes so hard? It is something that comes out of tragic situations, ones where a person has inflicted harm on another. While the natural response is to inflict harm back, and perpetuate the situation, forgiveness is a different sort of response, a deliberately chosen one that up-ends the situation by returning good for evil.
But before I go on, I want to say something about abuse here. If harm is ongoing, if an attacker is continuing to harm and attack us, and we are in a situation that enables the attack, we may be caught in a cycle of abuse. A cycle of abuse blinds, traps and enslaves. Forgiveness requires perspective and freedom, and for that, we need to escape the cycle. Get help, get out. Safety first; the time to think about forgiveness will come later.
When “later” comes, and the cycle is over, we are left with many wounds and scars. Forgiveness, while now possible, is difficult. It is easier to react to the wounds and scars left by our attackers. But this is dangerous: if we act on our scars, we are letting them define us. Should we be defined by our attackers and what they have done to us?
There is another way forward, one that comes not from our attacker, but from Jesus. Jesus loves us. In his death on the cross, he showed us how to forgive. He was attacked and abused, though he had done no wrong. He was condemned unjustly to torture and death. Yet he did not react in anger and hurt. Instead he forgave his attackers while he was dying: from the cross he prayed for their forgiveness. He showed us how to let go of the resentment and anger, and to wish good in return for evil.
The first thing Jesus said, when he was hanging on the cross, dying, was “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]. He had plenty to think about: he was in pain, he was being tortured, he had to struggle for breath. His mission was in disarray, most of his friends had run away, and he was dying, slowly and painfully. But he was not thinking of any of these things. Instead, he was thinking of his torturers, his enemies who have put him on the cross. It was for them, not for himself, that he prayed.
The last thing Jesus said, while dying on the cross, was “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” [Luke 23:46] He had been ripped and torn, pummeled and beaten. He had every reason for revenge. But he did not look to rise up to crush his enemies, however badly they deserved it. Instead, he committed everything to his Father.
What does this mean for us? Consider the word: for-give. Jesus prayed for his enemies, and he chose to give everything to God. So we too, instead of thinking of ourselves and the wrong done us, we should think of those who hurt us. We should pray for them. Surely they are in need of prayers. Next, instead of looking to avenge the wrongs done to us, should commit everything to God. Let him take care of it, not as we want, but as he wants. Will he crush our enemies in righteous judgement? Surely something within us would love to see them punished! Will he let them go, scot-free? Surely we’d not like to see that: it would feel unfair. But we need to let go of all of that. To give it to God means letting him work it out, and being OK with whatever he does. We need to let go of the hurt, pray for the hurters, and give the situation to God. This, though hard, is the path to forgiveness, it is the way to new life.