Forgiveness to the Injured Does Belong
The problem with forgiveness is that it seems unnatural. Just because someone says I’m sorry, I’m supposed to forgive them? Isn’t that just capitulation? Should we let them get away with it? Shouldn’t they be punished? Philip Yancey gave three good reasons to forgive in his book about grace:
- Only forgiveness can halt the cycle of blame and pain and revenge. History is full of these cycles that are unending : Arabs resent Jews, Serbs resent Croats, Irish resent the English, in Africa Hutus resent the Tutsis, Pakistanis resent Indians and so on and so on. These cycles are based on blame, envy, and the natural desire for revenge. In reading about the famous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, it became evident to me that neither side knew exactly how it got started.
In the New Testament, the most common word used for forgiveness means literally “to release”, to let it go. The opposite Greek word is translated “resentment”, but it literally means “to feel again”. Resentment never lets go, but continues to “feel again”. It is like picking the scab off a wound that never heals.
Forgiveness may not settle all differences, but it can offer a way out, an end to the cycle of feeling the resentment over and over again. The injured party will feel the resentment until they find a way to release it. The options are to continue smoldering anger, act out in revenge, or to forgive. Anger and revenge keep the cycle going, but forgiveness can end it. To hold on to the resentment is to imprison myself in the past. Even though I may be the innocent party, I become a prisoner that longs to be set free. WHEN WE TRULY FORGIVE, WE SET A PRISONER FREE AND DISCOVER THAT PRISONER WAS US.
- Forgiveness loosens the stranglehold of guilt in the one at fault. A great example of this is Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, the novel by Victor Hugo. The never ending progression of hatred and crime in Jean’s life is ended when he is transformed by forgiveness. The ex-convict, Jean was homeless in a storm when a kindly bishop had mercy on him, and brought him in to sleep at his place. As soon as the bishop went to sleep, Jean robbed him of the family silver. Three policemen caught Jean and brought him back, and he was facing life imprisonment. The bishop responded in a most unexpected way, not only in forgiveness but he gave him the silver and the candlesticks so Jean couldn’t be convicted for taking a gift. The bishop’s act of forgiveness transformed Jean’s life. The rest of the book is a contrast of Jean and the detective Javert who cannot forgive. Jean shows the same forgiveness and grace to Javert who cannot comprehend such behavior. Jean Valjean was forever changed by an act of forgiveness toward him that he never asked for.
Think how important the forgiveness of Jesus was to Peter who had denied Him three times. It is a powerful scene in John 21. The resurrected Christ had gathered the disciples together to instruct them about the ministry He was entrusting to them. Three times Peter had denied Him, and three times Jesus asked Peter, “do you love me?” then “tend my lambs”, “shepherd my sheep”, “tend my sheep”. Not only had Jesus forgiven him, but He was entrusting to Peter and the others the most blessed opportunity ever given. This forgiveness and stewardship radically changed their lives as is seen in the book of Acts. I would guess that before this Peter may have had zero converts, but after his first sermon in Acts 2:41, he had 3000 at one time. Jesus removed the barrier created by sin, and freed Peter to be a changed man.
- We remove ourselves from God’s rightful place of judgment and revenge when we forgive. We let God determine what the other person deserves. Revenge is closely related to unforgiveness. Just as the New Testament commands us to forgive, it commands us not to seek revenge for that is God’s job alone. Of all the biblical characters, David does the best job of modeling this precept—maybe because he got so many opportunities. David had served King Saul well, and for his faithful service Saul threw spears at him, and led 3000 men chasing David in the wilderness trying to kill him. Nevertheless, David passed up numerous opportunities to get revenge, and he chose to forgive Saul. Yet, we still have his autobiographical record in the Psalms of crying out to God for justice. In what is known as the imprecatory (cursing) Psalms, David asks God to bring justice to his enemies and vindicate himself.
In one of her books, Corrie ten Boom recounts the difficulty she had in forgiving her Nazi oppressors. She and her family had been thrown in a concentration camp during WW II where terrible things had happened and her sister had died. She harbored a deep resentment and anger towards the guards for years after the war. She became an author and an evangelist after the war. After delivering a sermon about the grace and forgiveness of God that comes from the atoning work of Christ on the cross, a familiar looking man who had been in the audience approached her. It was one of the Nazi guards from the concentration camp. Immediately her deep seated anger rose up within her. The ex-guard said, “Tonight I have received Jesus as my savior and I Know He has forgiven me, but I’d like to ask your forgiveness as well. There was a long pause as she wrestled with her emotions, but finally her strong belief in the teachings of Christ overruled her personal feelings. Initially, she went through the motions of saying “yes I forgive you”, and in time she was actually able to completely “let it go”. The result was that she was free from the recurring resentment, the guard was freed from the tormenting guilt, and she turned the judgment of her tormentors over to the only truly righteous judge.