Forgiving people who have hurt you is not easy. Oh we hate to give up our fantasies of getting even! They are such a comfort!
Not long ago I met an old enemy I had forgiven, and I actually missed the emotional rush I once had when he was an enemy. I tried to recover the feeling, but it was gone. I could not muster up an ounce, of ill-will, no matter how hard I tried. I celebrated the victory of forgiveness, but there was a part of me that grieved the loss of an enemy.
Complete forgiveness is a superhuman act, but it is worth the effort. You would be surprised at how much it lightens the load.
The Old Testament limits forgiveness to three occasions of offense, whether it is an offense against God or another human being Our spiritual forebears believed that on the fourth offense, God would not forgive, and humans should not The New Testament knows no such numerical limit to forgiveness.
When Peter asked Jesus how many times one should forgive an offense, he proceeded to answer his own question. He generously took the Rabbinical formula of three, doubled it and added one for good measure, and suggested to Jesus that seven times would be appropriate. Expecting to be commended for his generosity, Peter must have been shocked by Jesus' answer.
"Not seven," said Jesus, "but seventy times seven." Now if you are a literalist, you will note that the total comes to 490. You can probably calculate it in your head, but this is divine arithmetic and we must do it by heart. Jesus really meant 70x7x7x7, and on to infinity. Forgiveness is not a matter of arithmetic but attitude. Once is not enough. When at last we stand before the Great God of the Universe we may expect Him to forgive us as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. It is just as some pray together each Sunday, "Forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us." Jesus said that if we do not forgive those who trespass against us, God will not forgive us. (Matthew 6:15)
The "Unforgiving" and the "unforgiven" walk a lonely and a dangerous road. Its perils are many, and it is downhill all of the way. It is the broad road that leads to the wide gate, of which Jesus said: "There are many who travel it." It represents a journey that we have all taken, to some degree, at some time.
Most of us have lived long enough to have been burned by some circumstance or some person. We are familiar with the rush of anger, which the body registers with blotched and reddened skin. When our instincts call for blood, and our minds say: "Don't get angry, get even"; only our spiritual resources will save us from a war in which there are no winners.
Forgiveness is a superhuman act. It requires a source of strength that we do not have on our own. Some offenses are easily forgiven. Others we can put into perspective, and we may get away with nothing more than a slight scar; but there are some offenses and hurts for which forgiveness is humanly impossible. This message is not just for neurotic grievance collectors, in whose life littleness expresses itself in many unlovely ways. It is also to those who have experienced some Mt. Everest offense which threatens to overshadow all of life. It is to those who labor under an offense that is larger than life--too big to carry and too serious to turn loose. In your mind you know that keeping it will not resolve the problem. But, you are so glued to it that giving it up will require a superhuman act. It is an emotional tarbaby.
As strange as it may seem, it does not matter whether a gigantic offense is real or imagined; its power to derange and destroy is the same. Several years ago, a forty year old man stormed into St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and took three hostages; a doctor, a nurse and a psychologist. Twenty-four hours later he was shot to death as a Memphis SWAT team stormed the room to rescue the hostages. A year earlier his six year old son had died at St. Jude where he was being treated for leukemia. After the child's death, the father became a very sad and a very lonely man. He was unable to cope with his son's death. The loss of his son was an offense too great to bear and too serious to turn loose. The hostage taking was an act of desperation on the part of a man who felt that the hospital was responsible for his son's death, and he could not forgive them. Forgiveness for an offense of that magnitude, whether real or imagined, requires a superhuman act.
On January 18, 1998, The Winston-Salem Journal carried an article on the impending execution of a man who was convicted of the rape and murder of a 16 year old girl. The father of the victim said he had searched deep into himself to find a way to forgive the murderer. He concluded, "I cannot forgive him, and I do not know whether God can or not either." Most of us know the pain of such hurt that forgiveness is almost impossible -- and in our agony we scarcely see how God can forgive.
There are some whose suffering and pain constitute an offense of such magnitude that blaming human beings is not adequate. Only God is big enough to bear the blame. A prominent example of this kind of offense can be seen in the Holocaust.
In his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea, author, journalist, professor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, tries to write about his anger at God in a manner in which he hopes that those who were not victims of the Holocaust can begin to understand. Wiesel was in Auschwitz the last eleven months before the end of the war when the Nazi regime was in a race against time to kill all the Jews they could. He saw unspeakable scenes. Reflecting on his struggle to reconcile his experience with his faith he wrote:
"I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within my faith and not outside it. Abraham, Moses and Jeremiah teach us that it is permissible (for man) to accuse God provided it be done in the name of faith in God. I may some day come to understand man's role in the mystery Auschwitz represents, but never God's. I will never cease to rebel against those who committed or permitted Auschwitz, including God. The questions I once asked about God's silence remain open. If they have an answer, I do not know it."
Few of us have had a theological problem of this magnitude -- and perhaps never will. We may have a problem of that specie, but not of that magnitude. None of us who were not there dare offer an easy answer. There are some things in life too large to be understood in the world. You may safely argue with God, and have a reconciliation with God that is held together only with the "hairspray" of faith. There are things that happen for which a meaningful answer may not come in this world.
There are some who are living under an offense you cannot carry and cannot forgive. You need not let this destroy you. the Bible teaches us that God in Christ can help us do what we cannot do on our own. He can help us perform the superhuman act of forgiveness. When Christ calls us to forgiveness, his words are not empty. The call to forgive enemies must have represented a premonition on the part of Jesus, who was soon to look upon the faces of His executioners and pray to God. "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do."
In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp system, tells a story that illustrates this point. She had spoken at a church service in Munich that day. After the service, she saw a man she had not seen for many years, but she remembered him well! His face had been emblazoned upon her mind. He was a former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Seeing him now brought back a flood of memories that she thought she had forgotten, but they were still there.
Suddenly it all came back -- the room full of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, and her sister Betsie's pain pinched face. The former SS man came up to her as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing: "How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein," he said. "To think, as you say, he has washed my sins away." He reached out to shake hands with Corrie Ten Boom, but she could not move her arm. As she stood there with the anger boiling up in her, she said she knew it was wrong, and she prayed to herself, "Lord forgive me and help me forgive him." She tried to smile and struggled to raise her hand, but she felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth. She breathed again a silent prayer: "Lord, I cannot forgive him, forgive me." As she took the man's hand, the most incredible thing happened. Corrie Ten Boom said it felt like a current down her arm to him, and suddenly she felt an overwhelming love for this familiar stranger she had hated for so long.
She discovered that it is not on our forgiveness, any more than on our goodness, that the world's healing hinges; it is upon God's. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, along with the command, He gives us the power to forgive and love. There are some things which lie so far beyond our own strength that only God can help us.
Forgiveness must become for us as much a lifestyle as grievance collecting tends to become a lifestyle for the unforgiving. Once is not enough! How we all hope and pray that we can conquer evil in our lives in one decisive battle, but as desirable as this goal may be, it is not a very realistic hope. The way of forgiveness is not one decisive battle. It is a running fight. We will constantly be confronted by occasions in which we must forgive and forgive again.
It is not easy to forgive an offense that we do not understand, but in the greater scheme of things, it becomes necessary if we are to have peace in our soul. It is also necessary for us to find some way to forgive ourselves, for we are the most frequent offender against ourselves. If you cannot forgive yourself, even, as God has already forgiven you, then you are caught in a double bind. You are the sinner and the one sinned against.
As long as we allow ourselves to brood upon a slight or an injury, there is no hope that we will be able to forgive. I have heard people say: "I will never forget what so and so did to me." or "I will never forget how I was treated at such and such place." These are dangerous sayings, for they imprint an incident so indelibly on our minds that we can never forgive or forget.
Once the famous Scottish man of letters, Andrew Lang, wrote and published a very kind review of a book by a young man. The young man repaid him with a bitter and an insulting attack. Three years later, Andrew Lang was staying with Robert Bridges, the poet laureate. Bridges saw Lang reading a book by the same young man who had so disrespectfully attacked him. He said to Lang: "Why that is another book by that ungrateful young cub who behaved so shamefully to you." To his astonishment, he discovered that Andrew Lang's mind was completely blank on the whole matter. He had completely forgotten the bitter and insulting attack. "To forgive," said Bridges, "was the sign of a great man, but to forget was sublime." Nothing but the spirit of Jesus Christ can take from these memories of ours the things we must forget if we are to forgive.
The Bible teaches us that we are all sinners who fall far short of the glory of God. We are completely dependent upon the forgiveness and the forgetfulness of God for our salvation. The Bible says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness." "As far as the East is from the West, so far hath He removed our transgression from us." Let us this day cast our sins into the sea of God's forgetfulness; and having thus been forgiven, we will be empowered to do the superhuman act of forgiving those who have wronged us.
How grateful we are, O God, that the heavenly gates of mercy are never closed. May we experience your forgiveness and grace with such clarity that we will feel compelled to be forgiving persons. Save us from the sin of withholding from others what we have received so freely from you. AMEN