Why Should We Even Care About Forgiveness?

A few days ago I wrote about forgiveness. I have continued to reflect on this. And, like so many other things, the more I consider it I realize how much I neither know about it nor practice it. I have read about it. I have thought about it. I’ve spent hours praying about it. Why does it seem so elusive? Why is it so hard for one person to offer forgiveness to another? Why do we even care?

A lot of years ago I was in a band. Ok, so I’ve been involved with a lot of bands over the years. But, this one in particular was my baby. I had always been a sideman following someone else’s lead. Not so with this one. I worked hard at it. I had great guys playing with me. And, we sounded pretty good, if I do say so myself. After several months I was approached by one of the guys and another person who was kind of an associate with us. They had decided that they were going to leave and put together a project of their own…sans me. I pretty much saw this as a coup. I was devastated. I had poured myself into this band and these guys were dismissing my work and ripping my heart out. Immediate anger, hurt and a desire to reciprocate. I decided to shun them. (Oh, wow, that’ll show ‘em.) It didn’t take long for me to realize that they were doing quite well while I was steeped in anger and bitterness. Hmmm…this payback stuff wasn’t working so well. I shared all of this with a friend and we found that at the root of what I was experiencing was unforgiveness. Oh, Crap! I couldn’t even blame those other guys for what I was feeling! Eventually, I arranged a sit-down with them and we talked and I was able to forgive them. Freedom! The bitterness began to melt away. Over time, we were again able to work together and today one of them is one of my closest friends.

This episode in my life revealed to me that relationships that are meaningful and important are the ones that can cause the most pain. I really don’t care about mere acquaintances. These people can say and do things to me that don’t affect me. I can simply ignore them and they’ll go away. Truly meaningful relationships, on the other hand, have an element of trust built into them that can easily be bruised. Trust defines our vulnerability. It determines how much of our heart we will expose to another person. Deeper trust means that we will bleed more profusely if that trust is violated.

In my reflection, I’ve discovered that I am one of those people who can be hurt easily. Part of that is because I really, really don’t tolerate rejection well. (And I want to be a writer? Sheesh!) The larger reason, though, is that although I try to keep a façade in place to protect me, (one dear friend said that I should wear a sign that says, “Hides Behind Humor”!), I do let people affect me. I want to trust. I want to be trusted. While I hold on to my desire to trust others, I, myself, am wholly untrustworthy. I know that, because there are times when I allow a thoughtless word to escape from my mouth that crushes someone I love. I am untrustworthy because I do things that seem good to me, but are deeply hurtful breaches of trust for others. And, I lie. I say that I trust others, when deep inside I really don’t. Maybe, this self-revelation will help me to understand my need for forgiveness and my need to forgive others.

So, why should we care about forgiveness? Throughout the Hebrew Bible God’s followers wrote about the forgiveness of God. The Psalms and Prophets are full of examples of God’s character as One who is patient and quick to forgive. (e.g. Ps. 65:3 & 86:5, Jer. 31:34.) But, it took God’s actions to prove it. It’s recorded that Jesus prayed for those who had beaten and crucified him. “Father, forgive them…” And, the Father did. The Good Creation and all of humanity were freed that day. Freed from the anger of God and from the chains that bound creation with bitterness and unforgiveness. We were set free from the old ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ system of retribution. We were set free to forgive. It doesn’t matter whether we are wronged through the careless uttering of a single word in a meeting, or one of the greatest breaches of trust. We have the freedom to choose to forgive.

 

Forgiveness…For You and Me

Forgiveness. That’s a strange word in today’s culture. I don’t think many of us really know what that word means. I’m sure we don’t understand the power that lies embedded within it. Someone hurts us and apologizes, “I’m sorry.” Our usual response is “That’s OK, no worries.” Is that offering forgiveness for the wrong? Or, is it simply a gloss that social convention has decided can amicably fix things? I think the latter is closer to the heart of things. And, I think it falls woefully short. Any discussion about relationships must necessarily take a trip through forgiveness.

There’s a story about a woman who was unfaithful to her husband. Apparently, she was caught doing the nasty with the other man. I don’t know who caught her. Maybe it was her husband. Maybe, it was a nosy neighbor. In any case, she was taken to the local assembly where she was accused of breaking their law. This all male council decided to use her as a test case for an upstart young teacher. “Let’s see what the hotshot new guy has to say.” So, they gathered her up in the best angry mob style they could muster and hurried her off to stand before the ‘judge.’

When they arrived, they pushed the woman to the front and brought their accusations. “This woman was caught in the act of adultery. Our law states that she must be put to death. What do you say?” The young man took this all very seriously. He stooped down and began to doodle in the dirt. The mob, growing impatient, continued to press for an answer. Finally, he stood and faced them. I think that he may have looked a tad exasperated with this group of men. “Ok…if there is anyone, anyone at all among you who has never fallen short. Who has never wronged another person. Who has never made a bad decision. Who has never…sinned. Let that person throw the first stone.” He then went back to his doodling. The story tells us that one by one, from the eldest to the youngest, each walked away. Finally, there was only the woman and the young teacher. The man stood and looked around. “Where’d everyone go? Isn’t there anyone left to accuse you?” “No sir,” she replied. “No one.” The young man responded to her, “Then neither do I. Go, now, and don’t do this thing anymore.”

The word ‘forgive’ is nowhere in this story. Some folks may even say that forgiveness isn’t even the main point. But, I see this brief account filled to overflowing with mercy and forgiveness. This woman had indeed broken the law. There were witnesses. She had incurred a debt that required her life to repay. The mob was ready to exact payment. I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through that woman’s mind. Panic? Anxiety? Remorse? I’m sure those and much more. “What would this young teacher say? After all, he is a man! Will he join these others to condemn me?”

The teacher’s response must have been puzzling to her as well as her accusers. Didn’t he know how grave this situation was? His nonchalant attitude was troubling. But, then he stood. He raised his voice so all could hear. And, in so many words, declared everyone guilty. Yet, he passed no judgment against them. He allowed their own consciences to do that. After the accuser left, he rose and again looked into the woman’s eyes. With compassion in his eyes and his voice, he spoke and refused to make her to pay her debt.

The language of the Bible allows us to understand forgiveness as setting aside or dismissing a debt. That’s why the Pater Noster in Matthew is translated “Forgive our debts even as we have forgiven the debts of others.” In this story Jesus, the young teacher, dismissed the woman’s debt. She was no longer liable for it. We are not told anything else about this person or those who accused her. Did she go home to her husband? Did he take her back? What of that mob? We simply don’t know. That’s what makes this a great story. We are allowed to imagine all the many possibilities and outcomes. One thing that I’m pretty sure of, that woman, who had been forgiven much, most likely had her heart enlarged and learned to love much. I can see her telling her friends at the well how that young teacher had poured out compassion on her. She, now, would be able to pour out compassion on others. That, I think, is the point of forgiveness. It frees the one forgiven to forgive others…including themselves.

How have you experience forgiveness from others? From God? From your own self?