Forgiveness lies at the very core of Christian faith. Without it, where would we be? Christians uniquely understand forgiveness as deriving and emanating from the very heart of God, enabling us to be forgiven and making it possible (in fact necessary) for us to forgive. It’s a reflection within us of the very nature and character of God.
So I was shocked as a theologian (with over 3,000 books in my collection) that I could not find one single title specifically on forgiveness! Faces of Forgiveness turned out to be an exploration of the atonement – the forgiveness embedded in Christ’s work on the cross. Atonement is obviously important; everything else derives from it and makes our salvation possible. But I was searching for resources on forgiving each other. For most of us, that’s where the rubber hits the road. Why is it so difficult to put forgiveness into practice?
It struck me that we hear about forgiveness in church, read about it in the Bible, we’re taught to forgive (perhaps kicking and screaming) as children, but nowhere do we find deep, comprehensive teaching on the practical implementation of forgiveness. It was never a topic in my three years of theological training. It resonates within all of us as Christians, yet in practice – especially in messy, troubling situations – we’re at a loss!
Forgiveness, it turns out, is an extremely complex and multi-dimensional concept. There’s God’s forgiveness, our forgiveness of one another, but what about institutional, national, or ethnic wrongs? What of war, slavery, rape, murder? What if the offending party doesn’t repent or even want forgiveness? Who can forgive? Who should forgive? What about justice, reconciliation? Can it be one-directional?
I believe the ultimate purpose of forgiveness is reconciliation. But we immediately see that forgiveness is relational. It must involve both parties and several stages. If one party isn’t fully committed and participating, reconciliation becomes impossible (at least in this life), and forgiveness cannot come full-circle. But (and here’s the important bit), each aspect of forgiveness is incredibly valuable in itself – even if the other party does nothing.
Any offense creates unwanted bonds of anger, hurt or resentment. An attitude of forgiveness is the first step toward freedom, ‘preventing the pain of the past from defining the path of the future’. I love the Aramaic translation from ‘the Lord’s prayer’: ‘untangle the knots of unforgiveness which bind us.’ Yes Lord.