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How Can I Forgive?

To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. – C.S. Lewis

Do we cherish a forgiving spirit, and strive to “walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us”? – from the 2nd Query of Ohio Yearly Meeting

Forgiveness is the heart of my faith. Throughout the Bible, God reveals a consistent character – one that is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God repeatedly forgives those who betray him and cause him anguish. In Jesus, I find the highest expression of God’s self-giving love and forgiveness. In the face of humanity’s hatred, cruelty and selfishness, Jesus suffers and dies to bring about reconciliation between God and humanity, and among all members of the human family.

By living in Jesus – partaking in his life, death and resurrection – I experience a foretaste of the consummation of God’s forgiveness and love. There is a time coming when the Lord will “wipe every tear from their eyes” and unite humanity in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. I am invited to live into this reality now.

But I find many barriers to this new way of living. Suffering is real, and my natural reaction to affliction is to fight or flee. When someone wounds me, the urge to strike back or withdraw is almost irresistible. Despite all my experiences of Christ’s love and his suffering witness on the cross, my first response is usually not very Christ-like.When Jesus was accused unjustly, he did not defend himself. When he was beaten, he bore it. When he was nailed to a Roman torture device, he prayed for his tormentors. “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.” In his time of greatest agony, Jesus was concerned about the well-being of his executioners.

If this is what is required, “who then can be saved?” Jesus’ response to unjust suffering is so awesome; he demonstrates God’s ultimate power in weakness. Unlike me, Jesus knows to the depths of his being who he is, and whose he is. Jesus has nothing to prove.

One of Jesus’ greatest miracles is that he does not allow his own righteousness and the injustice of his suffering to distract him from the needs of others. Jesus did not deserve what happened to him; he would have been totally justified in defending himself. But instead, Jesus bore shame, taunting and torture, blessing those who persecuted him. He knew that his oppressors needed mercy far more than he did. If that is not power, I do not know what is.

My prayer today is that the living presence of Jesus will guide me into forgiveness for those who wrong me. Rather than succumbing to fight-or-flight mode, I pray for the power of Christ within to shine through me and allow me to bear suffering in a way that shows compassion for those who really need it. I pray for the strength to take my eyes off of my own anguish and to act with love and compassion towards those who hurt me. This seems impossible – but I know that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
What is your experience of forgiveness? To what extent does forgiveness depend on the repentance of the wrongdoer? What is the meaning of forgiveness when another person continues to behave in hurtful ways? Have you experienced unilateral forgiveness as being life-giving and empowering? How have you sensed the Holy Spirit within you, teaching you how to forgive?

  • Micah,
    I have (like you it seems) always strived to live into forgiveness, and focus on the suffering of others more than my own, thinking that by being loving/compassionate I could make the world a better place.

    For me the problem comes in the fact that my idea of what “a better place” looks like often leads to an expectation that others will change based on what I do (or don’t do). This subconscious attempt to “fix” those who are suffering is, I think one of the biggest problems with idolizing martyrs, and may lead us to lose our focus on our own relationship with God.

    After many years, I have started to realize that martyring myself has not in fact led to decreased suffering on anyone’s part. I’m beginning to learn that there is a difference between putting the suffering of others before my own (and thus denying my feelings) and the acceptance that we all suffer.

    Recently I have been on a journey of discovering that it is in the acceptance of suffering as part of the human condition, that allows me to step out of my tendency toward thinking of “my” suffering as different from “your” suffering, and into a deeper place of connection/healing and love.

    This has also meant that I have had to begin to accept that in order to take care of myself, sometimes I may need to act in ways that are hurtful to others, and that this is part of being human. We cause suffering and we suffer. When I am able to accept rather than struggle against that, I find myself much more effective in my ability to forgive others, and in my ability to live in the world with integrity rather than unnecessary self-sacrifice.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  • Micah,

    You have touched me deeply with this edition of your blog. I was much challenged when my ex-wife left me for one of my best friends. There was anger, disappointment, sadness, and all the rest. It was one of my greatest challenges to respond to them with honest expressions of good wishes as well as expressions of pain. For me it was a choice of my love for each of them versus their betrayal. With the strength of my faith I chose acceptance. Forgiveness, for me, is less about the offender and more about “… letting go of a hope for a better past.” It is really easy to be bogged down in life with anger, regret, and sorrow about one’s past. If we allow ourselves to live in this hurt we can find ourselves spinning our wheels in the present.

    Let me add one more thought. Forgiveness is not ignoring the offense or giving permission to the offender to continue offending. We must acknowledge our feelings and speak truthfully. The challenge is to not fall into a pattern of tale bearing and disparaging the offender. One can not forgive the offender in person and not forgive them in our relations with others.

    My simple prayer is, “God please help me to be guided by your love and will and not the hurts of my past.”

  • A here and now way to learn to practice the forgiveness of Christ is to look to those among us who have done it, e.g., (1) when assaulted and threatened with death and (2) after having suffered the worse imaginable loss.

    1. e.g., the Freedom Riders, who acted to support right but with love and non-violence, and were verbally and physically assaulted and easily could have been murdered. (It was common for Freedom Riders to prepare a will before beginning the freedom ride). Congressman John Lewis was one. Hear his account of one incident:

    2, e.g., our Amish brothers and sisters in Christ, who, albeit not without difficulty, did express awesome forgiveness from the heart in the aftermath of the murder of five of their girls and the wounding of five others at their Nickel Creek school by a local “English” gone berserk. See the book and/or the film, “Amish Grace.”

    In each of these examples, there was a supportive community. For many if not most of us, a supportive community might well be essential to the practice of forgiveness.

  • Ethan Feldman

    Interestingly enough, I find the most essential first step to forgiving others is to forgive myself for my inability to forgive, if in fact, that is where I am at, (which is usually the case). This centers me in being authentic to myself, so that whatever movement I do from that point has a centerpoint of me really being true to myself rather than trying to “fake it” to myself or the other person. Self acceptance leads to an ease with self caring and self love, through which it is natural to feel love, and share that love, which puts one in a forgiving frame of mind.

    While it is great to ask Jesus to help us, it is also great to know we have our own God given resources. For example, feeling Jesus inside and realizing Him as an integral part of us is a more powerful than beseeching help as if he were outside us.