I wonder how many times the Lord has looked at us from the cross and said to His Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As hard as it is to ask forgiveness when we know we have broken someone’s heart, violated a trust, hurt someone’s reputation, or taken our piece out of the middle at someone else’s expense, it is even harder to think we’re “in the right” and find that our attitude has destroyed a relationship. Being right is of little value then! Our ignorance or insensitivity has caused damage that only the grace of God can repair.
Forgiveness is a central theme of Jesus’ principles of life. It is the pivotal point in what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Actually, Jesus intended the prayer to be our prayer, not His, and it was given by Jesus himself as a model of how direct and simple our prayers should be. “Forgive us,” He taught us to say, “as we forgive.” Then, making sure we got the point, Jesus reemphasized that our being forgiven was in direct proportion to our willingness to forgive others. This was not because God was unwilling or unable to forgive infinitely, but because our shrinking hearts would narrow and narrow until we could not receive or internalize such forgiveness.
Life has proven this to be true. We desperately need to be liberated from the prison of guilt by the grace of forgiveness and, conversely, we need to let go of the bitterness that will eat us alive if we don’t find the grace to forgive others for the pain they have caused us.
Confession is a necessary component here. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Confession before another is given us by God so that we may be assured of divine forgiveness.” The truth is, sin will be revealed. It will eventually come to light. “It is better,” Bonhoeffer writes, “that it happens today between me and another believer, rather than on the last day in the bright light of the final judgment. It is grace that we can confess our sins to one another. Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment.” (from Life Together)
But forgiveness is not an easy thing. It takes an admission to ourselves of how much we, too, need forgiveness. We have to be sick of the bondage in which a transgression holds us; only forgiveness can free up our souls to give and receive love, both from God and from each other. Forgiveness unties God’s hands to work in our lives. It removes the obstruction that robs us of our joy. When we refuse to forgive, we build a dam in the stream of God’s liberating spirit to our lives.
There is, however, a difference between forgiveness and trust. When a trust has been broken by betrayal and transgression, we can choose with the grace of God to forgive. Forgiveness is our responsibility. Trust, on the other hand is the responsibility of the one who has violated the trust. It may take a long time before trust is restored, and things may never be quite the same again until eternity. Forgiveness is a choice; it can be immediate. Trust is a result of trustworthy living, and it must be restored over time.
Often confrontation is a necessary component in the process of forgiveness and restoration in order to clear the record and achieve understanding between two people. According to Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18, we are to go to the one who has sinned against us and “show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matt. 18:15) But if the person refused to listen one-on-one, then take a couple of trustworthy witnesses to talk to him/her. If the person still will not listen, tell it to the church; if the church can’t reason with him, “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
That, on the surface, may sound very final, until we stop to think how Jesus treated the pagan (outsider) and the tax collector. He loved them and went after them, “to seek and to save that which was lost.” In other words, we never give up on trying to restore a broken relationship and bring about reconciliation.
Now, in regard to our own need to ask forgiveness, we are told to “bear one another’s burden and so fulfill the law of Christ,” the law of Christ was to bear the cross for the remission of sin. “The burden of my brother and sister which I must bear,” Bonhoeffer once wrote, “is not on their outward lot, their natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally their sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share.” (from A Testament to Freedom)
Finally, C.S. Lewis says that when we ask God to forgive us, we need to examine our hearts to see if, in fact, we are asking Him to excuse us. “But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology. I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly the same as it was before.’ But excusing says, ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin… without any excuse… and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.” (from The Weight of Glory)
Forgiving and being forgiven – these are the necessary principles of the sacred journey. Until all that is negative is removed from our lives by the finished work of the Savior, these are the dual avenues of grace, the life force of relationship with each other and with our God.