When we have grasped the heart of what love really is, we have also discovered the heart and soul of something else - something which flows directly for our understanding of love: forgiveness. 1 John 4:20 gives us a proper starting point:
"If anyone says, I love God, yet hates his brother, he is a liar.
For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen,
cannot love God, whom he has not seen."
We have all been wronged. We can all remember times when another human being hurt us, and we were gripped by bitterness, hatred, resentment, and anger. As a result, we felt powerless to forgive. We expected an apology and, when it didn't come, we concluded that it was impossible for us to let it go.
I carried unforgiveness in my heart for many years. Until God opened my eyes, I was unaware of just how destructive this had become in my life. As I was slowly exiting my life behind the door, Christ prompted me to look into this further, and I was shocked at what I discovered. Pouring over any Scripture I could find that talked about forgiveness, I started to list some of the themes I was seeing:
1. If you don't forgive, you limit any possibility for God to change another's life
2. If you don't forgive, you eliminate any opportunity to win over your enemy
(Proverbs 25:21-22; Genesis 50:15-21).
3. If you don't forgive, you show yourself unfriendly, and you lose friends, not gain them
On and on the consequences went...
...you will be troubled (Hebrews 12:14-15).
...you will be in danger of judgment (Matthew 5:22).
...you give the Devil an advantage (2 Corinthians 2:10-11).
But then came the hard one:
"If you don't forgive, God will not forgive you."
I realized that God could not forgive me while I refused to forgive those who had wronged me or my loved ones. Just as Christ loves without conditions, so I had to learn to love unconditionally and forgive my offenders, perhaps not so much for their sake as for mine. Because God so loved me, I should also love and smooth over the shortcomings of others. He was the ultimate example of forgiveness, it occurred to me. As God's Son hung dying on the cross, bleeding redemption for the sins of mankind, He prayed love and forgiveness over His accusers, pleading,
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
He did so out of love and, if I have been shown this through Him, so I have to show the same to my adversaries, too. The British writer C.S. Lewis once rightly said that,
"To be a Christian is to forgive the inexcusable
because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you."
I felt so convicted. I knew that not only was I "devoid of the power to forgive," as the great Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, I was also "devoid of the power to love." In time, I began to write down the names of people that came to mind that I had refused to forgive, and the list turned out to be pretty extensive. One by one, though, I began to ask God to give me the grace to change that, to let go of the pain and to learn to love again.
He drove this lesson home to me through the powerful example of the Thomas family. The first time I ever heard of these remarkable people was when I happened to turn on the TV, and their story was being highlighted for the Arther Ashe Award for Courage at the 2010 ESPY Awards. Months later, I would read a book about them entitled, The Sacred Acre. Upon hearing their testimony of forgiveness, I knew that my life would be forever changed:
What stood out to me was Coach Thomas's son Aaron's words to the media immediately following the tragic shooting. Aaron's comments poured grace into a devastating situation. He turned eyes toward God at a time when the eyes of many were upon him and his family. People wondered how he could demonstrate such forgiveness in the face of such pain and grief. Later, he would say that, after all the years his dad had spent teaching him and his brother what integrity and character was all about, he couldn't understand how he could not have said what he did. Over the next several months, Coach Ed Thomas's widow, Jan, along with the two sons and their families, did everything they could to help the close-knit community of Parkersburg, Indiana heal. Going out of their way to reach out to the family of the shooter, they led the way by their example for how they wanted others to move on. When they received the ESPY award about year after the death of their beloved husband and father, the Thomas family shared their story publicly and how God enabled them to choose the path of forgiveness. Adding to their message, they were joined in the audience by the parents of the shooter, having been invited upon the Thomas's invitation. Aaron Thomas, Ed's son, once again addressed a watching world:
I so clearly remember thinking to myself that if the Thomas family could forgive under such painful circumstances, who was I to think that I could not forgive those who had hurt me? It began to become obvious to me that forgiveness isn't about easing someone else's conscience as it is your own. Holding onto past hurts only makes it so that those who hurt you are given more control over your life. Forgiving them, regardless of whether or not they ever apologize to you, is more for your own benefit. You regain the peace in your own life. They can't have power over you anymore. By letting go, you eliminate the need to get even with them, to let them negatively affect your life. Releasing your desire to hate or resent them for what has happened frees you to live your life to the fullest.
In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus says,
"You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate
your enemy; but I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for
those who persecute you that you may be sons of your
Father in heaven."
Followers of Christ are forgiving toward one another because God forgave, and continues to forgive, them (Ephesians 4:32). But that is hard to put into practice when we think our position is right and justice ought to be served. While a person's actions, in some rare cases, may require legal involvement, simply reacting out of retaliation and revenge is not the answer.
Once again, it all comes down to love. Do we love somebody enough to endure even the worst insult and still say,
"I forgive all that happened...?"
When asked how many times one ought to forgive, Jesus said "until seventy-times seven" (Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 18: 21-22), meaning that forgiveness never runs out. Forgiveness is a powerful thing. Now I believe, along with C. S. Lewis, that:
"Every man should keep a fair-sized cemetery in which
to bury the faults of his friends."