Forgiveness is a difficult thing to grasp. It means to pardon, to absolve of guilt. The adage “forgive and forget” is not biblical, and God never says God will not recall our sins, but rather God will forgive them when we seek forgiveness. Forgiveness means that we are willing to clear the wrong from the slate, and seek the relationship over punitive measures. Forgiveness is not about vengeance, but reconciliation. We may never forget what was done, but in forgiving we promise to not hold it against the other, to wield it against them when we feel angry or hurt. That promise is difficult, and human sinfulness would quickly and all too readily use the wrongs of the past as a weapon in a future conflict, so even as we forgive we must always be on guard not to slip back into the state that preceded our granting grace to another.
“I can never forgive.” I have heard that many times in my life, personally and professionally. I understand the sentiment. I have felt the feeling, but I have also known grace from God. I know that there have been times in my life when nothing meant anything until I had that assurance that I had been forgiven my sins. Those times when you are seeking to be reconciled to God can be the most barren and spiritually painful of human existence. You can feel the weight of the world and be keenly aware of the magnitude of your sin, and the shame is unbearable. The thought of being cut off for all time from the life force and sustaining love that is the Lord even now makes my chest tight. To recall how close I have been to that, and then remember the flood of grace into my consciousness and into the fabric of my being is a liberation like no other. I try to remember that when I need to forgive. I try to remember what it felt like that moment I knew that God had once more let the blood of the cross cleanse my sin sick self. I want that knowledge and visceral feeling to motivate me to do likewise for others.
I have known my share of pain and suffering at the hands of others. I have known the ultimate betrayal, and I have survived. I now thrive in the aftermath of all of those times precisely because I have forgiven. I do not seek retaliation, or suffering in kind. That would only perpetuate the cycle of suffering, and I see no reason to continue the pain I have known. I want it to die. I want to hang it up on the cross and leave it there to wither and fade. I want life and hope to grow forth from the space that forgiveness makes in me and in the lives of others. I know the hard and too often unspoken truth that reconciliation is not synonymous with restoration, but forgiveness does not rest on the certainty of restoration. Restoration is something God can do for us, not something that we can make happen here in this world. Even when I have been willing and wanting, restoration has not always been possible, but the forgiveness made something new possible. I have learned to live out a new way of being, one where I am free to leave the chains of pain and suffering in the past. I have been liberated by Christ’s offering on the cross, and I offer that to all who offend me.
If I could paint a picture of forgiveness, it would be a small, but perfectly crafted ice sculpture of whatever image you prefer. Its beauty carved, and meticulously so. So lovely that we wish for it to remain that way for all time, but then sin happens, and it fractures, maybe even breaks in two. We grasp it in our hands, holding it together as if by doing so we could will it to mend. Yet the image has been destroyed from the form it once held. Our hands become cold, achingly cold. We could open them and let what remains of the sculpture fall to the ground and shatter, or we could let the life blood within us circulate in our hands, warming and morphing. With time, it becomes transformed from the application of body heat, and the ice melts. Water rushes out from every seam. It flows between our fingers and down our arms. It drops to the ground and nourishes whatever lies beneath the soil. Something hidden and unknown soaks in the life-giving water, and will grow forth in time. But now our hands are free, liberated to open and grasp something new. They may reach out to others, or clasp themselves in prayer. They can become the means by which we help what was thirsty under the ground and out of sight emerge and thrive. While we thought we would hold tight to that ice sculpture forever and wanted nothing more than to do just that, we now have the opportunity to do something different, but just as loving and amazing. Perhaps if the other is willing, we will carve a new sculpture together, or maybe we will accept that the sculpture of before is forever lost. Either way, God wants to help us discover a new purpose for our hands and our lives.
God wants to let forgiveness be the beginning of healing and a new wholeness, not just for us, but for the other one too. If you have pain and have suffered at the hands of another, then forgiveness is not something God is making you do. Forgiveness is something God models for us, so that we can discover how incredible it is to be emancipated from the bitterness suffering breeds. Rancor would suffocate the life out of the spirit, smothering the joy God intends for every person. Forgiveness is opening the door to a world of hope and new blessings, unknown but promised in Christ.