As Jesus was nailed to the cross and placed between heaven and earth, He said those great words: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Such an action defies logic and reason.
The normal human reaction would be to curse those inflicting such intense pain and suffering. No wonder is has been said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” For most of us forgiveness is difficult. Revenge is our more natural response. Forgiveness has almost the inference of being a wimp.
We seek compensation. We seek redress in a world gone mad with torts and legal challenges whenever something has upset our applecart— or when we think we can score some dollars! A story that came to me by email describes how we feel and act. When discussing forgiveness, a small boy was asked by his Sunday-school teacher if he could forgive another boy who had struck him on the nose with his fist.
The small fellow quickly answered, “Yes I could, if he was bigger than me!” Forgiveness seems the best option when the odds are stacked against us— not if we can succeed in bluffing our way out. This is not God’s way—or how He treats us.
The greatest challenge given to us is what is often called the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
To pray that prayer, which is so often mumbled as a meaningless mantra, has tremendous implications. There is the definite implication that we must forgive others before we ourselves can be forgiven. In giving this message, Jesus personally showed us it can be done.
He did it in His magnanimous, incomparable way.
Can I forgive but not forget?
But I hear it said, “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget!” Is that forgiveness? Is grudging agreement to go on with life but still keep score, really forgiveness? What if we have been completely victimised, abused or humiliated? Is forgiveness mandatory in every situation? Or is it quite permissible and logical to forgive but not forget? No form of abuse, whether physical or emotional, is acceptable. Yet the result of not forgiving others, but actively “making them pay”—usually by cutting off the offender from all contact—can often result in bitterness.
What some call “getting on with life,” Jesus Christ calls forgiveness—wiping the slate clean and treating the person as though they have never sinned.
Bitterness and its baleful effect
Max Lucado said it so well: “Bitterness is its own prison. Black and cold, bitterness denies easy escape. The sides are slippery with resentment. A floor of muddy anger stills the feet. The stench of betrayal fills the air, and stings the eyes. A cloud of self-pity blocks the view of the tiny exit above.” It has been said, “If you harbour bitterness, happiness will dock elsewhere.” Max Lucado says further, “Bitterness’ black blanket darkens your world, dims your sight, sours your outlook, and suffocates your joy.” Judith Henry Wall wanted to write a book about the results of not forgiving others. In her book My Mother’s Daughter she writes about how one mother kept a husband at arm’s length and similarly dealt with an adopted daughter. Finally, the woman was left without a loving family and realised at the end of life that she was the one who had lost out.
Is bitterness and refusal to forgive necessary? What if we want to get revenge? When do we get the break we believe we deserve? When does life become fair? When will it be our turn to come out on top? What does forgiveness have to do with revenge anyway—is it just becoming a doormat for someone else’s selfishness? A message that is very hard to accept is, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
Just as it is difficult to be willing to accept God’s amazing grace, it is difficult to leave the “getting even” to God.
The One who called Judas “friend”—in the very act of betrayal—says He is the One who will make everything right.
Our limited view of time, when the here and now takes precedence over the future, tends to make us want immediate retribution. Jesus says a true and righteous judge will deliver fair judgments. We can safely leave the future in His hands and learn to treat people as He treated them.
Jesus Christ, the One who never erred, the One who never treated anyone shabbily, unfairly or disgracefully was the One who took our place and punishment. In The Desire of Ages , Ellen White states, “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves.” n Forgiveness is an act of choice. It is making a declaration that we will not be imprisoned by another’s actions.
It is my choice to live with the consequences of another’s offence and not to hold it against them. Truly it has been well said, “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” I have to look at the supreme example of forgiveness: “When we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).
God’s ability to forgive matches the incomprehensible sacrifice made on our behalf. In fact, both His sacrifice and His forgiveness are merged in His love.
When Jesus Christ uttered those amazing words—“Father forgive them”— He was not speaking only of the rough Roman soldiers who were carrying out one of the most torturous deaths possible. Neither was He speaking only of Pilate (the Roman procurator) or the priest who had accused Him. He was including you and me in this plea to His Father.
Jesus Christ, who came to die to enable us to have an endless life with Him, also came to show us how to live. In forgiving Judas and those who placed Him on the cross, He is modelling the best way to live and forgive.
Those who desire true freedom will follow His example.
If someone has wronged you or humiliated you, do not hold them to ransom or count the days until you can get even. There is a way that brings much more peace and happiness— why not try forgiveness?