“I forgive you.”
We have all spoken those words. Sometimes we mean it. Often times we don’t. Forgiveness is a difficult concept, because it is usually easier to hold on to our pain than to let it go. We may forgive someone out of a sense of obligation, but not really forgive them in our heart.
I think of my two year old daughter after she finds herself sitting in time out. After her time is up, my wife and I will talk to her about why she is in trouble, and we make her apologize to the offended party. The “I’m sorry” that escapes from her lips isn’t the most heartfelt apology in the world. She says it, but she may not always mean it.
It is easy to approach forgiveness with the same attitude. We know we are supposed to forgive, but we don’t necessarily want to do it. We even beat around the bush with the language we use. I have found myself saying phrases like “It’s ok. Don’t worry about it” or “It’s no big deal.” When we talk like this, we downplay the significance of the offense, but we aren’t truly offering forgiveness. When we forgive someone, we acknowledge that a wrong took place and choose to pardon them anyways.
That is why forgiveness is so difficult. When we forgive someone, we admit that we were hurt. Instead of downplaying it, the act of forgiveness highlights the reality of the pain. That is not always a comfortable thing to do. It is often easier to ignore pain than to deal with it.
Think of what Jesus experienced in order to forgive us. He did not say that our sin was “no big deal.” He didn’t shrug it off and say, “don’t worry about it.” In order to secure our pardon, Jesus confronted the reality of our sin and rebellion on the cross. In that moment on the cross, when the Son of God took the punishment of our sin upon himself, the depth of our sin is on full display. Jesus died so that we may live. In order for us to experience his forgiveness, we need to acknowledge the great lengths Jesus went on our behalf. He did not ignore our sin. He dealt with it so that we could experience the freedom that forgiveness brings.
Forgiveness is difficult because it forces us to confront the pain brought about by wrongdoing. We must not stop there, however. Forgiveness also means that we let go of our right to seek vengeance.This does not mean that we ignore the pain or feelings of betrayal. Rather, forgiveness chooses to no longer hold the penalty of their actions against them.
This is hard because there is comfort in holding on to our anger. We maintain a sense of control when we allow our pain and hurt to fester. Forgiveness is sometimes portrayed as weakness. That couldn’t be further from the truth. To forgive another takes incredible strength, because it involves letting go of our right to punish another. Forgiveness is letting go of our control over the situation.
One of the greatest acts of forgiveness in recent memory occurred in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. A young man named Dylann Roof attended a midweek Bible Study at Emmanuel AME Church, opened fire, and killed nine people. At a court hearing just days after the tragedy, family members of the victims stood up and publicly forgave him. Read some of their words below:
“I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
– Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance
“I would just like him to know that, to say the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”
– Relative of Myra Thompson
These are powerful words. These families just experienced the worst tragedy imaginable, and managed to offer forgiveness. What a monumental example of the power of forgiveness!
Notice that they do not ignore the pain. They confront it head on. Yet in spite of the pain, they are able to find the strength to forgive. How is this possible? They understood that just as God forgives us, we ought to forgive others. The experience of God’s forgiveness should inspire us to share it with people in our lives. After all, God has forgiven us all when we didn’t deserve it. What right do we have to act differently?