As a pastor I often receive questions about forgiveness and other people. We might have some vague idea of what forgiveness means, but many times we struggle with actually living a forgiving life. We find it difficult to let go of wrongdoings and avoid reconciling with offenders. I think of the following examples…
- Someone says that we don’t always have to forgive, and that being unforgiving might be the best thing to do when someone is wronged.
- An individual claiming he never has to ask for forgiveness. Apparently people can be perfect, despite obvious moral failings!
- Another person saying to someone she’s wronged that you have to forgive me. Instead of changing her own heart, she uses this as an opportunity to take advantage of that person.
A book I read recently, The Name of God is Mercy by Pope Francis, dealt with the broad idea of forgiveness. In this rather short book, Francis recounts several impactful anecdotes from his ministry over the years. One story captures the theme of the book. When asked about confession and forgiveness during a conversation, an elderly parishioner responded to Francis that without forgiveness, our world would not exist. Indeed without God’s grace, we would not have much at all!
Francis talks about how church must be like a field hospital. We do not come to condemn people, but rather work so that individuals and communities come to know the grace of God. The same would be true for someone like an emergency medic or trauma surgeon in a war zone. Instead of blaming an injured car crash victim, soldier, civilian, or whoever it might be, that medical professional seeks to provide aid—no questions asked. Francis advocates for this understanding of church in our 21st century world. Other memorable quotes that stood out to me were:
- “Mercy is the first attribute of God.”
- “God does not want anyone to be lost. His mercy is infinitely greater than our sins.”
- “God never tires of forgiving, it is we who get tired of asking him for forgiveness.”
To build on Pope Francis’ exploration on forgiveness, I find it helpful to outline the meaning of forgiveness through a simple, straightforward formula of sorts:
Forgiveness + Repentance = Reconciliation
When someone wrongs us, we are called to forgive them. That individual is called to repent. This produces reconciliation where we mend those broken bonds.
To explain this idea further, consider the following example I witnessed at the weekly prison ministry I do at the Tucker Unit.
A young man (we’ll call him Robert) grew up in an incredibly broken home. His father was abusive and did horrendous things to Robert and other family members. The abuse contributed to many issues Robert faced as an adult, and he began to act out by breaking the law. Robert is now serving several years in the state prison for crimes he committed.
Robert became a Christian and wants healing from this ordeal. As a follower of Christ, he knows he ought to forgive his father. The act of forgiveness allows Robert to “let go” of previous hurt and turn it over to God.
But for “full healing” to come, Robert’s father must also repent. To repent in the biblical sense means to make a 180-degree turn, moving away from unrighteousness to righteousness. Robert’s father must own up to his actions and seek God’s forgiveness in order to truly repent.
After forgiveness and repentance, then that relationship can begin to heal. Reconciliation is a nice word to describe this. Hopefully Robert’s family is put back together through this process.
Tragically, the story does not always have a happy ending. We’ve all likely faced instances of forgiveness where the offender refused to repent. In these cases where reconciliation doesn’t seem possible, I encourage you to still pray for the other person. Hopefully God can work in his or her life to bring about repentance and eventually reconciliation between the two of you. In the above story, I should mention that Robert’s father is still “lost.” But Robert has fortunately committed to praying for his wayward parent, that they might experience healing as a family.
We often “mess up” when it comes to forgiveness. We have ill-defined ideas of what it truly means. Likewise, many people refuse to forgive, falsely believing doing so will make them stronger or better off. On the contrary, we must believe that forgiveness is a crucial part of our faith. Remember what that elderly disciple once told Pope Francis: Without forgiveness, our world would not exist.