John Grisham, in On Sycamore Row, writes of the father of two brothers, Kyle and Bo, who have been killed by a drunk driver. He visits the lawyer who represents the guilty man’s wife.
The dad says, “Are you a Christian, Jake?”
“I am. Sometimes more of one than others, but I’m trying.”
“I thought so. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches the importance of forgiveness. He knows we’re human and our natural tendency is to seek revenge, to strike back, to condemn those who hurt us, but this is wrong. We’re supposed to forgive, always. So I’d like for you to tell Lettie and her family, and especially her husband, that Evelyn and I forgive Simeon for what he did. We’ve prayed about this. We’ve spent time with our minister. And we cannot allow ourselves to live the rest of our days filled with hatred and ill will. We forgive him, Jake. Can you tell them?”
Forgiveness is something that is very hard, but it is also an essential part of the Christian life.
We are commanded to forgive.
Indeed this passage is quite blunt. It is saying, ‘We have been forgiven so much. How dare we not forgive someone who is in our debt’.
Our problem is simple: we think that forgiveness is very hard.
Six questions to consider [groups or sit quietly and think these through]
I find it hard to forgive because …
I would find it easier to forgive if …
(eg. the other person says sorry, the other person is punished, I never see them again)
Forgiveness is easier for some people because …
One thing I cannot forgive is …
(eg. Dante reserves the deepest, coldest part of hell for those people who have betrayed guests.)
Some things are easier to forgive like …
I can say I forgive you but … (eg. colleague who owed me £50. I said I forgave him, but continued to feel resentment)
One thing the bible teaches is that when we forgive, we are not saying that what the other person did doesn’t matter. We are leaving justice to God. cf Romans 12:20
The story Jesus tells in Matthew 18 seems to imply that our problem is not that forgiveness is hard, but rather:
We do not believe that we have been forgiven much.
Or we are ungrateful for the forgiveness we have received
We think that we are basically nice people who do nice things
We think that we have earned the good things in life. It’s the current mantra of secular spirituality: ‘Be nice to yourself. You deserve it’. Beware the person who thinks that they deserve good.
There are good reasons to forgive:
- We don’t know the motives of others,
- It helps society work,
- It liberates us,
- It makes us bigger people.
Unforgiveness can be so destructive: Dennis told of his dad who never spoke with his brother. When he asked his dad, Why? The answer was, ‘I can’t remember. I just know he hurt me so I don’t want to speak to him’.
But the main reason the bible commands us to forgive others is because we have been forgiven.
Jesus tells another story of two people. He asks one of the religious leaders. One person is forgiven £1 million; the other is forgiven £1000. Who, he says, will love the master the more? The answer came back: the one who was forgiven £1 million. He has more reason to be grateful to his master. Yes, said Jesus, and the person who realises how much he or she has been forgiven will love God and live forgiveness more.
Perhaps we do not realise how much we have been forgiven. In that case, could I suggest that we forgive as an act of faith. I live by faith in the God who has forgiven me.
Forgiveness is a decision: I often repeat the story of the woman who, when asked about something that someone had done to badly hurt her in the past, said ‘I’m not sure what you are talking about. I distinctly remember forgetting that’.
Of course that decision to forgive will need to be repeated
Forgiveness is an action: Corrie Ten Boom preaching in Germany about forgiveness. Her sister had died because of the brutal treatment she had experienced from the guards in Ravensbruck camp. A man came up to her at the end to shake her hands: ‘I was a guard in Ravensbruck. Thank you for preaching about forgiveness’. And then he held out his hand for her to shake. She said that her heart and her hand felt like lead. But she made the choice, to raise her hand and to shake his hand. And as she did, she said, it was as if a bolt of electricity passed between her and him.
So forgiveness is about a decision that is then put into action: it is about choosing to shake hands, to write the letter, to pick up the phone, to drop the case, to let go of the money.
I recall A who was involved in a dispute over a will with her brother. He was trying to get about £200k from her part of the bequest. She could have fought him, and would probably have won. But she made a choice to let it go, and instructed her solicitors not to pursue the money.
And sometimes we need to pray for the opportunity to do good to the person who has hurt us.
The thing that worries me about this story which Jesus tells is his last comment: ‘So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart’.
So far I have been speaking about forgiveness as obedience.
Jesus seems to require forgiveness as something that comes from in here. Forgiveness is a feeling.
May I suggest that if the feeling of forgiveness is not yet there (and in most cases it won't be), we trust that as we give the situation and the person to God, and to his justice, recognising how much we have been forgiven, and as we choose to forgive, in time we will begin to feel forgiveness. And that is OK.
So I finish where I began. If you are a Christian. If you realise that you need the forgiveness and mercy of God – and you have received that – how dare you, how dare I, not forgive those who have hurt me?