Several years ago in one of our major American cities, a teenaged foreign exchange student from an Eastern country was beaten to death by a gang of skin-heads. When the parents came to claim their son's body, as they left the plane, they were mobbed by reporters.
"You must hate the ones who murdered your son," one tactless reporter commented.
"No, we do not hate them; we forgive them because we are Christians," the mother replied. The parents had demonstrated a superlative forgiveness.
As a pastor it has grieved me to witness examples of a superlative non-forgiveness. One such case was that of a Christian woman who told my wife, Maria, and me of how she was cheated by her husband's family after he was severely wounded in battle and subsequently died in a veterans' hospital. With lies, deceit and misinformation they manipulated the armed services insurance agency into assigning them the insurance proceeds rightfully belonging to the widow and her young son.
"They did you a great injustice," I agreed, "but you must forgive them."
"Oh, I do forgive them, but I'll never, ever forget what they did to me!"
One Christian gentleman said regarding another man who apparently wronged him, "Oh, I forgave him a long time ago, but I'll never invite him to my house again!"
It has been observed that forgiveness without forgetting is like vultures feeding on a dead carcass. Even the atmosphere of prayer is contaminated. If we want God to answer prayer about anything, we must sincerely forgive. Jesus coupled God's forgiveness of our sins to our forgiveness of the sins of others. In His teaching on prayer, Jesus said, "This then is how you should pray . . . Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us . . ." From among the six petitions in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus expands on that of forgiveness; He assigns it top priority. "If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in Heaven will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done" (Matt. 6:14-15; Good News Bible; Today's English Version).
Webster's definition of forgiveness totally agrees with that of the Scriptures: "Giving up all claim to requital for an offense and giving up resentment on account of the offense." C.S. Lewis observed, "We all say that forgiveness is a wonderful thing, until we have something to forgive."
Forgiveness is a three phase process. In the first phase Jesus admonishes us, "'So watch what you do! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times a day, and each time he comes to you saying, 'I repent', you must forgive him.' The apostles said to the Lord, 'Make our faith greater.'" (Luke 17:3-5).
The "So watch what you do!" admonition given by Jesus is a critical one. It demonstrates that we must forgive while searching ourselves to discern where we also may require forgiveness in a matter. We may be like a cartoon I once read with amusement. A little boy was crying because no one would to play with him. His discerning mother asked, "What did you do?" She learned he had made such a nuisance of himself that he spoiled the fun of the other children, so they boycotted him from their games. Jesus asks us to check what we may have done that deserves forgiveness and correction should problems arise between ourselves and another person.
The second phase in forgiveness also is found in Luke 17:3: "If your brother sins, rebuke him." In this passage, the word "rebuke" also may be rendered, "admonish." To admonish someone means to point out what needs correction in the person. But sometimes, before we can admonish another, we first must permit God to admonish us.
A woman shared her account of how terribly abused she was as a child. She hated her father until she accepted Jesus as her Savior. She then prayed that the Lord would lead her father to ask her forgiveness for his treatment of her. This did not occur until he was hospitalized and she visited him. The Lord admonished her saying, "Ask your father to forgive your hatred."
After an incredible inner struggle, she confessed her feelings to her father, asking his forgiveness. The man broke into tears, asking her to forgive him, also. And father and daughter were reconciled.
The third phase in forgiveness is the restoration of a brotherly harmony. Forgiveness endeavors to restore an erring person to harmony with the offended one. In the Book of Genesis, Joseph is the quintessential example of forgiveness that results in a restoration to harmony. After his brothers sold him as a slave, Joseph was brought to Egypt where he ascended to a position of authority next to Pharaoh, himself. When next seeing his brothers in Egypt to purchase food during a great famine, Joseph displayed a forgiving spirit. "Then Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Egypt, giving them property in the best of the land near the city of Ramesis . . . Joseph provided food for his father, his brothers, and all the rest of his father's family, including the very youngest" (Genesis 47:11-12; Good New Bible; Today's English Version).
It was Brooker T. Washington, the renowned scientist and educator who said, "I will not permit any man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him."
How astute! An unforgiving spirit toward another person may or may not hurt the person, but it is certain to degrade our own souls. During one of my pastorates we lived across the road from an acquaintance who had installed solar panels on his roof to capture the sun's energy, thus converting it to electricity. He used this solar electricity to heat his enormous, enclosed swimming pool, so his family could swim even during winters.
Fascinated, I inquired, "What happens on cloudy or snowy, overcast days? Does that mean no electricity is generated?"
"Oh, no, pastor, the panels draw energy from the sun even on those days. I'm the only one who can shut down the panels to not generate energy by closing the shutters over them."
As I think back on that incident, it occurs to me that, in order to keep our spiritual shutters open to God's forgiveness to us we must open our spiritual shutters of forgiveness toward others. Only we can shut down God's panels of forgiveness to us.
Josprel invites comments on this article. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org