Christian forgiveness is a revolution.
By that I mean it does what revolutions always do: it overthrows the ancien régime, the old, decaying order of the world. Forgiveness vanquishes the survival-of-the-fittest mentality that often characterizes our human relationships. It frees us from emotional slavery. Most importantly, it removes the devil’s death grip on our souls.
Forgiveness is a revolution, yes, but only for those who wish to live a new life.
In the hands of the torturer
Jesus knew what He was doing when, in His parables, He very insistently made forgiveness of others a condition of our own forgiveness. In a rather surprising response to Peter’s question about forgiving his brother seven times, the Lord Jesus uttered the parable of the “unforgiving servant” which ends with the Master handing that wretch over to the torturers until he paid back the last penny. (That is some serious motivation to get out of debt.) Then comes the kicker: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (Mt 18:35).
Really? God will hand us over to the torturer if we do not forgive others? Was Jesus being overly dramatic here or was He signaling by this teaching that forgiveness is something vitally important to our souls? The Lord was no doubt employing standard Semitic hyperbole in this parable, where exaggerated images do the work of getting the message across more effectively than statements. He also used emphatic imagery when He knew something would be difficult or would go against the grain of human nature to the extent that our salvation might be at stake if we were to take the easy road. And clearly, forgiveness is not an easy road.
Anyone who has been seriously wounded by another person knows the true difficulty of forgiving someone from the heart. But only those who embrace the challenge of forgiveness reap the blessing of its revolutionary power to overturn the world’s natural order of hatred and violence.
The difficulty and power of forgiveness
On a visit to my sister’s house one day, I heard her neighbor tell an intriguing story about the death of her mother. The story was a witness to both the difficulty and life-giving power of forgiveness.
The mother in question had a son-in-law who, according to the storyteller, was a complete waste of a human being. Over the course of many years, the son-in-law had committed every possible sin against the family, particularly, against another of this woman’s daughters and a granddaughter. The range of offenses was vast: chronic irresponsibility as a husband and father, drug abuse, total neglect of the welfare of his loved ones, domestic violence, loss of the family home, etc. There was even a not-so-subtle accusation of infidelity thrown into the mix.
The neighbor then looked at me with great intensity as she told me about the end of her mother’s life. The woman was on her deathbed in the hospital and declining. At the point when she seemed to be just hours away from death, she looked up to Heaven and said, “They are not opening the door for me. They won’t let me in.” The mother did not say who “they” were, but she seemed to be able to see the other side. She had one foot in this life and one in the afterlife, but it seemed that she could not die just yet. The family wondered: What was keeping her from crossing that threshold?
A couple of days later they transferred the mother to hospice where she continued her decline. But still she lingered, not yet able cross over. When several family members were gathered around her bed, one of the daughters mentioned that the mother had real trouble forgiving the wretched son-in-law for all his sins against the family. The mother apparently had expressed that sentiment several times during the dying process in moments of lucidity, but not everyone had heard her concern or had given it the weight it deserved.
Those who are caregivers to the dying will tell you that people generally avoid trivial subjects in their final moments. They focus instead on key issues of concern to them. Ant the issue of the son-in-law clearly lay on the mother’s soul like a dead weight, pinning her down. To add to the dilemma, she was slipping into and out of a coma by that point, and no one knew what to do to resolve the issue for her.
Released from bondage
One of the daughters understood what was binding the mother and immediately called the son-in-law. She made it clear to him that their mother was dying and that he needed to say something to her. Though the mother was not coherent, they put the phone to her ear, knowing that the faculty of hearing was the last to go. On the other end of the line the son-in-law must have found the strength to have that difficult conversation with her. Somehow he knew what he needed to say. He expressed deep regret for all the pain and sorrow he had caused her and her family – and he asked for her forgiveness.
The striking thing is that the mother never awoke or even spoke directly to her son-in-law. But after the son-in-law was done speaking, she distinctly nodded and mumbled, “Mmmm”, in a gesture that made it clear to all that the message had been received. Something in her seemed to have resolved internally at that moment. Her face turned perfectly peaceful, and by the time they hung up the phone, the mother was breathing no more. Issue settled. “They” had finally opened the door for her.
The verb “to forgive” in the Greek New Testament happens to be the same word used for the actions of “letting go of” (as in a physical object) or “releasing from” (as in a debt). There is something in the etymology of the word that teaches us the truth about forgiveness. The mother experienced the transforming power of forgiveness when she finally let go of all the loathing of her son-in-law that had bound her.
No doubt the mother had good reason to resent the son-in-law’s wrongdoings. We must not believe that it was easy for her to find forgiveness in her heart for him. Yet, there is also a sadness that this poor lady lived with a kind of internal torment of resentment and hatred for so many years. She did not experience the true liberating power of Christ’s forgiveness until the very end of her life.
That emancipating power is inherent in the act of letting go. Forgiveness unshackles us, cleanses us, releases us from the bonds of hatred that the Evil One weaves within and around us to enslave our souls. It slices right through them. The devil is the real torturer of the parable, and our Blessed Lord has given us the sharp weapon of wholehearted forgiveness to destroy his works.
Forgiveness is a double-edged sword
We must not miss the redemptive power of forgiveness on the soul of the son-in-law either. His release came from his “confession” of sins and his sincere desire to be reconciled with his mother-in-law. He let too, let go of something. His confession was an act of great humility which broke the grip of pride over his heart. His act of humility freed him from the decades-long torment of his own real guilt. We do not know if he truly changed his ways after that. But we do know that there was one less selfish man in the world that day who had new permission to begin again to be the man God intended him to be.
The remarkable story makes clear that forgiveness is a double-edged sword, a spiritual power effective in liberating both offender and offended. Sin and its consequences are often used by the Evil One to enslave people internally, which is why the dynamic of double-liberation is quite rare in this world. More often than not, offenders just keep on offending, never casting a look over their shoulders at the trail of human destruction left behind them.
In God’s eternal wisdom, however, He has decreed that the liberating power of forgiveness will be available to any who desire it. Even if – as so often happens – only one side actually forgives, that person nonetheless receives the benefit of freedom. In our case, the mother could have forgiven the son-in-law without demanding repentance on his part, and she alone would have been freed of her resentment. Or the son-in-law could have truly repented even without the mother-in-law’s blessing. The fact that both of them chose freedom that day shows how powerful the double gift can be. In point of fact, this extraordinarily beautiful story made its way from the death bed of the mother through my sister’s neighbor, to me, and then on to you, didn’t it!
The difficult part
Back to the difficult part. Truly forgiving another person from the heart, as Jesus commands, can require a truly heroic effort. This is because it militates against the worldly ethic of ego-centric living. Forgiveness requires the willing acceptance of loss, as well as the profound humiliation and sorrow that often accompanies loss. These are not worldly values, but if we read the Beatitudes correctly, they are values of Christ’s Kingdom.
To forgive properly, you must be willing to be a loser in the right sense of that word.
The first barrier to forgiveness is the social stigma against losing in a culture that likes to win. Our tough guy, ‘winning is everything’ culture sees forgiveness as a weakness for capital “L” losers. Second, losing involves a highly personal stigma as well: you must be willing to let someone else win – an argument, a business deal, a competition, a relationship struggle, etc. At the point of contention between you and your adversary, you emerge holding the short end of the stick, while he or she happily “dances the night away” as the saying goes. Third, losing involves a firm decision by one person to break the cycle of retribution and resentment, even if the other one does not. When there is even one break point, a chain cannot bind and a circle cannot rotate. The broken link dissolves the issue.
The one person who breaks the chain is the “loser” in a real sense. But in the Christian mindset, that person is a true revolutionary who overthrows the old, dying order of the world.