When it comes to the matter of forgiveness, one of the more popular positions to assume is the tried and true “I’ll-forgive-and-forget-as-long-as-you-don’t-forget-I-forgave” stance. You know what I mean, right? When someone hurts our feelings, we adopt a posture that declares: I have forgiven you, but don’t you dare forget it (because I sure won’t)! But stop and think for just a moment. Forgiveness and a recollection of the event that brought the harm are fundamentally incompatible. Since this is an article on the religious views page, I’ll forgo the psychologically damaging effects of unforgiveness on the human psyche, and go straight to the spiritual damage. When we commit to forgive another person, we are stating that our intention is to refuse to hold the offensive act against the offender. Furthermore, we (in authentic, biblical forgiveness) choose to refuse to bring up the matter again. You’ll notice that I did not say we will “forget it.” Why? I’m not sure we can. Quick, what is the worst thing that someone has ever done or said to you? Didn’t take you long to remember, did it? Your memory is a testament to the extraordinary creation of God. Even as we age, we retain an incredible amount of information. Sometimes that information develops emotional scar tissue around it until at last it becomes a grudge. Without intending to, we become forever linked with the person who hurt us. That’s what happened to Randolph and William.
During the final quarter of the 1800’s, animosity began brewing between the two men. However unlikely it was that the men ever intended for the disagreement to fester – that’s precisely what it did. With neither man able to “forgive-and-forget,” each subsequent injury (both real and perceived) festered until their relationship and those of their ensuing relations spun wildly out of control. Without forgiveness, the families of these two patriarchs became part of the legend that is the Hatfields and McCoys. Even though a symbolic peace treaty was signed 2003 bringing an “official end” to the legendary feud, the names of Randolph McCoy and William Anderson Hatfield will always be joined as the primary participants of this epic American feud.
It is this feud that causes me to pause and ponder whether or not I am linked to someone that I have chosen not to forgive. Please don’t take this lightly. The choice that leads to unforgiveness is a hazardous choice that leads to a dangerous place. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave an example of prayer. “In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen” (Matthew 6:9-13). That prayer has been recited by millions of people throughout the centuries. A beautiful prayer indeed! But have you ever read what Jesus said after this prayer? The gospel of Matthew continues: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Did we read this right? Of all the things Jesus could have commented on – He chose to address the issue of forgiveness. What Jesus said is quite intimidating to me. In other words, my failure to forgive someone else will result in God’s unwillingness to forgive me. The word translated “forgive” means “to let go, to disregard, to leave behind, to send away, to abandon a claim” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon). When someone hurts me, I am to “disregard, to leave behind, to abandon my claim” to hold my hurt against them. I am simply to forgive them. There’s another aspect of forgiveness we must address. Jesus did not say we are to forgive others when they ask. No, we are to forgive them whether they ask or not. That’s not always easy, is it? I’ve often pondered this oft used quote: “One of the hardest things to do is to forgive someone who never asks for forgiveness.”
While certainly not easy, I would submit to you that forgiving another person models the life of Christ. When the crucifixion started, remember what Jesus prayed? “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Such forgiveness is the voluntary surrender of our right to punish or get even. This kind of life is contrary to the me-first, get-ahead-at-all-costs, looking-out-for-number-one, my-rights-first philosophy of our culture. If we are to fully embrace the life of Christ, then we’d better get used to putting others ahead of ourselves. One of the most accessible ways in which to do precisely that is to simply forgive. I did not say that forgiveness is simple – but it is essential to reflect Christ to our world.
When I travel down memory lane to an event in which I felt harmed, rather than sit and stew about it, or try to imagine ways to get even (don’t act like you’ve never thought about that), the Lord is gracious and often brings to mind an old familiar story.
It seems that a farmer was plowing his field with his normally reliable mule, Betsy. On this day, the farmer struggled with the reigns and with no customary commands, he snapped the reigns against Betsy’s back and hind quarters with little cooperation from her. An occasional muted grunt or swear word could be heard, but there were no audible directions for the increasingly disobedient mule. On this particular day, the farmer had an audience. A neighbor had happened by and watching the farmer struggle for some time, he decided to intervene. “You know,” said the good neighbor, “that mule would be more cooperative is you just used the words gee and haw.” (For you city folks, that means right and left to a mule.) To this kind counsel, the farmer replied, “Yeah, I know it. But that old mule kicked me a couple of weeks ago, and I still ain’t speakin’ to her!”
When you forgive someone (even if they never ask), you unload an unnecessary burden. You are also eligible for the forgiveness of God. And finally, you begin to live life like Jesus. Jesus lived a life of forgiveness. If we choose to follow Christ, we too must embrace the forgiving life. At least that’s what the Apostle Paul said: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
John Burleson is the Pastor of Calvary Church of Conway. Email him with questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.