The practice of forgiveness is an essential element for living in God’s kingdom on earth. It is a central feature of Jesus’ life and teaching.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he incorporated a clause on forgiveness:
Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us (Matthew 6:12).
And he elaborated:
If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told his disciples that before leaving your gift at the altar you should make things right with your brother or sister who has something against you (Matthew 5:23-24). Jesus didn’t say who caused the rift. Rather he instructs us to take the first step of reconciliation, which is forgiveness.
Luke’s gospel records further instruction from Jesus on how to deal with those sinning against them. He said to his disciples:
Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, “I am changing my ways,” you must forgive that person (Luke 17:3-4).
In Matthew’s account Peter pressed Jesus on this point: “Lord, how many time should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy times seven” (Mathew 18:21-22).
Jesus illustrated the generosity of forgiveness in the tale of the prodigal son. After wasting his financial legacy, the son returned to his father with a prepared speech of confession. Instead of rebuke the father staged a banquet (Luke 15:11-32).
This is a story about a son who caused his father anguish but no physical harm. But what about the unrepentant? What about an adversary who physically harms you, your family, and your friends, who takes away your property, who imprisons you? What about enemies who torture and kill? Should you be expected to forgive them? Indeed, how could you ever forgive them?
Jesus answered these questions not by sermons or parables but rather by his life. From the cross Jesus prayed for his unrepentant executioners, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, followed Jesus’ example as he was being stoned to death for his beliefs. “Lord,” he shouted, “don’t hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
Stephen’s actions didn’t deter young Saul, who witnessed this event and gave his consent, from persecuting Christians. Yet perhaps it was the lingering impact of Stephen’s martyrdom that resulted in Saul’s conversion to a Christian on the road to Damascus and becoming an apostle for Jesus Christ renamed Paul (Acts 9:1-22).
This reveals the possibility that forgiveness can start in a motion a process that will transform the life of the person you are forgiving. And that this person can pass forgiveness on to others.
Paul certainly learned this lesson. As he wrote to the church in Colossae: “Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other” (Colossians 3:12-14).
For Us Today
Although forgiveness is an essential element for living in God’s kingdom, it is one of the greatest challenge of Jesus’ teachings. As Martin Luther acknowledged in his commentary on forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, “we live in the world among people who sorely vex us and give us occasion for impatience, wrath, vengeance” (The Large Catechism. Translated by Robert H Fischer. Fortress Press, 1959. p. 76). Beyond annoyances there are persons who do real harm to us and our loved ones. How can we forgive them?
To mention a few. The schoolyard bully who picks on us. The clique of teenage girls who deliberately exclude others. The youth gang which beats us up. The fiancé who breaks an engagement. The unfaithful spouse. The disobedient child. The parent who practices harsh discipline. The teacher who is unfair. The boss who fires us. The burglar who steals our prized possessions. The reckless driver who runs over our dog. The murderer of our loved one. Persons who despise us because of our race, ethnicity, or other characteristic. The terrorist who kills innocent people. The dictator who imprisons and executes dissenters. The invading army. The list is endless.
Although in these situations it is conceivable that the perpetrator might acknowledge wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness, more often than not we who are wronged will need to start the process.
Martin Luther King, Jr. made this point in a sermon “Loving Your Enemies.” Making forgiveness the beginning point in the process, he said, “It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged.” He added, “Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere for a fresh start and a new beginning” (Strength to Love. Harper & Row, 1963. p 50).
A place to start is with persons close to us—parent, child, sibling, spouse, significant other, best friend—who we feel have harmed us in some manner. We have so much hope for a strong, loving relationship that disappointment cuts deep within us and we turn against them. But forgive we must and then move on rather than harbor resentment.
It is said that to be a good parent you need to forgive your own parents for whatever you hold against them. A 1970 movie Love Story with the line “love means never having to say you’re sorry” has it all wrong. Being willing to apologize, even for an unintended slight, is essential to a successful marriage. So is being willing to forgive, even abuse or unfaithfulness.
The same principle applies to harmful acts perpetrated against us by those we consider to be our real enemies. We can start by accepting them as children of God no matter who they are and what they do. More on this on the page on love your enemy.
Effects of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is valuable because it can have a positive effect on both the wrongdoer and the person who forgives. This is shown in a film by Martin Doblmeier entitled The Power of Forgiveness (http://journeyfilms.com/shop/power-of-forgiveness), which was expanded into a book with the same title by Kenneth Briggs (Fortress Press, 2008).
As an illustration the film and book tell the story of a fourteen year old youth named Tony Hicks in San Diego who killed Tariq Khamis a twenty-one year old student while attempting to steal a pizza. The victim’s father, Azim Khamis, a Sufi Muslim, after observing 40 days of mourning and believing that they were “victims on both ends of the gun,” reached out in forgiveness to Tony’s grandfather and legal guardian, Ples Felix.
To begin the process of healing the two men joined together in establishing the Tariq Khamis Foundation to reach out to children and youth in order to get them to stop killing. At Tony’s trial he was remorseful and asked for forgiveness. Later Azim Khamis visited Tony in prison, forgave him, and offered him a job if he should be released (related in http://theforgivenessproject.com/stories/azim-khamisa-ples-felix-usa/).
The question arises: what if Tony hadn’t shown remorse, should he still be forgiven? Khamis’ response was, “You do forgiveness for yourself, because it moves you on. The fact that it can also heal the perpetrator is the icing on the cake.”
These same words have been spoken by other persons who engaged in acts of forgiveness. You still remember, but you are relieved of the burden of hatred and anger.
A Forgiving Community
Forgiveness can be a practice of not only individuals but also social groups and whole communities.
This was shown in a 2006 event in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Charles Carl Roberts IV, a mentally disturbed man, entered an Amish girls school with a gun, killed five girls, and wounded five others before killing himself.
In our day the Amish (and also Mennonites) in rural America provide some of the best examples of what it means to live in God’s kingdom as a community. Therefore, it was natural for a group of Amish women to go to the house of the perpetrator and speak words of forgiveness to the man’s family.
The women weren’t spared of their anguish, but they acted in that manner because it was part of their way of life. Weeks later the man’s mother began providing care for the most severely wounded girl (Briggs, p. 9-10).
A church, as an outpost of God’s kingdom, can also be a forgiving community. This was shown by the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015 when Dylann Roof, a white youth driven by racial hatred, killed nine persons during a prayer service.
At a court hearing relatives of victims, addressing Roof directly, revealed their despair but nevertheless forgave him and pledged to pray for his soul. In a written statement Roof’s family replied, “We have all been touched by the moving words of the victims’ family offering God’s forgiveness and love in such horrible suffering” (BBC Broadcast. June 20. 2015).
In addition to positive social effects of forgiveness, studies have shown that forgiving is good for your health. Reviewing this research in The Power of Forgiveness, Kenneth Briggs notes, “The most solid result is that forgiving yourself and others can be a bonanza for your heart and your blood vessels. Blood pressure goes down, therefore easing the workload on the cardio-pumper” (Briggs, p. 42).
Kathleen Lawler-Row, a professor of psychology, confirmed this finding in her studies. She reports:
The more forgiving people have lower blood pressure. They are less aroused during stress. They recover from thinking about this [betrayal] experience more quickly. When we look at survey samples and a variety of measures of health and fatigue, sleep, physical symptoms, number of medications, in every case the more forgiving the person the better the health (Briggs, p. 46).
When we forgive, we are healed at the same time that we are a healer. Such is the benefit of living in God’s kingdom in this manner.