What a tired word. It lacks energy. It sounds like it has a “hmphh” in it. It lands like a thud.
For Americans, who love everything to be moving forward—new stuff, exciting and heroic stuff—forgiveness sounds about as exciting as going to the library. It feels old. It looks backward. It’s slowing down to fix what’s broken. It feels sticky.
Perhaps, forgiveness is something we misjudge because we misunderstand it.
In fact, if we are to recapture the wonder of grace and the beauty of peace-making, there are three things we must embrace about forgiveness.
1. Forgiveness paves the way to better realities
In the book of Daniel, we see something really interesting. Daniel, who had been a young boy when Israel was sent into captivity in Babylon, prays to God confessing, “We have sinned and done wrong… because of our unfaithfulness to you.” (Daniel 9:5,7)
Daniel wasn’t the reason Israel was punished. He wasn’t even alive during the reign of evil kings like Jehoram or Jephthah or during generations of idolatry, during injustice and apathy toward foreigners, the poor, the widow and the orphan.
Yet, Daniel accepts the sin of Israel as his own. He doesn’t play the victim. He doesn’t talk about fairness. He doesn’t point fingers. Daniel, like Jesus, is willing to take the sin on himself knowing hatred and the cycle of violence stop when the righteous are willing to lay down entitlement.
Forgiveness creates new realities. Forgiveness is the only bridge forward when all is broken and beyond repair.
My friend Todd Deatherage, a former State Department worker, leads educational trips to Israel and Palestine to introduce men and women to true peacemakers. He understands this. So do other peacemakers in conflict-ridden places around the globe where things seem intractable. They labor not to prop up or help one side win, but give their lives trying to help both sides win. Forgiveness is the only way to find a win/win when decades of hatred have accumulated. Hatred and violence end when forgiveness cuts the Gordian knot.
We don’t always get a clean slate to start with—certainly not in a place like the Middle East—so forgiveness is the healing balm.
Likewise, by the time most of us reach adulthood (or our 30s and 40s), there will be dozens of relationships we wish we could start anew. We long for fresh starts. We have a choice: we can run from broken relationships. We can think they’re all behind us. Or, realizing that life is messy and people make mistakes, we can begin to learn the art of starting over through the application of grace.
This was Jesus’ message, which is why he told us to “pray for [seek the good or redemption of] our enemies.”
2. Forgiveness alone allows for transparency and freedom
Another important aspect of the prayer of Daniel is that Daniel has no ego he’s protecting.
The close of his prayer reads, “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” (Dan. 9-18-19)
In talking to God, Daniel is perfectly comfortable accepting the messiness of human life as something he’s a part of, not distinct from. He accepts the redemption of things as being God’s work, not his heroism.
In doing so, Daniel is the picture of humility. He is the kind of person God can bless, raise up and use. Daniel, unlike those in the King’s court around him, would be free from tribalism and vendettas if blessed with influence by God.
There’s something dangerously beautiful about a man or woman who is open and transparent enough to not only own their own faults, but those of others as well. Someone who cares about the flourishing of the community more than his own. Anyone who is that humble or self-effacing has nothing to hide.
Jesus ended the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer with the words, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Interestingly, he immediately followed it with the commentary, “For if you forgive those who sin against you, your sins will also be forgiven.”
Jesus builds into the heart of his message the idea that the state of our relationship with each other speaks directly to the state of our relationship with God.
Grace and forgiveness free us from the burden of secrecy, the deception of pride and the stench of bitterness. They allow us to be fully human—as God intended—naked in his presence and moldable as clay.
The giving and getting of forgiveness does for us spiritually what breathing oxygen in and out does for us physically.
3. Forgiveness is at the heart of justice
This one might be a bit controversial, but I believe forgiveness is at the heart of justice. This sounds crazy to someone who has been the victim of extreme injustice—say losing relatives in the Holocaust or experiencing racial injustice in the Deep South—but at the end of the day, for there to be justice (or things put back as they ought to be), there also must be forgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean there are no consequences for the wrongdoer, but that we’re willing to see the wrongdoer reconciled and redeemed.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we ignore systems and structures that unjustly advantage a few while marginalizing those on the edge, it means we realize there will be no true justice if we can’t address or heal the brokenness in how we see and treat each other. It is a fact that the oppressed often swing to becoming the oppressor when they achieve power. It is forgiveness that breaks this cycle.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu showed a higher way in leading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa at the request of Nelson Mandela. For true justice (things working as they ought to be), forgiveness had to flow between the two parties at enmity.
Forgiveness being at the heart of justice is probably best demonstrated by Jesus.
Jesus carried his cross to Golgatha to die for the sins of the world that the world could be forgiven. He forgave those who put him on the cross. He forgave the convict hanging next to him. And, because of the cross, he is willing to forgive us and the enemy you believe is unforgivable.
Forgiveness may be a tired word, but it shouldn’t be.
Forgiveness is the secret that allows us to forge a new future, become more human and have an active part in building a better world.
[This post originally appeared on the Storyline blog.]