The Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness as ‘to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt.’ Outside of Christianity we are seeing the world discount the value of forgiveness, such as Jeanne Safer from the publication Psychology Today. Safer argues in an article titled Must You Forgive? that “not forgiving needs to be reconceived… There are many circumstances in which it is the proper and most emotionally authentic course of action.” Safer goes on to describe three types of healthy unforgivers.
It is easy to have an incomplete view of forgiveness, one could even say convenient. In Matthew 18:21 Peter asks Christ “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Christ answers 70 times 7. Some would understand this as not counting the transactions of forgiveness.
Our problem lies in viewing forgiveness as a transaction rather than a state of being. When Christ teaches to forgive, He is warning that people will never stop hurting us. In order to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must enter into a state of forgiveness, just as God is for us. When we put on Christ, we put on love, we put on humility, and we put on forgiveness.
Just as our relationship with Christ is not a transaction, neither is forgiveness. Just as salvation is not a transaction, neither is forgiveness.
That is not the only misunderstanding. Christ extended his teaching on forgiveness in Matthew Chapter 5. How often do we bless those who curse us? How often do we do good to those who hate us? How often do we defend to God this person and this moment where they have spitefully and maliciously hurt us? And yet that is what Christ teaches in Matthew 5:43-48.
God does not want us to forget what has happened to us. Instead, He wants us to defend that moment and that person to God in our heart. To put it as clearly as possible I will share a true story. In high school I had a teacher spitefully and maliciously hurt me in ways which took years to recover from. This teacher committed grave sins against multiple children. As a victim of this teacher and as a Christian, I am called to defend her in my heart to God, because that is what God does for us. I have had my own moments of spite and maliciousness, and it is in those moments when God seeks wherever possible to grant me mercy and forgiveness. He is ever compassionate and loving. He seeks footholds and grasps however small they may be to forgive us our sins against Him, and He asks us to do the same to those who have sinned against us, e.g. The Lord’s Prayer. He seeks every way possible to defend us, even when it seems we are defenseless. I am called by Christ to defend that teacher in my heart to God. I am called to be her advocate, her intercessor, her victor in battle.
John Chrysostom spoke of forgiveness in this way:
“For if you desire to avenge him yourself and attack him…not only will God not take action against him (since you yourself have assumed the responsibility of punishing him) but also He will punish you for fighting against God…We have been ordered to have only one enemy—the devil…Towards your brother, however, never have a heavy heart.”
To conclude we should ask if we recognize forgiveness as a path to thanksgiving? Forgiveness can reach a level where I am thankful for the hurts I have received and the struggles I have endured. Those hurts and struggles were opportunities for me to work out my salvation, my love for God and my neighbor.
Let us remember that forgiveness is a way of life. It is dynamic. It is a journey, a transformation, and never-ending. Just as God is infinite and where we originally receive our forgiveness, our forgiveness should be infinite. God has forgiven us without us ever asking for it, and we should bestow our forgiveness assuming it will never be asked for.