I think one of the absolute most difficult things an individual has to learn to do in their lifetime is forgive. It’s not easy, and our culture certainly doesn’t make it easier on us. As a society, we’re geared toward the hurt and the victim, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. When someone’s hurt, we need to be there to help them, to pick them up off the ground and bring them to healing. My concern, however, is that we’ve forgotten about the one who hurt them, the one who made the victim in the first place. Some people really don’t like to think about having to do this, but when we cover our ears and sing at the top of our lungs about the hurt and oppressed, we misunderstand what forgiveness really is, and the consequences are just as destructive as having been hurt in the first place.
Did you guys know that the Mayo Clinic (which still makes me picture it being sponsored by Kraft Foods) has a whole article on forgiveness? It defines forgiveness as such:
Generally, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.
Whenever I began working on this post, I found that a lot of definitions of forgiveness, religious and social, matched this one, and this one isn’t entirely wrong. Part of forgiveness is what we, as victim, do in regard to our offender. Still, this is a very passive way of looking at the matter; all we’re doing is “letting go of our feelings,” in this case. In order for true forgiveness to take place, the action must be taken in closer regard to the offender. The Oxford English Dictionary puts it this way.
‘to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt’
OED is a little bit closer to the point, being that their definition is more active. The point is, you have been wronged, but you are granting free pardon on your offender. Still, what should prompt this forgiveness? How should one decide whom to forgive? According to Judaism, the offender must seek forgiveness from the offended, apologizing three times to fulfill his obligation, and the victim is religiously obligated to forgive. In Islam, the process is very similar to that of Judaism, and corresponds to moral and religious obligation all the same.
In the East, forgiveness is tied directly to karma, though only to that of the individual requesting it or giving it. One cannot bring good karma for another individual, only for themselves, and in this case, forgiveness is only to prevent bad karma coming on the individual in question.
So what’s wrong with all of these religions and their views of forgiveness? Well, they’re all quite selfish, really, and in context to how Christ taught forgiveness, really missing the point. Let’s look at how Jesus defined forgiveness in the Parable of the Prodigal Son:
11And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.14And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ 20And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.27And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’31And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
When Jesus taught this, he took what the Law taught about forgiveness and took it the fullest extent it was meant to go. The son asking his inheritance of his father is committing a grave offense, more or less telling his father that he’d prefer him dead, and demanding what would be left to him if he were. The father only gives it to him, and he goes and blows it all. All of us are/have been this son. We’ve taken from others without regard to their well being, and whatever benefit we received as a result we squandered and threw away. When it was all gone, we came crawling back on all fours, begging forgiveness from someone who was too hurt to even consider giving it.
What about the father? His own son wishes he was dead, and then comes groveling back! What does he do? He doesn’t even wait for him to make it to the door, but runs to him and embraces him! Not only that, he brings him right back to being a son and throws a party in his honor. This was a completely undignified way for a Jewish father to act. Jewish men were proud, and gave forgiveness out of obligation, and certainly weren’t so generous with it. Even in today’s world, it’s unheard of. When was the last time you ran to the one who offended you and threw your arms around them and gave them a big party? Heck no! Still, Jesus shows how the Father acts when one of his children comes home. He runs to them, and throws a huge party in their name.
The Son out in the field is not unlike the people who would object to such ludicrous behavior, whether in Jesus time or today. This son’s reaction is anger at his father, who never threw him a party, and he’s been faithful! Why should this sinner get even a morsel from the table? The father explains that, when a sinner comes home, nothing is more beautiful and desirable, and their welcome should be great! Still, a lot of us are a lot like this son. We don’t want to forgive the offender, because they hurt us or someone we love deeply. We’d rather carry around our grudge like a stone on our backs than shed that weight and love our enemy. Jesus, however, shows us how sweet forgiveness truly is.
So what? What is forgiveness according to Christ? Well, it’s a lot of what the other religions described it as, but so much more. It is not an obligation, but a necessity. Let’s lay it out in accordance with the Parable:
1. The Son who squandered his inheritance saw his offense, and ran to beg forgiveness, not out of obligation, but out of true love for his father and desire to come home. We must act in this same way if we want to be forgiven. Asking forgiveness for a wrong committed is a removal of selfish pride to see our victims healed, even if we did the wrong. No matter what the wrong, we need to ask forgiveness.
2. The Father ran to his son and embraced him, shedding all bitterness from his own shoulders, just as his son had shed his own selfishness from his heart. If our offenders return asking forgiveness, we should give it freely and without obligation. Still further, we need to give it without expecting our offenders to ask it. The story shows the father waiting for his son to come home, and running to him first. No matter how much it hurts, we must forgive, even if the person isn’t around anymore to receive it. At the very least, it will set us free of our own burden.
3. The brother in the field, though bitter, was invited to the party as well. Bottom line, no matter what a person has done, let’s join the party.
What about you? Have you experienced forgiveness, from either end, and tasted how sweet it is? Do you have anyone you need to forgive?
(BTW, Dustin Kensrue from Thrice does a really cool song based on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Here it is.)