Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37c)
C. S. Lewis once noted, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have to forgive something.” How right he was. For those of us who live with the painful effects of someone’s sin against us, forgiving that person would seem akin to allowing ourselves to be victimized all over again. Under such circumstances, how could we conclude that forgiveness is a lovely idea? In fact, we may believe that holding on to our outrage (and to our refusal to forgive) is the only defense we have against feeling totally vulnerable. From this point of view, forgiving the sinner would be like condoning what he or she did to us.
Often the person who wounds us deeply is someone we love and trust – a parent, a spouse, a close friend, or someone we admired or respected. This kind of betrayal can be quite devastating and our reaction to it may even lead us to vandalize, without our realizing it, our own life or the lives of those around us. Furthermore, the sin against us may shape our character in such a way that we go on to do the very same thing ourselves, even as we vow not to. So, in some instances, we are not just wounded once when someone sins grievously against us, their sin reverberates throughout our life.
However, there is no “putting behind” us what we have not yet forgiven. Try as we might to forget, our unconscious – where our past is always present – still remembers. Until brought before the Lord, the memory will erupt into the conscious in odd, hurtful and even self-destructive ways. Traditional psychotherapy can help us to understand what happened better, and how our reaction to it may have caused us inadvertently to hurt ourselves or others, but the only release from the harmful effects is in allowing Jesus to set us free from our pain and grief as we come before him in prayer.
In the gospel of Luke Jesus says to the crowds who have come to hear him preach, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven (6:37c). The Greek word we translate as “forgive” (απολύετε) literally means, “to release.” So, in a sense, when we forgive someone, we are released, not simply from our own sins, but from the effects of the sin done unto us. Before the Lord, when we forgive another, no matter what he or she has done to us, we finally find the freedom for which we’ve longed. The key concept is that we forgive before the Lord. It is in the presence of Jesus, who died for the forgiveness of – and the release from – sins, that we can find healing through forgiveness of the sins done against us.
This kind of prayer begins in the same way as prayer for forgiveness of one’s own sins – by coming before the Lord, invoking his presence and listening for his direction, through the Holy Spirit. The person needing to forgive is invited to look up and see, with the “eyes of their heart,” Jesus on the cross. The cross is where Jesus took upon himself our sins – and became humanity’s “scapegoat” (see the third installment in this series) – and he also took to himself our suffering, so that we would not have to go through life crushed by it.
This means Jesus is our “pain-bearer” as well as our scapegoat. The Christian Church looks to Isaiah’s prophecy about a suffering servant as evidence of this work done by Jesus on the cross on behalf of our suffering and grief: He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain… Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering… He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (53:3a, 4a, 7)
It is our obedience to the Lord’s command to forgive (Mark 11:25) which opens the way for Jesus to take from us our pain. We may not feel like forgiving, but our feelings do not matter at this moment. We simply decide to align our will with the Lord’s, regardless of how we feel. As we forgive, and yield to Jesus all our anger, grief and despair, he takes it from us, into himself. In that moment he stands with us and we are no longer alone with what has burdened us so heavily. We become united with this man of suffering in his death so that we, too, “die,” in a sense – to the effects of the sins against us. Obeying our Lord’s command to forgive ultimately results in freedom as we are released and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, his resurrected life flows through us. This is similar to the dying and rising Paul describes in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans (v.5).
Sometimes our own sins need to be confessed at this time, because it is likely we’ve sinned, ourselves, in response to the burden of anger, grief or despair we’ve been carrying. We simply name and surrender them to our Lamb of God on the cross and receive his forgiveness and new life. Often, God gives to the eyes of our heart a picture, as this time of prayer draws to a close. This is something I described in the fourth installment in this series and typically the image is one assuring us we will be burdened no more by what we’ve forgiven. It represents the truth of God’s promise to us in Revelation, breaking into our lives at this very moment, through his Son, Jesus Christ: God himself will be with them…He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (21:3-4)
This is truly an amazing thing: through prayerful obedience to our Lord, a lifetime of sorrow and sin can be lifted from us, opening the way for our head – as well as our heart – to be renewed through the resurrected life of Jesus.
Next week: More about inner healing prayer for those unable to forgive.