When I have the desire to understand more deeply what it means to forgive, I’ve found it inspiring to think of people who went forward after being severely and unjustly wronged. Nelson Mandela, for instance, showed his dominion over injustice when, after his release from prison, he continued to prove his compassion and humanity for others by uniting people to achieve greater good.
Although our own lives may not be so dramatic, sometimes forgiving seems impossible. How do we respond when we feel wronged or betrayed? Retaliate with revenge? Write the person off forever? Fester in bitterness? These elements seem to be a part of every conflict, whether it’s between family members or nations. None of them can lead to healing.
How easy it is to feel that someone owes us an explanation or an apology – to soothe our dignity. But that attitude sometimes works against the healing that we need and often desire. Instead of focusing on the wrong done us, it’s more helpful to turn to God, who constantly and unconditionally gives us all the good we need. So we don’t have to cling to the feeling that someone owes us something.
With the desire to see healing, we can always ask God in prayer to shed new light on what it means to forgive. This often demands silencing the inward conversation of self-justification, self-defense, self-pity – which can seem like a mighty striving – in order to make space in our hearts to hear how God is telling us to forgive.
Many times I’ve pondered (more accurately, wrestled with) the line about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus gave to his disciples of yesterday and today. It reads, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Its simplicity merits a closer look. Is it just a mere act of letting people off the hook for their shortcomings and thinking that in this way God will also let us off the hook? Forgiveness involves the right concept of God and His creation and its healing impact on our relationships.
A Bible story about forgiveness has given me insight. The first book of Samuel tells how David felt so wronged by a man that he felt justified in killing him. The man’s wife, moved by God to selfless action, helped release David from both his anger and his desire to avenge himself.
The story reports that Nabal, a prosperous man who was also known for his mean-spiritedness, was shearing sheep in Carmel. David sent his men peacefully to remind Nabal that his shepherds had protected Nabal’s shepherds while they were shearing. It was common that the recipient of this protection would repay in kind for it. Basically Nabal told them to get lost. This sent David into a fury, and he commanded his men to strap on their swords.
But one of Nabal’s shepherds told Nabal’s wife, Abigail, what happened, and she quickly put together all kinds of food and went to meet David. She appealed to David’s highest nature, his God-likeness, telling him that God was at work in him. David recognized this work of God, and he was protected from senseless killing. He accepted the gift from Abigail, and that was the end of his desire for revenge.
Feelings of unforgiveness, including sorrow, anger, and revenge, can be washed away. I learn from this story that forgiveness is linked to understanding our God-appointed purpose, and that at some point, thinking that someone owes us something must yield to the fulfillment of that purpose. Mary Baker Eddy, who founded Christian Science and this newspaper, interpreted this simple line about forgiveness from the Lord’s Prayer with these equally simple but profound words: “Love is reflected in love” (p. 17).
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” could mean, “Thank you, God, for showing me that no person or circumstance can hinder or obstruct me from fulfilling my mission to be what You made me to be – the compassionate, intelligent, peaceful image and likeness of You, my Father-Mother. Because of this I understand that forgiveness means that I can relinquish every vestige of feeling that someone owes me something, because You are the great Giver of good to me and to all your creation, every moment of every day.”
Such forgiveness is possible today.