The Wardrobe of Easter: Forgiveness
Forgiving: it’s a challenging practice—perhaps no other command of Jesus is more difficult to obey. And it’s so counter-intuitive. Why give anyone a fresh start after he’s hurt you deeply? Why not just retaliate by knocking his block off?
In recent weeks we have been highlighting the resurrection virtues which St. Paul commends as appropriate daily attire for those who have been raised with Jesus Christ. Taken together, these practices make up, as it were, the Christian community’s entire “wardrobe of Easter.”
In this week’s column we consider the Christ-like practice of forgiving others who have wronged us. It’s a challenging practice—perhaps no other command of Jesus is more difficult to obey. And it’s so counter-intuitive. Why give anyone a fresh start after he’s hurt you deeply? Why not just retaliate by knocking his block off?
Forgiving is required
The act of forgiving involves letting the other person go free when she or he doesn’t deserve it. Note that the Gospel of Jesus never calls one to do an end-run around justice when forgiving another. The Christian ethic calls for forgiveness to pass through justice and to go beyond it. That same Gospel does require Jesus’ followers to set their hearts toward not holding a grudge against another, not harboring ill-will, not desiring anything other—or less—than God’s best for the other.
So let’s be clear unequivocally clear: Jesus does require his followers to forgive their wrongdoers. When one of his disciples, Peter, asked Jesus about the proper limits of forgiving in the new kingdom—should we perhaps forgive up to more than twice as often as the standard three times recommended by the Jewish rabbis?—Jesus was adamantly and outrageously generous.
His reply: “I tell you, not seven times, but 77 times.” (Matthew 18.22). In other words: Don’t even think about how often to forgive. Forgive others always, and without limit.
Nor does Jesus allow any wiggle room about who’s worth forgiving and who’s not. He doesn’t wade into the murkiness of when and under what circumstances it’s warranted to forgive or not forgive.
He didn’t say, for example: “Usually it’s your moral duty—and prudent, too—to forgive. But not always. Some wrongs are so great and the hurts they cause so grievous that forgiveness isn’t called for. So weigh carefully when to forgive and when to revenge.”
Jesus simply said in Matthew 6:15: “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Heavenly Father will not forgive your sins.”
No exceptions allowed. No extenuating circumstances considered.
Three reasons to forgive
Why would Jesus call us to do something as preposterous as to forgive another, the very opposite of what we feel like doing when we’ve been wronged and hurt badly? Why does he ask us—no, commands us—to let go of tightly held grudges, to, in mercy, turn toward others rather than away from them? The Gospel suggests at least three reasons. She who forgives:
1. Imitates God.
Find a person—or even a community of persons—who has flushed away the last, foul-smelling trace of animosity and ill-will from their heart, and you’ll see one who looks a lot like Jesus. For Jesus, while enduring at the hands of enemies a brutality and aggression he didn’t deserve, prayed: “Father, forgive them.” (Luke 23.34) That person looks a lot like the Father of Jesus Christ, too, who, when humanity rebelled against him, resolutely chose still to call them his children, to show them his mercy, to continue to lavish his goodness upon them. (cf. Ephesians 1.7)
2. Shows Christ-like care for others.
When the act of forgiving takes place in human relationships, remembered hurts, though perhaps not forgotten, are treated as not counting any more. Thus, when a follower of Jesus, as the Lord himself did, determines to forgive another who has done him wrong, that act creates space for fellowship between the two to sprout and blossom again. It gives the wrongdoer a gift he doesn’t justly deserve.
3. Frees herself.
Three options—three only—are open to us when another has hurt us:
a. To hurt back, but harder. It’ll be our contribution to escalating the tension and lengthening the distance between us.
b. To give the other the dreaded “silent treatment.” It’ll become like a beachball shoved under the waters of our own heart. Eventually it’ll pop to the surface again and always with disastrous consequences.
c. To forgive the other. It’s the only route open to ridding ourselves of the ravenous anger and hate that otherwise keeps gnawing us from within and eventually devours us.
Rehearsing in the sanctuary
Our heart’s natural inclination being otherwise, again and again we need to hear our Lord’s call to forgive and then to set our heart’s intention toward doing so. Our Lord rehearses us in this life-giving pattern and drill every Sunday morning “in the sanctuary.” There we plead for him to forgive us, and there, in turn, we make our pledge to forgive others.
There, too, amid the thronging worshippers, we sing:
“Breathe on me, Breath of God. Fill me with life anew,
That I may love the way you love, and do what you would do.”
To obey Christ’s call to forgive is not easy. It’s nothing short of a miracle when a follower of Jesus does in fact forgive a fellow human being. But, with God’s Spirit to empower us and the Christian community to encourage us, we can forgive.
And when the miracle does happen, it’s a wonder to behold.
“Let us go to Calvary to learn how we may be forgiven. Let us linger there to learn how to forgive.” (Charles Spurgeon)
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love the way you love,
and do what you would do.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
until my heart is pure,
until my will is one with yours,
to do and to endure.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
so shall I never die,
but live with you the perfect life
for all eternity.
Words: Edwin Hatch, 1878, alt., P.D.
This series was written to be read in the following order: