Lessons in Forgiveness

Graham Staines was a Christian missionary from Australia who worked with lepers in Orissa, a city in the North of India. Early one morning as he slept in his Jeep with his sons, Phillip, 9, and Timothy, 6, a group of anti-Christian militants surrounded the vehicle and set it on fire, burning the man and his two children alive. Less than 24 hours after the incident, which shocked - and shamed - a nation, his grieving widow came out in front of the whole world and publicly forgave the killers.

Would we be able to do the same?

It isn't easy! Next to loving our enemies, the most difficult thing to do is to forgive them. Yet, God asks us to do both. He is so particular about the latter, in fact, that he says he will withhold his own forgiveness for our sins if we do not forgive others for their sins. It is a fact that some of us do not realize, believing that we will have absolution simply by repenting, even though a common prayer that we say makes it very clear that God's forgiveness is determinant on our own forgiveness of others.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (Matthew 6:12)

This is, of course, from the prayer that Jesus himself taught us. That he considered forgiveness a key element of this prayer is made obvious by the fact that he follows it up with this warning.

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

And if that wasn't clear enough, Jesus makes it totally evident in the story he tells of the unmerciful servant. For those of you who are not familiar with the story, I narrate it here.

There was a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him a lot of money was brought to him. Since the man was unable to settle his debt, the king ordered that he, his family and everything he owned be sold to repay what he owed. The servant dropped to his knees and pleaded for mercy, saying that he would pay back everything if was given a little time. The king knew that there was no way that this man would ever be able to do so, even if had a dozen lifetimes to pay it all back, but he felt pity for him and relenting, set the man free.

No sooner did the man leave the king's presence, he met a fellow servant who owed him money. Grabbing hold of him, he demanded that he be paid back immediately. Though the servant begged for mercy, the man had him thrown into jail.

The other servants who saw what had happened were greatly distressed and they went and reported the matter to the king. The king was furious and had the man brought back to him. "You wicked servant," he said. "I cancelled your entire debt because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" In anger, the king turned him over to the jailors, to be tortured until he paid back his debt.

Jesus concludes the telling of this story with the following statement.

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." (Matthew 13:25)

Now that we realize that forgiving others is not optional, let us look at how to forgive them. As stated earlier, there is not much that is harder to do than forgiving somebody who has hurt us. It is, however, possible and we can make it easier by understanding four things.

One: Understand that God has forgiven us for far worse than anyone has done to us!

We have sinned far more against God than any man has sinned against us. Yet, he has forgiven us, and continues to forgive us whenever we repent, time and time again. He doesn't hold anything in his heart against us. He simply wipes the slate clean and lets us start afresh. Is it too much for us to extend others the same courtesy; especially when we, ourselves, hurt people constantly? Once we understand this, we can take the first step towards forgiving those who hurt us, which is simply making the decision to forgive them.

In July 2002, I found myself behind bars. As it was an event that helped precipitate my conversion [see The Return of the Prodigal], my imprisonment is not something I look upon with regret. But there were several things that took place before, during and after my internment that made me feel a lot of anger and bitterness towards many people. I had, however, decided to live a Christian life, and I knew that forgiving them was part of the deal. It became more important to me that I did so when God forgave me for my own sins, which were numerous and horrific. And though the desire to deliver my personal brand of "justice" was overwhelming, I figured I'd leave justice to God. I decided to simply forgive them. And just by making the decision to do so, I experienced tremendous freedom. And so will you.

Two: Understand the meaning of what Jesus said as he died on the cross!

As Jesus died on the cross, killed by the very same people he came to save, he cried, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34) This statement shows more than the mercy of Jesus. It shows his understanding of the hearts of men, which is that people do not realize the nature or the consequences of their actions. Many of them walk in such total darkness they can't see any light. This doesn't justify their actions, and I do not ask you to condone them, but rather to realize that these acts are perpetrated by spiritually handicapped persons, deserving of the kind of understanding that you might feel for a mentally or physically challenged person. Perhaps even pity, because their actions take them to a place you really don't want anybody to go to. And this understanding is another important step in forgiveness.

I discovered this truth purely by accident. One evening, somebody close to me suddenly subjected me to a tirade of totally unwarranted verbal abuse. In the past, my reaction would have been anger, and the repercussions would have been swift and brutal. This time, however, it suddenly dawned upon me how unaware the person was that in his attempt to hurt me, he was hurting himself more and God in heaven still more, damning himself in the process. With the realization came an immense sadness for this person, and in that sorrow, I understood how Jesus could find it in his heart to ask his Father to forgive those who had crucified him. And I understood how Gladys Staines could find it in her heart to forgive the killers of her husband and two children. And it is what I ask you to understand too, because not only will it will help you to forgive those who have hurt you in the past, it will also help you to more charitable towards those who might hurt you in future.

Three: Understand that complete reconciliation takes time

Forgiveness brings healing, both to you and to the other person. It is one of the main reasons we are asked to forgive others. But the healing isn't instantaneous. Emotional hurt is very much like a physical wound. Healing can take a long time, depending — like any other injury — on the extent of the wound and our own powers of recuperation. There will be occasions when the pain is severe and there will be times when bitterness bites into you. This is normal. As long as you do not externalize your emotions by saying or doing something bad to the person who has hurt you, you can make your own peace with God. He understands what you are going through. Eventually, time will heal your wounds and other than a faint scar in a few instances, there will be nothing to mark the episode other than a rapidly fading memory of it. This is when a perfect reconciliation will be possible, but be kind to yourself in the meantime.

It took me nearly a year after my release from jail to be fully reconciled with everybody in a manner that I felt was truly pleasing to God. In the months before this happened, there were occasions when circumstances forced me to meet these people who had hurt me. I made no attempt to avoid such interaction, though a strong part of me wanted nothing to do with them at all. And when I did meet them, I would resist the temptation to be caustic or rude; instead, being as civil, courteous and nice as I could possibly be. This was not hypocritical behavior — at no point in time did I act like these people were my best friends; I was just trying to do the right thing by God. Which is all you need to do.

Four: Understand that the devil doesn't want you to forgive anyone

Even as we wait for the healing to be complete, be aware that there is someone who is going to try his best to prevent it from happening. The devil knows that there is nothing like unforgiveness to bring about hate and a dozen other corrosive emotions, so he will keep feeding you with venomous thoughts. We do not have to let the devil use these feelings or these thoughts to stop or slow down the healing process. On the contrary, we can use them to speed it up! Here is a little parable that will illustrate how.

There was a gardener who was gifted with a rare plant. He gave it pride of place in the center of his garden and lavished it with all the attention that he could give it. Even as the plant grew, weeds grew around it, sapping the nutrients meant for the plant. The gardener plucked them out, crushed them into pulp, and used them as fertilizer. Eventually the plant grew into a tree, big and strong, and though the weeds kept cropping up around it, they could no longer affect its growth.

That plant is our spiritual life. We are the gardener who tends to it. The weeds are thoughts that the devil puts into our minds about the various people who have hurt us. We do not have to let these thoughts hamper our spiritual progress. Instead, we can use them against the devil by turning them into fertilizer. How? By prayer. Pray for the person who has hurt you. Pray for other people who have been hurt like you have. Pray for their families. Ask God to bless them all. And God, in turn, will bless you.

May the Spirit be with you.