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Give It Up: The Case for Forgiveness

June 8, 2016

Corrie Ten Boom’s arm froze at her side when the former guard from Ravensbruck, the infamous women’s concentration camp where she and her sister were imprisoned during World War II, stuck out his hand to shake hers after the church service in Munich where she had spoken. She later wrote “Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. . . Lord Jesus. . .I prayed . . . help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. . . As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that . . . when He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command the love itself.” (Ten Boom, The Hiding Place (1971) Chosen Books, p. 215).

The title of Ten Boom’s book came from Psalm 31, this week’s psalm: “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” (Psalm 31:7). The Scripture texts this week[1] all deal with the subject of forgiveness. Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and contemporary of Ten Boom’s confirmed that “Forgiveness is the final form of love.”

In the Old Testament reading, we learn that while God forgave David for sending Ukiah to his death, he did not escape the consequences of his sin: his firstborn son would die (2 Samuel 12:3b). Yet, David felt God’s forgiveness down to his toes, and praised him: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. . . Then I acknowledged my sin to you . . . and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:1-5).

In his epistle to the church in Galatia, Paul discusses what it means to be justified in Christ: grace and forgiveness through faith. Timothy Keller quotes J.I. Packer to explain forgiveness through God’s grace when we come to faith: “To ‘justify’ in the Bible means . . . to declare . . . of a man on trial, that he is not liable to any penalty, but is entitled to all the privileges due to those who have kept the law. Justifying is the act of a judge pronouncing the opposite sentence to condemnation—that of acquittal and legal immunity.” (Keller, Galatians for You (2013) The Good Book, p. 59). Instead of being condemned by God, you are forgiven by him, the one who loves you, when you come to faith.

In the gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us how forgiveness and love are intertwined: “He who has forgiven little, loves little.” Luke 7: 47b. We are told time and time again by Jesus and by Paul that after loving God, the greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30; Galatians 5:14; 1 Corinthians 13:13) and to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we will only be forgiven to the extent that we forgive others: “Forgive my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me.” (Matthew 6:9-13). This should provide a strong motivation to give up those long-held grudges that you’ve been holding onto. My study Bible explains why God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others: “Because when we don’t forgive others, we are denying our common ground as sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. . . When we ask God to forgive us for sin, we should ask ourselves, ‘Have I forgiven the people who have wronged me?’” (Life Application Bible note, p. 1158).

If risking God’s forgiveness is not reason enough to forgive someone who has hurt you, consider your health. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic said: “The effects on one’s health from bottled-up anger and resentment can range from anxiety and depression to higher blood pressure and increased risk of heart attacks . . . Forgiveness, by contrast, allows one to focus on more positive thoughts and relationships. ‘It allows you to free up the real estate in your brain’ taken up by negative thinking.” (Cole, Diane, “The Healing Power of Forgiveness,” WSJ, March 20, 2016).

Contrary to popular thought forgiving a person does not show weakness. Mahatma Gandhi noted: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Those who make it their life’s work to study the subject of forgiveness know that is true. Desmond and Mpho Tutu write “Forgiveness is not weak. It is not passive. It is not for the faint of heart. Forgiving doesn’t mean being spineless, nor does it mean one doesn’t get angry.” (Tutu, Desmond and Mpho, The Book of Forgiving (2014) HarperOne, p. 33). Sidney Chambers, the Anglican vicar in Masterpiece Mystery’s Grantchester, echoed Gandhi and the Tutus in a recent episode: “There is a strength in forgiveness. There is a potency; not only for those who have done us wrong, but also for ourselves. In forgiveness there is love.”

And remember, forgiving someone doesn’t mean that you give the person who has wronged you the right to continue the bad behavior. It doesn’t make you a doormat. By forgiving someone, even someone who hasn’t admitted wrongdoing, you are giving up the natural tendency to want to hurt him or her back. A forgiven person will still suffer the consequences flowing from the bad behavior—changes in or loss of a relationship, legal problems or other consequences.

So how does one begin to cultivate a forgiving spirit? The Tutus suggest that we start with our everyday lives: “Each one of us has multiple opportunities each day to practice small acts of forgiveness. . . I can forgive the driver who cut me off in morning traffic . . . When I develop a mind-set of forgiveness rather than a mind-set of grievance, I don’t just forgive a particular act; I become a more forgiving person. With a grievance mind-set, I look at the world and see all that is wrong.   When I have a forgiveness mind-set, I start to see the world not through grievance, but through gratitude. . . There is a special kind of magic that happens when I become a more forgiving person—it is something quite remarkable. What was once a grave affront melts into nothing more than a thoughtless or careless act. What was once a reason for rupture and alienation becomes an opportunity for repair and greater intimacy.” (Tutu, Desmond and Mpho, The Book of Forgiving (2014) HarperOne, p. 218-219).

God will forgive you, when you go to him in faith and ask for forgiveness—but he expects you to forgive those who have wronged you. Since we are all sinful beings, we all have hurts, real or imagined, that we try to hold onto. We know that we have ample room for improvement on the forgiveness front. But if Corrie Ten Boom can forgive a cruel guard at Ravensbruck, you can forgive those who have wronged you. The first step is acknowledging that you need to work on being more forgiving. The second step is asking God for help; you can’t do it on your own. He will provide the love you need to accomplish the task if you ask him.

Make it so.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan






[1] Psalm 32:1-7; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-14; Galatians 2: 15-21; 3:10-14; Luke 7:36-8:3).Give

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