And How Exactly Do We Forgive?

(This first appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on September 19, 2014)

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14, NRSV)

Now I don’t know about you, but if someone says to me, “You just need to forgive,” they might as well be telling me to stop my hair from growing. “Thanks for the advice,” I might say. “But it isn’t exactly that easy as just forgive.”

Furthermore, when a person comes to you after having been betrayed by another person, after having been stabbed in the back, after having had a trust broken, when someone says that she or he has been deeply wounded by the actions of another, is it even responsible to tell someone to just forgive and move on?

Well, I think that it is important to explain what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is not condoning. Forgiveness does not always mean that people return to the status quo, especially if the status quo is an unjust or abusive situation. Victims of harm deserve the right to true healing on their terms and should not be coerced into overlooking the actions of an offender. So what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is the release of the painful emotions and resentment that eat away at us from the inside. Forgiveness is a process that sets us free, not the offender. Forgiveness is an awareness that because we are ourselves worthy of being forgiven by God for all the ways we have fallen short, we are also worthy of being set free from our anger and hurt. It is how we let go of our participation in other people’s actions and trust that God will take it from here, hopefully inspiring repentance and restoration. But again, how exactly do we do this?

Unfortunately, there is not a quick, simple or easy process of forgiveness. But in the letter to the Colossians, Paul gives us a pathway to develop the right character for a community conducive to forgiveness. This character is shaped by five virtues: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. While just forgiving people might be beyond our power even when we want to, these virtues can be practiced and perfected over time.

Compassion and kindness are the active considerations of other people’s needs. It means that we take seriously the concerns that other people have even when we disagree. Compassion and kindness does not mean that you must take someone else’s view as your own, but rather acknowledge that she or he sees things differently. And here is a practical thing that anyone can do to become more compassionate and kind: listen. Just listen. Anyone can do that. Let people speak for themselves.

Humility and meekness are notoriously misunderstood. Humility is usually confused with thinking less of yourself. It is usually manifest as either false modesty or abusive self-deprecation. But real humility is an accurate self-understanding. It means acknowledging that I am a finite human being, but I am oriented towards the infinite God. I may be dust, but I am stardust. I am molded from the mud of the earth, but I am fashioned in the image of God. And here is a practical thing that anyone can do to practice humility and meekness: confess. Get down on your knees before you go to bed tonight and tell God that you have made mistakes. God knows that we are finite, but it is important that we acknowledge before God that we know we are finite. And the grace that comes after the habit of confession is indescribable. This can be uncomfortable, I know, but trust me.

Patience is not merely the tolerance of frustrations, it is the spiritual discipline of allowing things to unfold on God’s time, not ours. It is the faith that God is the author of everything good, faith that we demonstrate when we pause and do nothing. And here is what anyone can do to practice patience: wait. When you feel like you must say something, when you must send that email to tell so-and-so how you feel, wait until tomorrow and see if you still feel that way. Let God into your life by resisting the impulse to do everything yourself right now. Again, this one is difficult, but it is perhaps the most powerful virtue we can perfect in order to nurture relationships.

And above all things, practice the virtue of love, which binds all these things together. Love is such an overused word, so I’ll just say this: love is what happens when you look into the eyes of your sister and brother, and the God part of them winks back at the God part of you. God created us from the superabundance of love and God’s love will be what mends this broken world when the kingdom of God is finally consummated here on earth. And from this fountain of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, the love of forgiveness will flow. It will set you free.

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