The Power of God’s Forgiveness, and Yours

“When you love people, you see all the good in them, all the Christ in them. God sees his Son in us. And so we should see Christ in others . . . and love them. There can never be enough of it. There can never be enough thinking about it. St. John of the Cross said that where there is no love, put love, and you would draw love out.”

Years after she is gone, Dorothy Day’s stirring words challenge and inspire us to embrace the essence of the gospel: to see one another as God sees us; to love one another as God loves us. The more difficult that sounds, the more essential it is that we commit ourselves to it.

Rarely is love more specifically applied than when it comes to the practice of forgiveness. To love someone involves a willingness to practice forgiveness with them. Goodness knows how much each of us needs to be forgiven and needs to be loved. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if a brother sins against me, how often should I forgive?; as many as seven times?” Jesus says to him, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22).” In other words, forgive often and everywhere. While Jesus’ answer may have initially confounded Peter, the intense disciple would eventually be on the receiving end of this kind of life-giving power. It would transform him from the devastated one-time follower whose proud declarations had been laid bare in three courtyard denials, to the humbled yet inspired leader of the resurrection community whose new world was big enough for all God’s chosen, even when they were Roman soldiers (Acts 10)!

The good news is that forgiveness begins with God. You and I are not being asked to do anything that God has not already done with us. Let’s face it, without God’s forgiveness, we’re all in deep trouble! And without the capacity to receive forgiveness and to practice it, our day-to-day lives can get pretty hellish. Dorothy Day’s words take on some flesh here. If God can see his Son in us, then we know that we can find his presence in someone else, even when that presence is obscured. And where there is no love that is apparent in someone else, “put love, apply love.” That’s what God does with us. Conversely, to refuse forgiveness is to refuse God, whether we mean to or not.

What does it mean to “forgive?” The New Testament employs several verbs, each pregnant with meaning. The most common, aphiemi, means to “let go, to cancel a debt, to pardon, to send away.” The corresponding noun, aphesis, means “release from bondage, forgiveness or pardon, remission.” Another, apoluo can be translated “ to set free, release, to deter no longer.” And a third verb, charizomai, means to “be gracious” or “to gift.” Let these terms stir your imagination and stimulate your vision in terms of God’s action, while leading you to consider your own life in terms of generative possibility.

Through Jesus Christ, God removes the barriers to relationship that sin creates; God bridges the distance between us and our God, and enable the same new freedom in our relationships with one another. The light of God’s self-giving love shines so that truth, even if painful, can be seen clearly. But then God moves the barrier aside, God bridges every distance, in affirmation of deep and unbreakable relationship. In the Apostle Paul’s words, God acts so that “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).” In spite of the realities of sin, God continues to see all the good in us; all the Christ in us. So when Jesus calls you to forgive someone who has wronged you, he doesn’t mean that you have to excuse what has been done, or ignore it, or forget about it; quite the opposite.

To forgive someone involves articulating the truth as clearly as we possibly can, while pronouncing that we are open to a future that is not solely defined by what has happened in the past. It is an acknowledgment that Christ also resides in the other person; an acknowledgement that together we share in God’s promised future. Fred Buechner describes it this way: “To forgive somebody is to say, one way or another, “You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done and though we may both carry scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.”

In situations where friendship doesn’t seem likely, Martin Luther King’s words, spoken in the midst of the Montgomery movement, are helpful: “We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he (she) is. An element of goodness may be found even in our own worst enemy. This simply means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate other people. We love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love.” And, I might add, neither are we. To be forgiven opens us to life-giving possibilities for repentance, for healing of long-festering wounds, and for reconciliation in strained and broken relationships.

Living together—in a household, in a marriage, in a community, in the world—is very challenging. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote words that are particularly relevant in the context of marriage and family. He said that “we must live together in the forgiveness of sins . . . Without forgiveness, no human fellowship, least of all marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.” I wonder if sometimes what we are forgiving someone for is being different than us. The kind of humility that Bonhoeffer is talking about opens us to appreciate someone else’s differences as enriching for our lives. “Reconciliation” means walking together again. It is a recognition that we walk together in God’s realm, and an opportunity for God’s future to emerge from within and beyond our own efforts.

One of the powerful terms in the gospel that is translated “forgive” is charizomai; it means “to gift.” The ability to forgive is a gift of release that God gives to us to keep us from living as victims for the rest of our lives. Many times I have counseled people who have been hurt by others, and even after considerable time has passed, rage still burns within them; they’ve been hurt badly. Unfortunately, they get stuck in the pain and the mess of that experience, and it affects all their other experiences: “I will not move on until the other says they’re sorry. I will not forgive until they repent. I will not be happy in my life until this situation gets fixed.” While such an attitude might be understandable, it squelches life. I’ll watch the days of someone wonderfully vibrant and gifted become reduced to a steady diet of anger and spite. Whether they’ve lost a job, their spouse has left them, an essential trust has been betrayed, or carefully laid plans have gone terribly awry, it is as though that experience has come to define all of who they are. When they say to me, “I can’t forgive; I won’t forgive,” I have said to many people, “Wow, you sure do give that person a lot of power over your life!” Or maybe I should say, “I’d like you to let God give you the power to forgive.” God says, “Forgive, and you will no longer be stuck. Forgive, and you will not continue to be victimized.”

Gregory Jones articulates steps for a process of forgiveness:

  1. We become willing to speak truthfully and patiently about conflicts that have arisen.
  2. We acknowledge both the existence of anger and bitterness, and a desire to overcome them.
  3. We summon up a concern for the well-being of the other as a child of God.
  4. We recognize our own complicity in conflict, remember that we have been forgiven in the past, and take a step of repentance.
  5. We make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused and continues to perpetuate our conflicts.
  6. We confess our yearning for the possibility of reconciliation.

Such disciplines are best practiced in a supportive community. The person who has done wrong can’t forgive themselves. So, when you have the opportunity to forgive, you have been entrusted with enormous power granted to you by God. The exercise of that God-given power enables you of launch a pre-emptive strike of agape love. You have been given the power to change a situation. You have been given the power to alter the course of history and open creative possibility. It is a power that is beyond the grasp of anything the other can do to you. No, you cannot necessarily change the other party’s behavior; but with God’s help, you can certainly change yours, and deeply impact the context of your life. This is not only an act of faith; it is an act of self-respect; it is an act of dignity. A new future is insured because you will not allow things to stay the same. So put love. Recognize Christ. Celebrate God’s realm. God be with you!

Day, Dorothy. Selected Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983.
Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
King, M.L. “Love Your Enemies.” Preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL. Christmas 1957.
Kelly, Geffrey; Nelson, F. Burton; Bethge, Renate. The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.
L. Gregory Jones in: Bass, Dorothy C. (Ed). Practicing Our Faith. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass, 1997.