Forgiveness is one of the great themes running through the Bible. When I open the New Testament to check the references, most of the emphasis, though, seems to fall on getting it rather than giving it, or on giving it in order to get it.
Parables portray sin as debt we incur to someone whom we sin against. Forgiveness is frequently spoken of in terms of a debt being remitted. It is something we seek from others for ourselves or grant to others as a favour. And even the granting of forgiveness to others appears to be ultimately an act of self-interest, in order that we in turn may be forgiven.
In the Lord's Prayer, we ask that our trespasses be forgiven, as we forgive them that trespass against us.....The version I learned as a boarder at St Kentigern (Presbyterian) College came from the book of Matthew and had us seeking forgiveness of our debts as we forgave our debtors. In the King James version of the book of Luke, we ask to be forgiven our sins: for we also forgive everyone that is indebted to us.
Matthew went on to say that if we forgave others, we would ourselves be forgiven, that if we withheld forgiveness, God would withhold it from us.
It seems very clear in the New Testament, that the person seen as gaining is the person who receives forgiveness. The person forgiving is bestowing a favour.
To such an extent that one independent young person I know sniffed and said, I don't want to be forgiven. Forgiveness sux. It's a put down.
It pays to consider some of the background to this. The law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was instituted, not as some grim form of justice, but as a limit on the extent that reprisals could take. Prior to this, a chance wrong could lead to whole families being wiped out. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was a minimum reprisal. Forgiveness, total remission of the debt, was most certainly a favour to the wrongdoer.
The New Testament does not stress the benefits of active forgiveness, except as a pre-requisite for one's own forgiveness by God. The apostles dwell, like most of their contemporaries, on being forgiven, and what can be done to achieve it.
Yet Christ was at pains to stress how vitally important was active forgiveness. He told Peter that he should continue to forgive, not just seven times, but seventy times seven, his brother who continued to sin against him!
And active forgiveness is in my experience critical to healing.
It is still a dirty word to many of those who come to me. "Not only has the b........ obtained the benefits from whatever s/he's done, now s/he gets to be forgiven as well. Stuff that. No way."
As I began my experience with encounter groups one of my earliest perceptions was that sin was not a list of enjoyable but bad things that wowsers prohibited. It was behaviour that separated us from God, and that was behaviour that separated us from our ability to love others.
On my first encounter group I experienced the power of love for the first time, coming from within me like a radiant, joyous outflowing. Those who were there said that I was shining, and I have seen this phenomenon in many others since then as they contacted in their own bodies the power of their own loving.
From that time, because I have known my own loving, I also know when it is missing, when I am separated from God. I can experience in my body the effect of sin and know what it feels like. And if there is such a thing as original sin, it is that which kept me separate from my loving for thirty-five odd years, never knowing what it was that I was missing, but knowing still that something was missing.
For me, the path back to my loving has been through forgiving others. It's a form of personal, spiritual hygiene.
I have come to believe that forgiveness is that process which melts away the barriers, my barriers, and the hostility, my hostility, and leaves me soft and open and available to love and be loved. And the reward of forgiveness is not so much that I am in turn forgiven, though that is occasionally the case, but that I am once more able to love. Forgiveness is what is necessary to open up my pathway to the experience of God, to the experience of love.
In 1 JOHN 4:8, the King James version has it that he that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. In 4:12, we are told that if we love one another, God dwelleth in us. In 4:16, we are told again, God is love and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him.
The critical point in the above paragraph is that the message is expressed both positively and negatively, forwards and backwards. God and love are the same thing. God is not something else in addition to love. He is love, no less, no more.
(It might even make us stop and think a little when we use the word if we spelled it with a capital letter, as we spell the name of God. God is Love. Love is God. What is not God is not Love. What is not Love is not God.)
Forgiving someone the hurt "they" may have done me both acknowledges my own pain and heals me. It removes from "them" the power to keep on hurting me long after "they" may have forgotten who I am. It returns to me my own loving, my own power, and my own responsibility for the hurts that I continue to feel. I am the one who can heal the hurt. When I can find the way to forgive, I have the power - and sometimes the glory.
Christ was always clear that this power was not his own, that it operated through him, was in fact the power of God. And he sought to bring others to an understanding of it, to an experience of it. His life was an exploration of it and an experimentation with it as he sensed it flowering and becoming more powerful in his body. Towards the end, he sensed the direction it was taking him, and for a moment or two he drew back in fear. Lord, he said, let this cup pass from me. And then as he acknowledged his fear, he found that power again within him. To forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven and infinitely beyond that again. His life was a preparation for the crucifixion. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. It was perhaps the finest expression of the meaning of his life.