The Pain of Forgiveness | Sojourners

The Pain of Forgiveness

Photo by Gagilas via Wylio
Photo by Gagilas via Wylio

Forgiveness is a form of suffering. Yes, you read that right.

Most of us talk about forgiveness and always speaks of how wonderful it is. But there is a reason so many can’t seem to forgive — it requires a willingness to suffer.

When people commit an offense against us, our natural inclination is to commit an offense against them. Not just any offense, but an offense that is bigger, badder, and one that hurts far more.

We call this revenge.

We tell ourselves that justice has been served, and believe this because deep inside of us, it feels really good to get even. Except, we didn’t get even — we got ahead. So vengeance will come back around to us. We will receive pay back, and then we will pay it back again. On it goes with vengeance — it never ends.

Another option is to nurse a grudge rooted in unforgiveness. Someone hurt us, and we will forever punish him or her by not forgetting or forgiving. Something inside of us believes that withholding forgiveness will allow us to control the situation, but it doesn’t. It slowly kills us. It’s like drinking poison and expecting it to kill someone else. It doesn’t work. We only imprison ourselves.

As the people of God we are not called to either of those options. We are called to forgive much, because we have been forgiven much. Miroslav Volf says, “… what has been done to us, must be done by us.” We are to be agents of forgiveness. Another way of saying this is that we are called to suffer, for this is what the act of forgiveness brings with it.

When we have been wounded by another we want things made right. Something has been broken and we want it fixed. Forgiveness offers such a repair, but lays its demands on the one who has been wounded. It asks for us to absorb the sin committed against us.

It means that we cancel the debt. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told a story about a master and a servant who owed him millions of dollars. The servant begs for leniency, and the master “cancelled the debt.” The master willingly absorbed the loss knowing he would never get the money back.

This is exactly what we see with Jesus. He absorbed the pain, sin, shame, and brokenness of this world. It was laid on him when he was nailed to the cross. It is this kind of forgiveness that we are called to imitate. We are to absorb the offense within ourselves, and forego any claims on the debt we believe we are owed.

This seems impossible. However, we must remember that whatever sin has been committed against us has already been absorbed by Jesus. When we long for justice to be served, we cannot forget that through the cross justice in fact has been done.

But does this make it any easier? I write these words and believe them deeply, and yet still recognize the agony of forgiveness. Maybe you are reading this and know exactly what I mean. You have forgiven someone who has wounded you deeply, and in doing so felt like your sould was torn in two.

Our hope is that in those moments when we have come face to face with the pain of forgiveness, we stand in the company of a crucified and risen Jesus who says, “I know how you feel.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.”

Forgiveness is a form of suffering, and for those willing to endure it they will discover the beauty in it. For when we are able to forgive — in that moment we liberate the one who has sinned against us and we liberate ourselves. May you suffer well, and find the liberation that forgiveness can bring.

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