I’m reading a book by Chaim Potok, who describes Orthodox Jewish life in America. I was struck by something in this book last night and it’s been going round in my head, gathering thoughts and questions and ideas…
It was something a father said to his son about forgiveness:
“You remember what the Talmud says. If a person comes to apologize for having hurt you, you must listen and forgive him.”
Must. I was hit by that, thinking: wow, but what if you can’t find it in your heart to forgive there and then? Sometimes it takes time, doesn’t it?
But then I thought, didn’t Jesus say we must forgive, just as the Father forgives us?
And one of his disciples asked him: how many times must I forgive? Sounds like that comes from the same thinking as in the Talmud, and Jesus’ response wasn’t to say “don’t worry about that, that teaching doesn’t apply to you” – his response was to say: even more times than you thought. a lot lot more times. so many times that you’ll lose count. (yes, I’m paraphrasing.)
So, what would Jesus say to my “but sometimes it takes time” comment?
I have the feeling that he would say something like this: yes, it may take time for it to perforate into your heart, but to start with you must decide to forgive. There’s a difference between a decision of the will, and an emotional process. I have the feeling that in western society today we place a very high level of importance on feelings, but there are things that are really more about a decision or commitment than about emotions.
When the Bible tells us to love God with all we’ve got and to love our fellow human beings as we love ourselves – that doesn’t mean we’re going to always be full of nice lovey-dovey thoughts and feelings, but it does mean that if we see someone in need we’ll do what we can to help them even if we don’t have nice fuzzy feelings about this person.
When we get married and promise to love our spouse till death us do part, that’s not about keeping the romance alive, it doesn’t mean you’ll still look at them with stars in your eyes when you’re eighty – it means you commit yourself to acting in a loving way towards them, putting them first, doing stuff for them, making them a cup of tea, putting the rubbish out, that sort of thing.
When the Bible says we must forgive – I think it’s more of a legal concept than an emotional thing. Legal in the sense that when you forgive you are saying: I am no longer holding this against you in the heavenly courts, I do not require God to punish you for what you did to me.
If someone comes to you to apologise for hurting you, if you’ve received God’s forgiveness for the stuff you’ve done then what right do you have to hold anything against another person? Like that servant in the parable in Matthew 18, you’ve been forgiven an unbelievably massive debt and you have no right to demand that the other servant repay you the teensy amount he owes you.
But Jesus says we must forgive “from the heart”. How do you do that? How to make that happen? I think the only way is by focusing on what God has done for us, reminding ourselves of the sins he has forgiven us. As long as we’re focused on what this other person did to hurt us, we’re looking in the wrong direction. Forgiveness won’t come from there. Forgiveness will come from gratitude to God, it will come from reminding ourselves of our place in this forgiveness chain. And I don’t think this should take long.
I think the thing that may take longer is the inner battle with our decision to forgive. We may have to struggle again and again with the voice that says: but how could you forgive such a terrible thing? look how much this person hurt you! and again and again we’ll need to say: yes, but God forgave all my sins.
So it’s not that the decision to forgive ends the struggle. But in terms of where we stand with the person who hurt us, we must forgive them, not as an emotional thing but as a declaration that we will not hold it against them before God. The feelings may take a long while to percolate through, and the relationship might not return to how it was before, but you’ll have withdrawn your charges against this person in the heavenly courtroom.
I hope this makes sense, it’s a very meandering kind of post – just thinking aloud.