“I’ll never forgive you!” We all know the scene. Something has happened, perhaps something has been denied, or perhaps there has been a true tragedy. There is either the heat of impetuous anger, or the cold wrath of true hate. Perhaps a door slams, or perhaps a back is turned. In all these cases, something is being held on to. Something will not be forgiven by someone of someone else. There is a closed-ness, a fixity, an unchanging moment that comes into existence and will not relent. I will never forgive you.
In another situation, “Of course, I forgive you. It was nothing,” one friend may said to the other. It is easy, forgettable and forgotten, this offense you have committed, or at least I let you think so. But forgiveness is not easy, so can we even call this scene and others like it forgiveness? Is it more of an excusing or a pardoning, a clemency situated in some sort of social exchange? What if the Lord’s Prayer was, “Excuse us, as we excuse others for their minor indiscretions”? That seems to lack a certain power or force or hope. Forgiveness is something much deeper, much costlier, which makes stating, “I will never forgive you,” much more serious.
What is it? What is this forgiveness we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer and that we commit ourselves to giving? The Greek word for forgiving literally means to let go, to release, to open one’s hand and drop something. This is the word being used here. Release us from our sins, as we release those who sin against us. I think this is really important to remember about forgiveness, because it such a lofty word and we can forget what it means if we just use it without stopping to think about it. Forgiveness is letting go: letting go of something that someone has done. It is contrary to human nature to do this, isn’t it? We like to hold onto things: mementos from trips, love letters, angry emails perhaps, grudges, or our own mental records of wrongs. Forgiving does not mean forgetting, quite the contrary. When you let go of something, when you forgive something, it is precisely because you know it and remember it that it remains a forgiven offense. But it no longer counts against or defines the offender in your heart. The closed-ness, the fixity, the deadness of the past is opened up again to new life, to new experiences, to change and to growth. Letting go means re-entering the stream of relationship, and entering into the dance of divine life.
To talk about forgiveness, we have to talk about God; we have to talk about the divine life, because that is where we get our first and truest taste of forgiveness. Because it is so hard, (some philosophers have even deemed it impossible), it must begin with God. Within the unity of the Trinity, within the eternal dance and movement of love and grace, there is the possibility of forgiveness, a letting go and a reentering of the stream of life and relationship. This is an eternal possibility in God, for God is dance, a perichoresis, as the Church Fathers wrote, literally: a dancing around. The Trinity, this perichoresis, is a dancing around in the Godhead, with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The word also implies an openness: the Father is completely open to the person of the Son and to the Spirit, the Son is completely open to the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit…well you get the point. They hold another back and they hold unto nothing. They are the fire, the movement, and the dance of love and relationship. When we forgive one another, we join in this dance, in the divine life itself. The movement of forgiveness is the movement of life. Instead of holding on to the past, holding on to the hurt, we turn from trying to keep it present to learning to let it go: to open ourselves to the future, to God, and to life.
“If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us.” These are hard words, but we are beginning to understand them. Because to forgive is to participate in the character and movement of God, when we deny that, we deny God. If we refuse to forgive others, if we refuse to participate in the ongoing impossible action of God, we refuse God. We claim through our actions that God cannot do what God has promised: to restore the world to Himself through love and forgiveness found in and through Jesus Christ. If we refuse to give others God’s gift given to us, then we refuse the gift to ourselves.
Now, the words of Jesus and what I have been working through right now sound extreme. And they are. But what does it look like in our human situations to forgive? Perhaps it is good to see it in the limit cases: what does it mean for the abused to forgive the abuser; what does it mean for the Jew to forgive the gas-chamber operator; what does it mean for the Palestinian to forgive the Israeli, and the Israeli, the Palestinian; what does it mean for the betrayed to forgive the betrayer? Honestly, I don’t know. And my sense of human justice recoils at the thought. This is what I think, though. If forgiveness is a gift that returns the forgiver and the forgiven into the stream of open relationship and future, that future might look radically different from the past — and in these cases it would have to, in order for God’s justice to be enacted. Forgiving does not mean returning to what once was and it does not mean forgetting: it means committing oneself to the future by letting go of the hurt and the pain. And this might take years — since it is the unstoppable force of God’s intention to forgive and save the world meeting the immovable object of the human heart. And this is impossible, to move the human heart to true forgiveness, except with the help of God. When I hear stories of extreme forgiveness like the ones I mentioned, they blow my mind precisely because they are impossible, humanly. Yet because they reflect the image and life of God, they are also so completely human, the best and truest sense of being human.
I don’t know if you have someone you need to forgive. I don’t know if you need to ask someone for forgiveness. And I don’t know how long that forgiveness will take, but I do know that with God all things are possible, and that with God we can open ourselves to Him, to each other, and to a future where forgiveness has happened, completely and universally. A future in which we are all at rest in the divine dance of life; a future where the impossible has been achieved. And I do know that God always says, “I forgive you. I love you. Come home.” I know that God is the Giver of the gift of forgiveness, and that God teaches us how to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Let us pray this, let us commit ourselves to this, and let us be transformed by that prayer into people who forgive, who follow Christ, and who participate in the life and dance of God.
Post Scripta: A prayer for learning how to forgive. God, you are the fire and the dance and the movement of our lives. And with you, all things are possible, even the impossible gift of forgiveness. Lord, may we learn to forgive as you forgive. May we learn to open our hearts and our lives to you and to each other. Lord, may we learn to dance and become human. In the name of Christ, our Redeemer and your most perfect gift, AMEN.