What is forgiveness and why is it necessary for community building and sustaining? I really like this definition of forgiveness:
…a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.1
Such a definition places the burden of forgiveness upon the one bearing the cost of the pain involved. This is what Jesus himself modeled upon the cross.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
As he was suffering, he made the deliberate choice to release resentment and vengeance and instead asked the Father not to hold these sinners accountable for this act of violence and divine rejection. Had he withheld forgiveness, what hope of reconciliation for sinners would have existed?
Imagine for a moment a gathering of people who remembered every wrong that was done, who held on to the hurts of the past, who felt the desire to punish one another until the harm inflicted felt equal to the harm one had suffered. Would such a community be one that you wanted to join? Would such a community be a force for good in the world? Would such a community breed trust, fellowship, and service? The obvious answer to all these questions is “No.” Healthy communities are places where grace, not harm, is extended. Healthy communities are places where people recognize that everyone is a sinner, but that we can trust God to work out the necessary justice to the harms we have experienced, while we move ahead without harboring ill feelings. Such a perspective frees the one harmed to love again. And ideally, the practice of forgiveness will lead to reconciliation, but it may not. Not all people, even if they forgive, are capable of reconciling with every person.
Reconciliation is not the same as forgiveness. Forgiveness requires one person, the victim, to release his or her personal desire to harm the offender. Reconciliation requires the offender to desire a renewed relationship without violence and the victim to be willing to offer such an opportunity.
And sometimes the history of the victim and/or the offender, or the gravity of the offense, will make either of these requirements for reconciliation nearly impossible to grant.
But a community filled with people who forgive will be a community where grace abounds, and reconciliation is more likely. Such a community is countercultural in a world where people seek to harm those who have caused hurt instead of forgiving them. And this kind of community will be a place where the Spirit of God is present, for the Spirit conforms people to the image of Christ.
May we as a church, consciously choose to forgive one another when we feel wronged or hurt. May we cultivate a community of grace and generosity so that the world will see that blessing and not cursing leads to the joy of life together.