Cultivating a Lifestyle of Forgiveness
How is forgiveness relevant when groups of people are at odds?
As important as her mission was, her anger and hostility toward just about everyone who didn’t share her singleminded focus caused more people to ignore her cause than contribute to it. After spending a couple of hours with her, I came to one irreversible conclusion: I wouldn’t make a very good activist. Since I had long known I wouldn’t be very good at partisan politics or choosing sides across the liberal-conservative divide, that pretty much reduced my future options by two or three, depending on who’s doing the counting.
My feeling at the time was this: From what I’d seen of activists, political partisans and the like, they weren’t exactly a forgiving lot. Over the years, of course, that notion has been challenged any number of times. And I’ve had to confront my own penchant for unforgiveness more times than I care to admit.
Unfortunately, though, my initial assessment stands, and recent events bear this out.
Right now, the Episcopal Church is embroiled in a conflict over homosexuality, the authority of the Bible, and the legitimacy of the church policy. The future of the church itself is at stake. But what concerns me more than anything is the anger and hostility and intolerance I’ve witnessed as this controversy has run its course. Oh, and I don’t mean intolerance toward gays. I mean intolerance toward each other. The anger and hostility and intolerance I’m talking about has been directed by Christians against Christians. And yet, week after week, we join hands and pray the Lord’s Prayer, failing to recognize the disconnect between our words and our actions.
We’ve seen parents forgive the very people who took the lives of their children, survivors forgive murderous terrorists, rape victims forgive their attackers. High-profile victims like missionary Gracia Burnham openly and genuinely forgive militant abductors and cold-blooded killers. But Christians on opposite sides of a supercharged issue like abortion or homosexuality for some reason find it difficult to forgive one another.
I don’t just mean an individual, one-time expression of forgiveness. I suspect that if two individual Christians on opposite sides of the abortion debate, for example, felt the need to ask each other’s forgiveness, each one would eventually extend it. What is sorely needed, though, is for all of us to cultivate a lifestyle of forgiveness toward entire groups of people—not compromising on our convictions, not backing down on what we believe to be right, but living in an attitude of ongoing forgiveness toward each other.
But how do we cultivate that, especially if we feel passionately about an
injustice or sin or any one of a host of theologically and socially
controversial issues? Before we even get to the place where we can start to
figure that out, however, there’s a more important question we each need to
answer for ourselves: Why should we live in a state of ongoing forgiveness?
The obvious answer is that it’s one of the most basic of Christ’s commands and a hallmark of our faith. Matthew 18: 21–22 records Jesus’ conversation with Peter in which the disciple asks just how many times he can be expected to forgive someone who has wronged him. You get the impression that Peter is really frustrated and has been down this road more than once. He seems to want Jesus to say, “Seven times is more than enough! Don’t even think of forgiving your brother an eighth time! You have a right to hold a grudge at that point!” But no. Jesus comes up with a number so large that he may as well have told Peter to forgive his offender an infinite number of times, because that’s what he meant.
A less obvious answer to the question of why is what it does to us when we live with unforgiveness toward others. The disconnect between our words and actions creates a disconnect in our spirit, and we live a disjointed, less-than-whole existence. And it’s not enough to point to the many times we have forgiven others, even those who continue to hurt us. Forgiving your spouse for being insensitive to your needs does not cancel out the necessity of forgiving all those dastardly Democrats or Republicans, pro-abortionists or anti-abortionists, pro-gays or anti-gays. Try as we might to get around it, there’s simply no such thing as partial forgiveness in the kingdom of God.
But back to the question of how. The answer to that begins with an understanding that changing a heart attitude that’s been firmly entrenched, possibly for decades, is a process—and not always an easy one. As always, prayer makes the process easier, and in this case, we already know God’s will: God wants Christians to live in love and unity, and forgiveness toward one another is essential for that to happen. For some people, the animosity they feel is so intense that they need to start by asking simply for the willingness to forgive. But still, it’s a start, and a good one.
It gets harder, of course, especially when we get to the point of figuring out why we resist forgiving others. Any good counselor has the answer to that: We find it hardest to forgive in others the character flaws we see in ourselves. Your militancy exposes my militancy; your intolerance reveals my intolerance; your judgmentalism reflects my judgmentalism; your pride mirrors my pride. Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one.
The bottom line is this: Forgiveness begets forgiveness. God forgives us. We
forgive others. They forgive us. And don’t forget this one: We forgive
ourselves. The process of getting from God’s forgiveness, through giving and
seeking forgiveness, to forgiving ourselves may take a longer time and more
steps than we want to think about. Living in an attitude of ongoing forgiveness
in the midst of conflict may be difficult to achieve. And deciding ahead of time
to forgive our adversaries no matter how a conflict is resolved may seem
downright impossible in the heat of that conflict. But each step of forgiveness
along the way leads to a life of wholeness—and that ever-elusive life of love
and unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Copyright ©2004 Marcia Ford