The need to forgive and be forgiven

W. Norman MacFarlane is a retired United Church of Christ pastor and lives in Boring, Maryland

A minister was upset to see one of his parishioners stagger out of a tavern. "Tom," he said, "I am sorry to see you coming out of a place like that."

The inebriate asked, "Are you very sorry?"

"Yes, I am very sorry."

"Are you very, very sorry?"

"Yes, I am very, very sorry."

"Then," replied Tom, "if you are very, very sorry, I will forgive you."

The spirit of meekness affirms that we, all, are not above the need of forgiveness nor beyond the duty of forgiving. We all believe in forgiveness, but with considerably more passion do we pray, "Forgive us our trespasses" than we do "as we for give those who trespass against us." The obvious teaching of both Jesus and Paul is that forgiving grace is a two-way street: It is incoming and outgoing. Outgoing is a reflex of divine grace. Just as "We love Him because He first loved us," so also we for give because we have been forgiven.

Divine justice

Even those who have been "washed in the blood of the Lamb" sometimes still have ring around the collar. As the prophet Hosea lamented, "There is enmity in the very temple of God" (REB). General Oglethorpe told John Wesley: "I never for give." To which Wesley replied, "Then, sir, I hope that you never sin." An unforgiving Christian is an oxymoron. Failure to for give is a result of either the failure to accept or appreciate forgiveness.

Centuries ago Seneca said, Errare humanum est. Alexander Pope completed the statement: "To err is human, to forgive divine." Erring humanity is the most natural thing in the world; forgiveness is unnatural. It goes against the grain. It goes against human nature. Why should a per son be able to offend or injure me with impunity just because I turn the other cheek or go the extra mile? Where is the justice?

What we fail to understand is that, in the divine economy, no one ever gets away with anything. In forgiving, we are not ab solving our enemies of guilt or blame; instead, we are simply taking justice out of our hands and placing it in God's, knowing that His justice is just, total, and impartial. In His court there are no slip ups, payoffs, or hung juries. Every virtue is rewarded, every vice punished. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord."

Paul, who had more than the usual share of conflicts and disagreements, does not come through the pages of Scripture as one who could forgive easily. Yet this is the man who said: "Love is patient, love is kind... is not irritable or resentful... bears all things, believes all things... endures all things." This doesn't sound like the old war horse who publicly reproved Peter, refused to give young John Mark a second chance, and struck a Cyprian sorcerer blind. It doesn't sound like the pastor who delivered two of his parishioners, Hymenaueus and Alexander, unto Satan, "that they might learn not to blaspheme." But this is perfectly consistent with 1 Corinthians 13, if you understand the true nature of Christian love and forgiveness.

When Paul wrote about what a person was to do about feeding your enemies and giving them drink, he prefaced it with the assurance that "vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore, if thine enemy hunger . . ." And Paul's "therefores" are there for a reason: God will be the final judge. He assured the believers in Thessalonica that God will "repay with affliction those who afflict you" (NRSV). He had already stated: "See to it that no one pays back wrong for wrong" (REB).

Anne of Austria said: "God is a sure paymaster. He may not pay at the end of every week, or month, or year, but remember he pays in the end." Without that assurance, forgiveness would be extremely difficult, especially for those who have a natural desire to see their causes vindicated. Solomon wrote: "Do not say I will do to others what they have done to me; I will pay them back for what they have done." That was written in a day when lex talionas was the accepted rule—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, until every one was blind and toothless.

The freedom of forgiveness

Alexander Pope said, "A brave man thinks no one his superior who does him an injury, for he has it then in his power to make himself superior to the other by forgiving it." There is a certain victory in forgiveness, a certain greatness in restraint. Booker T. Washington, who suffered more than his share of racist humiliation, said, "I will permit no man to degrade my soul by making me hate him." He was wise enough and gracious enough to know the futility of lying awake at night plotting his revenge while his enemies slept peacefully. He could swallow his pride without get ting spiritual or emotional indigestion.

Forgiveness has a profound effect on the neurochemistry of the brain. Memories are stored in our brain cells and recalled by life's experiences. When we have been hurt, the event and its memories are programmed into our nerve-cell computer. Forgiveness frees the brain energy and neural pathways, allowing for positive thought and reconciling behavior. It accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative.

Walter Weckler wrote in Newsweek, "Revenge has no more quenching effect on emotions than salt water has on thirst." My paternal grandfather was a Black Watch Highlander, whose motto is: "No one wounds us with impunity." I lived by that principle in my younger days, and I know the heaviest burden you can carry through life is a chip on the shoulder. We cannot change the past; we can only heal the hurt that comes to us from the past.

Nazi death camp survivor Corrie ten Boom told about her inability to forget a wrong that had been done to her, although she had forgiven the person. A Lutheran pastor directed her to the bell in the church steeple. "Up in that tower," he said, "is a bell which is rung by pulling a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. . . . When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we have been tugging on our grievances for a long time, we mustn't be surprised if the angry old thoughts keep coming for a while. They are just the ding dongs of the old bell slowing down."

When painting The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, quite angry with a man, lashed out at him with hot and bitter words and threatened vengeance. But when the great painter returned to his canvas and began to paint the face of Christ, he found himself so perturbed and disquieted that he could not compose himself for this delicate work. Not until he had sought out the man and asked his forgiveness did he find himself in possession of that inner calm that enabled him to give the Master's face the requisite expression.

Conditional forgiveness

In the mid-1950s, a popular ballad en titled He, had the refrain, "Though it makes him sad to see the way we live, he'll always say 'I forgive.' " This conveys the unfortunate impression of unconditional blanket forgiveness, which is not an attribute of God, nor should it be the policy of the individual Christian. This reflects a basic misunderstanding of forgiveness, both human and divine.

Forgiveness is conditional. When Moses interceded for the people of Israel, he said, "The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty" (Num. 14:18, NRSV). When from the cross Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do," this was not blanket forgiveness. This does not mean His accusers and tormenters got off scot-free. They did not. Most of them will stand eternally condemned for the most heinous crime, in human history. However, many of the 3,000 converts on the day of Pentecost were the angry voices that had cried, "Away with him, crucify him. We will not have this man to rule over us." Peter's sermon, which overwhelmed 3,000 of his hearers with immediate conviction, brought not only the terrible realization of the enormity of their crime but the blessed peace that comes from a knowledge of sins forgiven. The scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, Caiaphas, Annas, Pilate, and others rejected the manifold grace of God, and they will pay the ultimate price.

Jesus' final prayer was limited in its scope. Forgiveness is not condonation. Forgiveness is positive and creative. It takes sin seriously, never overlooking or minimizing its awfulness. In forgiveness there are conditions as well as "giveness."

Some of my colleagues are fond of saying, "God never gives us up or gives up on us." That has a nice ring—but a hollow one just the same. God gave up on the antediluvian world, saying, "My spirit will not always strive with man." In Romans 1, Paul describes the moral and spiritual depravity of his world and says, "God gave them up to vile affections.... God gave them up to a reprobative mind." In Psalm 81:11, God said, "My people did not listen to my voice, Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own counsels" (NRSV). Paul "delivered unto Satan" two members of his church. God told Moses, "I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven" (Exod. 17:14, NRSV). In his wisdom on the Isle of Patmos, John saw the souls of those who had been martyred for the faith. It says, "They cried with a loud voice, 'Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?' " They were demanding judgment, not forgiveness.


Repentance is the prerequisite of forgiveness, and confession is the voice of repentance. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit."

After the PTL scandal, which has been called "pearly-gate," Jim Bakker's staff erected a huge billboard that said, "For given." But there was never any confession, and certainly no repentance, at least not at that time. Richard Nixon was pardoned without ever admitting his guilt. Forgiveness does not exist in a vacuum but in a context. Bonhoeffer said, "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession."

Confess means to "say with." I am finally saying about myself what God is saying about me. "I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is ever before me," confessed the humbled king of Israel. This was not admitting that he was a generic sinner; this was specific confession. "Against thee, thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight" (Ps. 51:4). The natural result of true confession is genuine repentance, which means being sorry enough not to do it again. Repentance is not a bitter pill to swallow. It means turning from something that is hurting us to Someone who can heal us. Then, like the servant in Jesus' parable, we are faced with the awesome responsibility of forgiving.

But even this does not mean unconditional blanket forgiveness. Paul writes that we ought to forgive one another as God for Christ's sake has forgiven us. Well, how has God forgiven us? We sought his forgiveness, we turned from our sins in confession and repentance. Jesus said, "If your brother does wrong, reprove him, and if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:3).

Forgiving and forgetting

Paul, who apparently did not possess a naturally forgiving nature, both preached and practiced forgiveness. We actively for give those who seek our forgiveness and passively forgive those who do not. To actively forgive means to forgive and forget—and this is a real problem to most people, but it is a problem based on misunderstanding. How can I forget the insult and injury the guilty party has wrought?

When God says "Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more," He does not mean that our sins are erased from His memory like a computer that has had a power failure. Does "forgive and forget" mean I can no longer remember how I got these scars? Not at all. The phenomenon of memory is very real (Ps. 51:3), whether human or divine. Suzanne Simon said, "We cannot forget the hurts, nor should we. Those experiences teach us not to be victimized again, and about not victimizing others."

Active forgiveness says, "I accept your apology; I will no longer hold this against you." Passive forgiveness says, "Although a state of enmity exists between us, I will not take any retaliatory action, either physical or verbal. I bear no ill will against you, but I will always be on my guard. I love you, but I don't trust you. I am not convinced you will not do the same thing again." Forgiving and forgetting means, "I accept your apology. I bear the brunt of your action, but I will never mention this again. A state of enmity does not exist. I love you and trust you because I know this will never happen again." Forgetting does not mean a sentimental amnesia but that we do not allow past resentments to poi son the atmosphere. Forgetting reflects the need to release the resentment we feel. It is liberating and therapeutic for both parties.

To forget means to let the other per son forget. To forgive and not forget is to say, "I forgive you, I will not try to even the score, but I will constantly remind you of that forgiveness. I will rub your nose in my gracious forgiveness." God doesn't re mind us; He wipes the slate clean. Jesus didn't remind Peter of his cowardice, nor did He hold Mary Magdalene's sordid past over her head. He accepted them as if nothing had ever happened. It doesn't mean that the memory of their failure was completely obliterated from His mind. To forget doesn't mean mental erasure; it means forgetting to bring up the subject again. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Forgiveness is not just an occasional act, it is a permanent attitude."

This leads to an even greater challenge—the need to forgive ourselves. Being forgiven is not enough; we must forgive ourselves. Sometimes it is easier to forgive others than to forgive oneself. To go on punishing oneself, as many Christians do, for the sins of the past is to say that Christ's atonement is not enough. We have a way of engaging in self-flagellation to punish ourselves. Thus do many Christians who are always talking about their new-found peace and joy actually become prisoners of their own inhibitions and devote their future to atoning for their past. As James Alexander said, "There are many great truths which we do not deny, and which nevertheless we do not fully believe."


Love and forgiveness does not mean a doormat mentality. When Jesus allowed His disciples to be armed, it meant He permitted swords for self-defense.

Forgiveness is a complex subject. It takes understanding and a lot of loving to perfect this prince among the Christian virtues. But we have no choice: The Master has called us to forgive. He gives us the grace to succeed.

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W. Norman MacFarlane is a retired United Church of Christ pastor and lives in Boring, Maryland

October 1998

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