Forgiveness Part I
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
- Romans 12.17-21
Today I want to talk about what it means to forgive. According to the passage that I have quoted above, at least some part of forgiveness has to do with refusing to take revenge.
But that’s not very fun at all is it? After all, revenge is popular. People pay good money to watch Denzel Washington and Mel Gibson methodically torture and murder those who have “done them wrong.” We live vicariously through these films, believing that were we in their shoes, we would surely do the same. We cheer for them as they “pick off” another bad guy.
But, revenge is not an option. No matter how cool it might be to sit around and fantasize about all the ways you could disembowel that no good, cheating, loser ex-husband of yours, as a follower of Christ, you have to resist the urge. St. Paul commands us here: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” That word anyone literally means …
Immediately you began to think about rapists and child abusers and serial killers didn’t you?
I read this week in The Christian Century about a woman named Patricia Dahlgren whose mother was brutally killed 12 years ago. She faced the killer recently in the prison where he is locked up for life. The State of Oregon Department of Corrections has recently launched a “facilitated dialogue program” in an effort to bring killers and their victims’ loved ones face to face for what they hope to be therapeutic conversations. For 9 hours, Dahlgren spoke with her mothers’ killer (identified only as Mr. H). Mr. H. expressed genuine remorse, guilt, and a deep desire for forgiveness. By the end of their time together, Dahlgren stunned everyone by forgiving her mothers’ killer. When asked later how she felt after she left, Dahlgren responded simply by saying, “I got my life back today.” Why would she say that? Because forgiveness is all about freedom and liberty. When we forgive, we are always setting someone free: ourselves.
You say, but aren’t we just essentially letting them off the hook? Aren’t we just being a doormat? Aren’t we excusing and even in some ways encouraging their behavior? What about justice?
Justice belongs to God.
“It is mine to avenge. I will repay” says the Lord.
I love the story that Steven Furtick tells in the sermon he preached this past week at Elevation on forgiveness.
He talks about being a small boy who had a couple of older and larger friends when he was growing up. One year at Halloween, his “friends” stole all of Steven’s Halloween candy from his room and took off down the street. Steven says that he chased after them but he wasn’t fast enough to catch them. He says that his father saw what was happening and asked Steven what was going on. After being informed of the theft, Steven’s father told him, “Go in the house and I’ll take care of this.” Steven says he does not know what happened, but all he knows is that he got his candy back.
Sometimes we need to just go in the house and let our Father take care of it.
God is righteous and He is just. “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6.7).
The Greek word aphiaymi which we translate as forgive literally means “to send away.” It means that we refuse to hold onto that thing that has been handed to us from the one (or the ones) that have hurt us. It also means that we refuse to give it back to them; we resist playing the revenge game. How then, do we send it away? Rob Bell suggests that all of the hatred, bitterness, anger, resentment, hurt, and shame that we accumulate by holding on to our unforgiveness can be “absorbed.” The imagery is that of Christ and the cross. Bell quotes Timothy Keller from The Reason for God saying
"Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. However, to refrain from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It’s a form of suffering. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out on the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death. Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the life-long living death of bitterness and cynicism. You are not giving it any fuel so the resentment burns lower and lower."
Parker Palmer writes, “The cross says, ‘the pain stops here.’ The way of the cross is a way of absorbing the pain, not passing it on, a way that transforms pain from destructive force to creative power. When Jesus accepted the cross, his death opened up a channel for the redeeming power of love.”
Perhaps this is what Patricia Dahlgren meant when she said, “I got my life back today.”
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at what forgiveness is not.