October 28, 2018
There is a difference between pain – a subjective experience – and harm – actually verifiable damage. But each puts the sufferer in what psychologists call a ‘fight or flight’ mode; the one hurt or hurting makes an split-second decision to retaliate or decamp. Those of us who retaliate seldom do so with any proportion or sense of justice. The result is that we often wind up having to apologize for harm that we did in over-reacting (believe me; it stinks to have to do this). For those who tend to flee as soon as pain is sensed or a threat is discerned, life gets much more complicated. It is here that the challenge proposed by the Gospel injunction to forgive your enemies comes home with full force.
Flight is one of the most reasonable of emotions; it makes sense to avoid unpleasantness and suffering as much as possible. To forgive, however, entails turning around from the ‘safety’ to which one has fled in order to confront the perpetrator or menacer! It is really hard for me to imagine someone coming back to me after I have blown my stack.
But forgiveness cannot happen at a distance. At some point in the hurter and the hurt one must either come together at a point before the hurt occurred, or at a point after the hurt occurred in order to undo or redo what was wrongly done. All of this is directly contrary to what people do whose instinct in the face of pain or harm is flee!
We have already discussed the negative effects of a failure to forgive. But simply avoiding one more ill effect may not be motivation enough to turn back. The Christian victim has other motivations that may actually be more persuasive.
Chief among these is the example of Jesus himself who prayed for his killers because they knew not what they were doing. Praying for our enemies is really the least we can do; sometimes, when our enemy is still motivated by hatred or acting out of unreformed character flaws, it is all we can do. But this is how a hurt person imitates Christ!
Beyond praying that God would forgive those responsible for his death, Jesus actually invited Thomas to put his fingers in the nail marks! To forgive is to recognize and accept one’s vulnerability and one’s wounded-ness – without expecting healing or restitution or revenge! It might even mean risking further injury!
And then, there is the realization that we cannot harbor bitterness and anger in our hearts while calling upon God to forgive us as we forgive others. We may cannot create and control life and death and raise the dead to life again; but pardoning is the one thing that God does for all and the one thing that all can do in imitation of him. I sometimes think that it is in forgiving that we rise most fully to our created identity as the image of God.
Neither fear nor security nor retribution is a goal worthy of a Christian. But to imitate Christ and to do the work of his Father while still here on earth: these are what it is all about. And they are never more realized than in the act of Christian mercy.
Really and truly and ‘pardonably’ yours,