“Forgiveness: How to Understand It,” by Andrew J. Schatkin
Forgiveness is a significant and basic aspect of the Christian ethic. As a matter of simple fact, Jesus, in his model prayer, says the following in Matthew 6:9-16: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Forgiveness in this model prayer of Jesus is recommended to us with the statement that we should forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors, or those who trespass against us. In verse 14, Jesus says that if we forgive their trespasses, God will forgive us but, on the other hand, if we do not forgive our fellow man, their trespasses God will forgive neither their nor our trespasses.
The question arises and is what is forgiveness and why should we do it? It is something of a conundrum, if not a riddle or mystery, that we should forgive those who damage and hurt us. After all, the human reaction to having pain put upon us by another is to take revenge, or better put, return the favor. This command to forgive one who hurts us is puzzling since it goes against the grain of human nature which wants to “get even.” Be that as it may, the first question is, What is forgiveness?
Is forgiveness an excuse or saying I’m sorry? I think not. When one excuses me or excuses another, one puts the slight or offense aside; in a sense to excuse is to let it pass. I do not think forgiveness is excusing. Nor do I think that forgiveness is forgetting. To forget is to not remember or let it pass from our minds as if it never happened. Forgetting is memory erasure or memory loss of an event, or slight, or pain inflicted upon us that, after all, might not so easily be forgotten. Forgiveness is neither excusing nor forgetting. It is an internal act—emotional, spiritual, and intellectual—of understanding the pain inflicted upon us and returning it with an attitude of love and understanding. Forgiveness of another who has hurt us is understanding that other person and accepting and apprehending their action taken against us, taking it into account and saying I understand. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is spiritually canceling out the hurt that has been inflicted upon us.
The second question, now that not that we have some understanding of what forgiveness is, is Why should we do it? Jesus says that God forgives us our shortcomings, our failings, and our deficiencies, and the pain that we inflict on Him by our indifference and rejection of his commandments and his love. He tells us that since God forgives us, we should forgive one another. That seems a good enough reason, but I think there is a more practical reason. The practical reason is that if we harbor and let fester the pain and the hurt that has been put upon us by others, we poison and ruin our own lives. To forgive is to grow. To not forgive and to hold on to pain and hurt is ultimately to hurt ourselves more than we can ever hurt that other person. The price of holding on to pain and lashing out against the person that has given us that pain is a far greater and higher price to pay than forgiveness.
In the practical sense, unless we forgive on a constant basis every slight, every pain, and every hurt that others may intentionally or even unwittingly inflict on us, our lives will be a constant misery of poison subjectivism and self-involvement. Constant forgiveness lets us constantly grow in love towards one another. Our lives without forgiveness become impossible.
In short, I would say that as in all other parts and aspects of the Christian life, the Christian life is the practical life. The alternative to loving your neighbor is being indifferent to, if not hating, your neighbor. The command to love your neighbor is a practical command enabling us to get through life. I suggest with forgiveness and the command to do so, there is little to no alternative.
This essay is partially taken with, changes and alternations, from the book “Essays on the Christian Worldview and Others, Political, Literary and Philosophical” published by Hamilton Books, Chapter 17.