Growing up, forgiveness was something I was instructed to do. I grew up in the church and knew the story of Easter back the front. From the days of felt scene story Bibles to evangelistic sermons in huge arenas, I knew each element of the redemption story well.
As far as I could tell, forgiveness was a key part of this; and because forgiveness was something so valued by Jesus, I thought it better matter to me too. So I tried to make it matter to me; and when I say this, I mean that I tried to forgive people. I could list off what they had done to me, and I could say, “I forgive them,” but it never felt real. I had been taught that forgiveness was best depicted when one man lays down his life for another; as when Jesus died on the cross, taking my sin and shame so I could be free. But saying the words never felt like enough in comparison to the sincerity displayed in his sacrifice for me.
At my core, I’m not sure I ever truly wanted to completely forgive others. Why should I forgive someone for hurting me, or even worse, for hurting the people I love? How could I justify forgiving someone for an obscene wrong and why did I have to be the one responsible for their forgiveness? The act of forgiving them, or at least trying to, felt like more of a burden and a command than an act of mercy. If I made a mistake or hurt others I desperately wanted forgiveness; I needed it. The weight of guilt and shame coils around a person’s neck and chokes them; and I lived with this sensation. So as I struggled to forgive others, I also struggled to forgive myself.
I tried to erase the pain and guilt by saying, “I forgive them,” but it never seemed to work. The pain was still there, the memories still raw and my hatred of their behaviour burned deep in my soul. Despising a person is draining. It is even more draining when you hate yourself for despising them. In this, forgiveness seemed like an allusive promise. A beautiful remedy I had been taught and desperately needed, but could never grasp.
This conflict plagued me for years, but my paradigm changed one day in an elderly couple’s house. There had been events that happened during my childhood which festered in my soul. The people around me had ‘gotten over it’, but I couldn’t seem to let it go. It came to a point where the guilt felt like poison and it constricted me. I visited this couple’s house because I needed help and prayer. I needed to confess; to be free of my hatred of others and myself. I’ll never forget that day, because this couple changed my definition of forgiveness.
They taught me this: the act of forgiveness is an act of faith. It doesn’t automatically make the pain go away, but by verbally saying, “I forgive (this person) for (these actions)” you are declaring that the pain will ease and you will no longer let it control you. I still struggle to forgive people because I am human. But I have learnt that forgiveness is important, because it releases you of the venom that eats away at your soul for an action you were never responsible for. And when you have been responsible for hurting another person, forgiveness enables us to heal, to be restored, to start again. Forgiveness never excuses a person for their behaviour. A wrong will always be a wrong, and you cannot deny the damage other people’s actions have on you. Yet in the act of forgiveness, we are refusing to let the pain win. We are releasing others to find redemption for their wrongs, and we are releasing ourselves to find healing from the scars they have left on us. There is little logic in forgiveness, because justice demands people account for their actions. There is a place for justice, and it needs to be implemented. But there is also truth in the fact that forgiveness is an action of the heart. It is a verb that tells us that it is okay to start again.
This Easter, I don’t see an allusive man on a cross. Instead I see an act of love and a sacrifice by a perfect God, so that you and I can start with a clean slate. I see mercy, unwarranted favour and understanding; and I know that if my God had been able to take the pain of the world onto his shoulders because he loves me, then it must be possible for me to heal.
I am thankful I know the end of the Easter story, the beautiful ending where Christ rises from death and is victorious over all the sin he took with him to the grave. This ending, or renewed beginning, shows me that God will help me heal. So with his help I continue to choose forgiveness, because I have faith that as each morning breaks love will heal the wounds of my past and invite me to start again.