“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.
I can remember growing up and having one, or both, of my parents tell me "Tell your brother you forgive him". Looking back it was always brother and never sister, she must have been the best of us. Or perhaps I have just allowed myself to remember it that way, though I do assume it's the former. I would muster, through anger or bitterness or the pain of a brotherly quarrel (like any good southern boy I bear scars and have born bruise from my brothers and have on occasion given the same) and say those words. "I forgive you."
Growing up it started to form in my head and eventually in my heart that forgiveness must be just that. A one-time thing. We are wronged or hurt and at a single point in time we muster up what is inside of us and offer those magic words that make the world right again. "I forgive you." But for anyone who has chosen to be honest with themselves it's not that easy. For so often after those magic words are said once, we can feel the need rise up in us again. And for those like me, with it comes a feeling of guilt or shame. Questions begin to circle around my head, 'Did I not really mean it?', 'Was my heart not in a good place?', 'Do I have to?', ect...
As a Christian whenever I think of forgiveness my head quickly goes to Christ's answer to the question of it in Matthew 18.
"Then Peter came up and said to him, 'Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.'" -Matthew 18:21-22
I have always thought of these verses and Christ saying that we should keep forgiving someone even if they keep sinning against us. I do not think that Christ is saying anything less than that, but maybe, just maybe, He's saying more. Could it be that Christ truly knew the heart of man so well, that He knew my heart to well, that some thing would have to be forgiven more than once. That we could come to a place where we truly can forgive, only to have the pain of what was forgiven come back like a flood in the days, weeks, or months that would follow.
There have been a few times in my life where I would come to the place where I wanted to forgive. I desired to be free from the anger, shame, bitterness, and everything else that come with holding on to that which should be given up. In those times I have often asked God to help me. To take away anything that I was holding onto. And at times He would. But honestly, for me at least, He often decided to go another route. One far harder, one far more painful, and one that would truly begin to heal me.
In my crying out to be free from the wounds of others I have often found that I wanted to forgive them, only to be free from them. I had no desire to treat them as Christ treated me. For Christ did not forgive me to leave me with no advocate before the Father. (Rom. 8:34) When Christ forgave me He did more than that. He began to intercede for me, to pray for me. Even while I was His enemy, He prayed. Even now when I sin against Him, He prays for me. When I reject what He has done, He prays for me.
Last night was one of those nights for me. I found myself having one of my self-justifying conversations in my own head. And felt as though the Spirit led me to one thought. Pray for them. Honestly pray for them. Not that I would be justified, or shown to be right. But to pray for them, as I would pray for someone who I held dear.
Doing so was not instantaneous; I had to pray that I would be able to pray. But in prayer I found that it is hard to hold onto that which is contrary to the gospel. In praying for someone to be brought close to Christ, to be filled with joy, free from shame, that they would have an identity rooted in Christ and nothing else. In praying like this I found that forgiveness was given once again, even without those magic words. And though I may need to be reminded of this very thing once again, I most likely will, I can truly say that in this moment I am free.
For forgiveness does not only free the person it is offered to, but it free the person who is giving it. Possibly more so...