Some consider him the world’s expert on forgiveness. Dr. Bob Enright is a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, and the founder of the International Forgiveness Institute — an accomplishment for which he is considered the “father of forgiveness research.” “Forgiveness research” is still a relatively new field, but within the last twenty years or so, psychologists and social scientists have sought to measure the benefits of forgiveness on personal, inerrelational and social well-being. The Templeton Foundation has even awarded millions of dollars to projects as part of a “Campaign for Forgiveness Research” that has involved the likes of President Jimmy Carter and Bishop Desmond Tutu. One researcher observed, “Forgiveness can releasethe offender and the offended from prolonged anger, rage, and stress that have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer, and other psychosomatic illness.”
This was Dr. Bob Enright’s hypothesis decades ago, but his work was little known and little funded until The Chicago Tribuneran a story on his International Forgiveness Institute and ran it in the Sunday edition. The article elicited over 500 calls. “My wife Nancy wanted to put the phone out in the woods!” Enright quips. “We realized we were on to something.” (1) It was something people desperately wanted to hear more about. For how many of us understand deeply what it means to need to be forgiven? And how many of us know what it can mean to forgive?
The letter to the Colossians understands this common human longing for forgiveness. Colossians suggests that forgiveness is at the foundation of Christian community.
Throughout the season of Lent leading to Easter, we at First Baptist Greensboro have been reading this letter to the church at Colossae, focusing especially on the virtues that mark the lives of those beloved of God. Through Jesus Christ, Colossians says that we share in a new life. Through the power of Christ, we can be different people, clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, patience and endurance, which all seem to lead up to the most challenging of Christian virtues: forgiveness. As we read in v. 13 of Colossians 3: “If any of you has a complaint against one another, forgive one another.” All these other virtues, it seems, are somewhat quaint and incomplete on their own. Foundational to them all is the virtue of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is at the foundation of Christian community and at the heart of the Christian faith. “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” affirms the ancient baptismal creed of Christian tradition. Still, believing in it and practicing it are two entirely different things.
If we’re going to practice it, most of us want to know the specifics, like Peter who once asked Jesus, “Yes, forgive one another… but how many times?” “What’s the bottom line?” we ask as we sit around with our calculators tabulating, listing our grievances and measuring out how much we will forgive and how many times. I don’t know about you, but I prefer bitterness. I’d like to at least hold on to the option for revenge. When I was a child, if I was frustrated or angry with my parents over some limit or restriction — some point at which they wouldn’t let me do what every other child my age was doing — I started a practice of writing a note to myself and leaving it on my nightstand next to my bed so that in the morning I’d wake up and remember, “Alan, you’re mad at mom!” Why waste a good grudge? “Never go to bed angry,” the old axiom states, “Instead stay up and plot your revenge.”
Yes, with it’s calls to clothe ourselves in such harmonious virtues — compassion, kindness, humility — you might start to think that Colossians is a little naive, or at least idealistic — meekness, patience, endurance. But Colossians insists that these are not merely part of some distant, idealized future, but they are possible now. We can put on compassion now. We can clothe ourselves in humility today. Kindness and patience can be the marks of our lives at this very place and time. But Colossians also knows that if we’re going to try it, we’re also going to fail. We’re going to fall short. We’re going to hurt one another at times. So this is not a utopian vision, without trials and tensions. On the contrary it’s real, it’s now, it’s today — where we can so often struggle in our efforts to follow in the way of Jesus and live fully in Christian community. So Colossians understands there will be times when we are not loving, not compassionate, not kind at all. There will be times when we are vengeful, or judgmental, or sitting around with our legal pads, listing those who have wronged us. That’s why all of these virtues lead up to a charge to forgive one another when we have been wronged, or when our efforts have fallen short. If we’re going to seek to be clothed in the virtues of Christ, then we must be able to forgive one another — to reach out to people who have hurt us with reconciliation and love.
Such forgiveness is a challenging concept to practice and understand, in part because it is so often malpracticed and misunderstood.
For instance, forgiveness does not mean an instant change, or an immediate reconciliation. Sometimes wounds are deep and will always leave scars, words are poisonous and can’t be extracted, actions are far-reaching with enduring consequences. The theologian Donald Shriver has written extensively on forgiveness, and once described a man who had lost his son to gun violence. The man walked out of the church after his son’s funeral and addressed those gathered there, saying, “As a Christian, I have to forgive the person who killed my son.” And Shriver said that he felt that man’s church had done right by teaching him about forgiveness that is radical and reconciling, but that perhaps they had done wrong by not urging the man to take the necessary time for lament, grief, rage. (2) Forgiveness is not a starting point. It’s where a road towards healing is ultimately headed, but it’s not where it begins.
Similarly, that healing for the wronged and offended does not always mean the restoration of a relationship to its previous state. Forgivenessdoes not erases all boundaries or limits. Forgiveness does not mean staying in a place, or in a relationship, where your health or flourishing is threatened, or where you are exposed to further injury or abuse, especially if you have been vulnerable. Forgiveness does not mean that a relationship is restored to what it was before the brokenness. Whether the harm is obvious — through the effects of abuse, alcoholism, violence — or whether more silent and subtle, the fact is that relationships can be broken, and forgiveness does not mean that everything is put back together as it was before.
Just as forgiveness does not mean that there’s no more work to do or repair to offer. Dr. Kevin Cosby is an influential pastor in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is also President of Simmons College. I once heard him describe repentance and salvation this way: “If you steal my car on Monday, and you get saved on Tuesday, and you still have my car on Wednesday… then you did not get saved on Tuesday!” Because forgiveness is always linked to the work of justice and righteousness in our world, which Walter Brueggemann describes as “Finding out what belongs to whom and returning it to them.” (3) Forgiveness is not a mere expression or a word, but must be linked to active practices of repentance, return, repair.
Forgiveness might not even seem possible, given what you’ve been through or what you’ve endured. And maybe that’s a final way we misunderstand it. We act as though it’s possible. That is to say, we behave as though forgiveness is possible through human effort alone — as though its physiological benefits, or its promotion of peace and civility, or its practical payoffs will be enough to provoke it. When in fact, forgiveness — true forgiveness — is not about human possibility.
God is always asking us to do what we cannot do — to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to forgive the one who has wronged us seventy times seven times. But God’s promise is that as we try to do what we’ve been called to do, we are given what we seek as a gift. Notice, Colossians is not simply saying, “Forgive one another” but instead, “Forgive one another… as the Lord has forgiven you,” or in some ancient manuscripts, “as Christ has forgiven you.” In other words, we can reach out to others in forgiveness because we have been forgiven. The power of forgiveness — of wounds healed, of wrongs set right, of injustice overcome — is already ours. We are not called to create it. We are called instead to participate in the forgiveness already given to us as a gift. The very root of the word Colossians uses for “forgive” is “gift.” It is the same word that is at the heart of the word “grace.” Forgiveness is not earned or deserved. It is a gift. So “forgive one another, just as Christ has given you this gift of forgiveness.”
“Father, forgive them” Jesus says from the cross. He died as he lived, and so this virtue that so defined his life is first on his lips in the moments of his death. On this Palm Sunday, we remember that as the parade becomes a death march, the first words Jesus speaks are of forgiveness and grace, “Father, forgive them.”
In this statement from the cross Jesus never names specifically who he is forgiving. Most literally it would seem to be the Romans who erected the cross, or the powers that be who colluded to see him and his movement die, or the people who cried “Crucify.” I suppose we could leave it there, and blame some others we can call “them.” We’d love to stand with Peter and say, “Surely not me… I would never deny you, Lord, I would never betray you or hand you over. Not me. It must be someone else.” We’d like to think it was some other “they” or “them.” But the anonymity of Jesus’ word of forgiveness provides an invitation for us to insert our own names. “They know not what they do,” Jesus says. But we know what they were doing, for we do it, too. We still live in a world where we deny the way of Christ, with our individual live and our systemic sins. We find ourselves swept up in the mob. We allow power to collude and go unchecked. We unwittingly do violence to other sons and daughters of God. And then we wash our hands. But with those words, “Father, forgive them” Christ is somehow able to offer the grace that forgives us all and forgives us still.
A Civil Rights activist who participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery, suffering grave injustice and the fullness of human evil — beaten and persecuted for his stance — said that the only way that he was able to hold on to his own humanity, and to see even in those who were oppressing him their humanity, was to look into their hate-filled faces and to say to himself, “There is a child of God who has forgotten who they are.” And maybe it helps us understand Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them. These are your children. They’ve forgotten who they are, and they know now what they do.” (4)
That kind of forgiveness is rare. It’s only possible through the power of God. So when we see it, it is evidence of God’s gift to us. It is a sign of what God makes possible through Jesus Christ. It is a glimpse of God’s coming future breaking in to the limits of our present day. It is a call to each of us to participate in the gift that God gives to the world.
The preacher Tom Long once shared a story about a friend of his — a pastor of an urban church. This pastor had planned an evening with his wife to celebrate her birthday. They met at the church at the end of the day to walk to the restaurant together. However, just outside the church they encountered a crisis in progress.
An elderly man and his wife had been walking by the church, and the man had evidently suffered a heart attack. He was lying on the sidewalk and his wife was bending over him, frightened and desperate. The minister rushed over to the man while the minister’s wife ran back inside the church to call for an ambulance. The pastor loosened the man’s shirt, reached out for his hand, and said, “Try to relax. We’re right here with you and an ambulance is on the way.”
To the pastor’s surprise and puzzlement, the man looked up at him and said, “Forgive me, Charlie.” The pastor learned later that Charlie was the man’s son and that father and son had been estranged for many years. The pastor squeezed the man’s hand reassuringly and said, “I am not Charlie. My name is Sam. I’m a minister and I’ll stay here with you until help comes. Don’t be afraid.”
But the man responded in a still more urgent voice, “Charlie, please. Forgive me.” “I’m not Charlie,” repeated Sam, the pastor. “Stay calm now, and we’ll get you to a hospital soon.”
That’s when the man’s breathing changed and his face turned pale and it seemed he might not make it to the hospital. The man whispered once more, “Charlie, I’m begging you. Please forgive me.” It was now clear to the pastor what he must do. He bent over and tightly embraced the dying man and then he said in his ear, “You’re forgiven. You’re forgiven.” The man heard these words and his breathing slowed. Then it stopped, and he was gone.
The next day this minister, Sam, was still understandably distressed by what had happened. In particular, he was conflicted about his words to the dying man. What right had he to speak a word of forgiveness on behalf of the man’s son? The son was not there. Father and son were still estranged. What right had he, a stranger, to speak words of forgiveness when father and son were not reconciled? Then it came to him that his entire ministry — indeed the ministry to which we are all called, the whole of Christian life, the gospel itself — is like those words he spoke to the dying man. We are always living in a broken present, and trying to speak to one another the promise of the gifts of God. The gospel is a word from God, echoing through human voices, anticipating here-and-now a future yet to come. (5) Like those words from Jesus himself, “Father, forgive them.”
Those words of forgiveness echoed out from the cross, taking form in human lives. We see it in Acts, as Luke tells the story of the birth of the church after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was on trial and eventually sentenced to death, and as people set upon stoning him, he was somehow able to say, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them,” which sounds a whole lot like “Father, forgive them, they know now what they do.”
Nearby a young Pharisee was standing watch and holding the coats. He heard these remarkable words of forgiveness, and I wonder if they might have passed through his mind when, sometime later, he was struck blind on the Damascus Road and God’s servant Ananias called him “Brother” and helped him to see again. Eyes opened. Name changed. Grace extended. Forgiveness experienced.
And then with all he had seen and heard and experienced of the forgiveness of Christ and Christ’s people, that apostle, Paul, went on to pen words to the church at Colossians some years later: “If anyone has wronged you, forgive one another… forgive one another, just as Christ has forgiven you.”
- Gary Thomas, “The Forgiveness Factor” in Christianity Today(January 10, 2000)
- Donald Shriver, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics(New York: Oxford UP, 1995)
- Walter Brueggemann, To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly(New York: Paulist Press, 1986)
- Shriver, An Ethic for Enemies
- Tom Long, “To Err is Human, to forgive…” in Christian Reflection: Forgiveness(2001).