Dr. Thomas Long, a former professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology, said he was standing at the circulation desk of the seminary library when a professor friend approached. His friend was carrying a large number of books. Watching him struggle under the load, Dr. Long asked him what he was doing, teasing him a bit in the process.
“What’s the pastoral counselor doing with all those heavy books?
Undeterred, his friend quickly answered, “I’m doing some research on forgiveness.”
Dr. Long was surprised and puzzled. “Research on forgiveness?” he asked. “What are you trying to find out?”
The friend thought for a moment and then replied, “I guess I’m trying to find out if forgiveness really exists or not. You know, I see so little evidence of it in my work.”
If forgiveness really exists? That pastoral counselor’s remarks stagger us a bit.
But back to Dr. Long. He points out that here was a pastoral counselor, someone who ought to know, someone who even works to enhance forgiveness, wondering if forgiveness actually exists.
Forgiveness is often missing. There is a sign in a bank that says, “To Err is human, to Forgive is not our policy.” Well, for many people that’s true. It’s simply not their policy to forgive.
Truthfully, when we look at the sum total of human experience, we have to admit that there isn’t a whole lot of evidence to be found for forgiveness. And that’s true of all levels of human society — international, national, local, personal.
I’m particularly thinking of the nightly news report or what could better be called the “nightly crime report.” How many shootings are the result of arguments out of control, where forgiveness was missing. How many homes are being destroyed by domestic violence because forgiveness was not considered. And how much of our nation’s division and discord can be credited to a lack of forgiveness.
To be sure, I’m not talking about God’s forgiveness being missing. God is always ready to forgive. The writer of First John declares, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (I John 19).
But I am saying that human forgiveness is rare.
Forgiveness is the heartbeat of faith. The late Bible scholar David Noel Freedman could recite obscure chapters of the Old Testament from memory — in Hebrew. It is reported that he lived with one foot planted in Judaism and the other foot planted in Christianity. His life had been immersed in the study of scripture. When asked if all he had learned could be summed up in one sentence, momentarily, he answered, “There is forgiveness.”
The forgiveness that runs through scripture moves in two directions — vertically and horizontally. And for people of faith, these two monuments are necessarily interrelated. My own ability to forgive is made possible by God’s forgiveness of me. And the same is true of you.
Forgiveness is actually a gift to ourselves. Certainly, forgiveness is a gift to others, but it is also a gift to ourselves. We give ourselves the gift of resolution and even peace when we forgive another. Forgiveness alone can break the chain of ungrace both in others and in ourselves.
Nelson Mandela taught the world a lesson in grace and forgiveness when emerging from prison after 27 years and being elected president of South Africa he asked his jailer to join him on the inauguration platform.
Forgiveness is not necessarily forgetting. All too often we tend to overuse the phrase, “forgive and forget.” But, as Christians, our biblical faith is grounded in remembrance. Thus, we are not called “to forgive and forget,” but rather to “remember and forgive.”
Once, President Abraham Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious Southerners when they had finally been defeated and returned to the union of the United States. The questioner expected that Lincoln would take a dire vengeance but he answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”
It’s not “forgive and forget” but rather, “remember and forgive.”
Lastly, forgiveness always takes the initiative. Forgiveness is loving somebody more than the hurt they’ve done to us. Forgiveness is no strings attached. Forgiveness is a restored relationship. And it is all possible through the Divine Spirit living in us.
The Rev. Hal Brady is an ordained United Methodist minister and executive director of Hal Brady Ministries, based in Atlanta. You can watch him preach every week on the Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters TV channel Thursdays at 8 p.m.