JOPLIN, Mo. —
To say that forgiving is an art is to say there are standards to be met and insight to be had if we want to learn how to forgive. Forgiving is never easy, although easy is what we want. Just take a gander at all the television commercials about how quick and easy it is to exercise, lose weight, get a degree, find God’s choice for a mate, and make a fortune while you’re at it. We don’t want to have to work things out, to think things through, or to climb out of confusion.
Because of its difficulty, Jesus was asked if we should forgive up to seven times. Because of its importance, Jesus answered seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22).
To fully grasp the idea of forgiveness, one must be clear about what forgiveness is not. Through the process of elimination, we can then weed out what simulates forgiveness, but which in reality is only a cheap imitation. These simulations might be nice, but they are not forgiveness. They do not get the job done.
Consider, for instance, the decision to forget rather than forgive. When we are wronged and hurt, we want to hurry up and forget rather than slow down and forgive. Besides, forgiving involves the messy work of confronting someone and actually talking openly about our pain.
Remember this about forgetting: there are two degrees of hurt we tend to want to forget. One is the hurt that is so trivial it heals itself. At this point, forgetting might be desirable. The other is the hurt inflicted by our being severely wronged and is too horrible for our minds to manage. This pain can be processed only through forgiveness.
A final thought about forgetting. There are instances when I have been wronged, I have forgiven, and the pain is gone, but the experience is remembered. Does this mean I have not forgiven? I think not. Forgiving means that the wrong done to me in the past does not come into play in the present. Though the event is remembered, there are no residual feelings. That is the wonder of forgiveness.
Another substitute for forgiving is excusing. Excusing is the opposite of forgiving. We correctly excuse people when they are not to blame. I might be deeply hurt, but the fact that I have been hurt does not automatically mean that I have been wronged.
During my high school years, I landed a summer job clearing rights-of-way for the Rural Electric Association of Mississippi. Two weeks into the job, I was fired. Shocked, embarrassed and very hurt, I faced the rest of the summer in total disarray.
Was I wronged? No. The foreman was doing his job because I could not do mine. He was to be excused, not forgiven, for the unavoidable pain and embarrassment resulting from the need to correct a mistake. I was a boy playing in a man’s world, and I got hurt. There was nothing to forgive there.
Underserved excusing, however, is a replacement for the hard work of forgiving and is a different matter. Nothing good can result from it. Excusing someone when they wronged you may be nice, and it is certainly easier, but it is a very poor substitute for forgiving. No one is better when underserved excusing replaces forgiving.
I have hurt people who forgot, excused or forgave my behavior. I have forgotten, excused or forgiven others who have wronged me. From my experience, forgiving is worth doing seventy times seven.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.