Forgiveness is a fundamental concept in Christianity. It is not only central to our relationship with Christ, but also in our relationship with others. The Scriptures are clear we are to forgive the transgressions of others (Matthew 6:14-15) and to put away any bitterness or anger (Ephesians 4:31-32) we have toward them. Yet, forgiveness of those who have wronged us is one of the most difficult challenges we face.
Typically our lives are replete with tales of wrongs we have experienced. We might not remember our best days, but we can vividly recall the pain and hurt that someone caused years ago–perhaps a marriage or relationship that has gone sour, harsh words between friends or far too often deep division among family members. I can certainly relate to each of these. These transgressions stay with us and the scars incurred because of them can make it difficult to forgive much less forget.
When we think of forgiveness it is often in the context of forgiving ourselves (a topic for another time) or forgiving the transgression of another person–a spouse, work colleague, family member or even a total stranger. Because of the perceived wrong, we develop anger or resentment towards the wrongdoer. We may even come to believe that our forgiveness is conditioned on them understanding that they have wronged us. We look to see if they are sorry or feel guilty about the transgression. We may even ask that they pay a price or make-up for their mistake with some deed.
This person to person view of forgiveness while common can lead to unwanted complications. What happens if the person does not recognize or refuses to admit their transgression? What if they are not sorry? Do we hold on to the resentment and anger until they come around?
It’s important to remember that when our forgiveness is dependent upon another, so is our fulfillment. Forgiveness (and fulfillment) is not earned–it is a gift, not to the other person but to yourself and, even more fundamentally, to God. Forgiveness then ultimately is not between us and our transgressors but between us and God. To illustrate this point, recall the story of Joesph and his brothers.
Joseph is sold into bondage by his jealous brothers only to rise to power in Egypt and subsequently is in a position to help his family when they need it. It’s a story of betrayal and triumph and is often cited as the premier story of forgiveness. Yet, curiously the word forgiveness is never mentioned. It is difficult to say why, but perhaps because it’s not a story of forgiveness among brothers but rather a story of remaining in tune with God.
The key to Joseph’s forgiveness was his conscious choice to remain focused on God. Joesph understood three things: (1) God had a bigger plan for him and for his family; (2) he was in God’s favor; and (3) it was God’s responsibility to deal with his brothers’ transgression. Joseph’s forgiveness (and therefore fulfillment) was not predicated on his brothers actions, but on his relationship with God.
By focusing our attention on God rather than our transgressors, we can avoid the complications of relying on others as a condition of forgiveness. Moreover, our anger, disappointment and pain will dissipate much faster through God than through our earthly relations. We can’t avoid pain in life caused by others, but we can free our pain when we remember the lesson of Joesph: when it’s time to forgive, it’s time to focus!