2015 was a hard year on humanity. From shootings, explosions and terrorist attacks globally to the reprisal killing of innocent children, acts of murder and suicide committed by lovers locally, among other untimely vicious deaths, Jamaica and much of the earth may still be wailing and heaving at the atrocities that seem to have run unabated on humanity’s increasingly fragile psyche. If any sin were unforgivable, perhaps it would be murder. A promise by the authorities to hunt down justice for the bereaved doesn’t quite help; doesn’t fill the gaping hole; doesn’t silence the voices crying out from the earth for Justice to the Almighty, a principle to which the Bible alludes when the innocent are slain.
And yet occurrences of murder are only part of the grimacing heartaches of 2015. Abuse, infidelity and abandonment are a few of the emotional bullets still burrowing broken hearts. Those victims too want justice. Many people believe that God will judge the actions of others and that His good justice will prevail but how do we all continue to live in the interim? Surely, if we want a life of peace and happiness, victims must choose the road of faith and forgiveness and offenders must choose the road of repentance.
Forgiveness and Repentance
With all the promises of healing and restoration that the word promises, forgiveness may be the most difficult of human decisions and actions, except with help from God. I believe the saying is true – “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Earlier this year I wrote about the shootings in Charleston and my personal struggle with how persecution because of racism seem to hurt more than persecution because of my Christian faith. Time Magazine did a gripping piece (What it takes to forgive a killer – survivors and families tell their stories) on how the affected families have tried to move on in its November issue. Some family members declared forgiveness within days of the shooting; others honestly asserted that they were not ready, though they understood it to be a requirement for peace. Essentially, the shared understanding was that forgiveness had to happen at some point. Husband of one of the victims noted that forgiveness “is like a Band-Aid that holds the edges of an open wound together long enough for the wound to heal.” (Rev Anthony Thompson). I like his analogy. It’s hard and painful but instructive.
In the case of the cold-blooded murders of the 9 Charleston Christians, the act is gruesome but final and so there is a pause to reflect and process the feelings of hatred and pain. For some persons who struggle in relationships and friendships where they endure abuse – verbal, psychological, emotional and even physical abuse – over and over, it’s a little trickier. They extend forgiveness today and next week the abuser commits the same pulverizing sin. And then the abused may choose to forgive again and again. The Band-Aid can’t hold long enough for the wounds to heal. Same for those enduring infidelity over and over. They may decide to forgive but by now the Band-Aid has fallen off and the wounds are stink and stale; oozing fresh blood. For Reverend Thompson’s analogy of forgiveness to hold, the wrongdoing must stop. God after all requires sinners to repent before they can experience His forgiveness. Sinners aren’t simply forgiven because God is forgiving. Sinners must repent and then, through an act of confession and decision to turn away from the sin, experience the grace of God’s forgiveness.
Indeed those who have committed serious wrongdoings against others should weigh the impact of their actions and then tender a broken, genuine apology. Not an academic linguistic articulation of the words “I’m sorry.” No. They should offer the end result of an honest reckoning that has found and understood the damage levied against another and a deep sincere apology should be laid on the table of repentance. This type of apology doesn’t simply say: “If I hurt you, I am sorry.” This type of apology knows and understands why and how the victim was hurt and then seeks to make amends. This type of apology asks for forgiveness. This type of apology wants to see your heart healed and would not seek to commit the wrongdoing again. If only more persons would apologize in this fashion. If they did, I believe far more people would find it easier forgive. Indeed repentance like forgiveness is God’s work and both are part of how we truly live in community.
Sadly, some may never apologize for the hurts they have caused and victims may never forgive. Nevertheless offenders should still apologize and victims should still choose to forgive and then leave the rest to God. One of the questions that victims often ask is how often should I forgive someone who seems to do the same hurtful things over and over? The Bible seems to say that we should ALWAYS forgive. Mathew 18: 21-22: Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
God is Stricter on Marriage Relationships
This command however seems to apply to friendship and community interactions. God seems to be far stricter when it comes to intimate covenant relationships such as marriage. For example if a husband is harsh or aggressive with his wife, God refuses to hear his prayer. 1 Peter 3:7: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” The offended party in a marriage is still required to forgive but the actions of the abuser are somehow immediately judged. God seems to be saying that He will not tolerate a bully.
Additionally, if a spouse is unfaithful for what appears to be a single time, the affected spouse can choose to walk away from the marriage, even though God’s heart is against divorce. Matthew 5:32 But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. Maybe it is because the harm of adultery is so difficult to repair, but certainly not impossible if both parties are willing to put in the hard work of true repentance and forgiveness.
Unforgiveness and Self-worth
Yet, in spite of the kind of relationship – marriage, familial, friendship or work related, we do well to forgive. God after all tells us to “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4: 32). Why is it easier said than done?
It may be because in holding on to the hurt, we feel we are holding on to our self-respect, our self-value or our dignity that we may feel was so tragically trampled on by another. It is as though, holding on to the hurt is a witness or a testament of the terrible thing that someone did. And so in a way it validates the anger and feelings of hate that the victim may have cozied up with. Holding on to the hurt somehow retells the story of how awful the person was; it keeps the finger pointed at the wrongdoer and says ‘you were wrong, and I am still hurt’; it says “shame on you for doing this bad thing to me, for not valuing me enough to not do that.’ Sadly, none of these addictive ineffectual methods results in validation or healing. True self-worth comes from knowing and experiencing God’s amazing love and healing only really truly begins with repentance and forgiveness. Let’s place our focus on these truths for 2016 and beyond.
Shelly-Ann Harris is the Editorial Director of Family and Faith Magazine and author of the new children’s book We Don’t Hate Mondays Anymore. Check out her blog letsgoupstream.wordpress.com. Send feedback firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with Shelly-Ann on Twitter at @harrisshellyann.