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What does forgiveness mean5 min read

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Recently, I have been bombarded by the concept of forgiveness. Last night, I was flipping through the channels and absolutely nothing was on television. Not having cable, but having HDTV, I found myself over on the HD channels of PBS. One was showing a documentary on forgiveness, which grabbed my attention.

I was mesmerized by the heart-wrenching stories of hurt and loss, which somehow bloomed into inspiring tales of forgiveness. You saw the Amish forgive the school shooter. Victims of 9/11 extended love to those who hated them. Black pastors spoke of forgiving the white oppressors who beat them, sometimes in the very name of the God they both worshipped. Two men became best friends after one’s grandson killed the other’s son. A professor who scientifically studied the benefits of forgiveness was forced to examine those benefits when his mother’s killer was never charged with her murder.

Forgiveness may be the most appreciated, yet least offered virtue in our society. This is even (or possible especially) true of Christians, who claim to know personally what true forgiveness is all about.

The Anchoress shares two recent stories of forgiveness – creating friendship and healing out of tragedy.

Philip, at the Thinklings, details a story of the murdered matriarch of a prominent San Antonio family. The Barrios’ not only forgave the murderer, they offered to pay for his defense. He was told that he could not do that because of “conflict of interest,” but the story is causing many to ponder the concept of forgiveness.

Her son was interviewed on a local talk radio station. He explained that he was following the teachings of Jesus: loving his enemies and forgiving others. The radio host, like most people would, responded: “Jesus is my Lord and Savior too, but all I would want is five minutes alone with the guy.” To which the son eloquently and simply responded, “Yeah, but you’d be doing it to Jesus.”

Because the idea of true forgiveness is foreign to humanity, even those of us who claim to have experienced the ultimate forgiveness, the comments and reaction at the Thinklings prompted a follow-up post entitled: Forgiveness Always a Scandal. Believers were attacking the Barrios family for their forgiveness, even impugning their motives. It was sad to see.

I know the faith traditions of some leave them more prone to forgiveness. Commenter Keith is from one. The Amish, as was evidenced recently, also grasp the idea. I’m not that lucky.

I remember teaching Sunday School the Sunday after 9/11. I remember saying that although we may not want to, we have to forgive our enemies. We have to forgive those that attack us. But I didn’t lose someone in those buildings. My wife didn’t fall screaming through the sky in the midst of debris and thick, gray dust.

In watching the forgiveness documentary, I was most struck by the 9/11 victims they featured – two mothers and a wife. They were quick to forgive the terrorist and the actual murderers of their loved ones. But they held on to what bordered on seething hatred for their own government at their treatment of the remains at the Twin Towers. They had not actually accomplished forgiveness, they had simply moved from one focus to another.

It’s not that I blame them. I understand both the need to have someone to blame, someone with which to be angry, but yet still feel as if you have moved on in forgiveness. I have not experienced their pain and loss, so I can make no claims of how I would respond.

Forgiveness in a Christian sense is difficult to pin down, for me at least. We should extend grace and forgiveness, but we must also understand that justice must take place and sometimes actions result in consequences.

I find the dichotomy of forgiveness and grace with capital punishment and war to be a difficult paradox to grasp. I do think all are legitimate parts of this world. I think much of the directives for forgiveness and grace are specific toward the individual, while the power to hand out capital punishment and begin wars lie with the government. But that does not completely diminish the difficulty of balancing those seemingly contradictory concepts.

Above all else, Christians should be characterized by forgiveness. We should err on the side of grace. Too often we run toward justice, while only giving an occasional glance back at mercy.

Unfortunately, forgiveness cannot be learned fully in the abstract form of a concept or an ideal. It is learned in reality. It is known through being forgiven and forgiving others. Regardless of how difficult the lessons may be, followers of Christ should always be ready to display forgiveness to those who need it. The One who forgave us deserves nothing less.