Forgiveness and reconciliation might be two of the most important and most under-utilized practices of the Christian faith. In 2 Corinthians 5:18, Paul points to Jesus as the Great Reconciler who, in reconciling us with God, gives to us, as followers of Christ, the ministry of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a long, and often slow, process. The first step, in order for genuine reconciliation to happen, is forgiveness. Forgiving, however, is frequently mistaken for forgetting. Forgetting the harm done denies the true pain and hurt caused, which makes it easier for the harm to either continue or happen again.
Instead, forgiveness requires acknowledging the harm done. At the beginning of April, we read the story from John 20:19-31 of Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with Thomas. One of the things that always strikes me in this story is that the Resurrected Christ is still wounded from the crucifixion. Christ’s resurrected body is not without blemish. Thomas, in his encounter with Christ, doesn’t deny Jesus’ crucifixion, but instead, recognizing Jesus’ pain is how he recognizes Jesus.
Forgiveness means recognizing the pain and hurt caused and deciding that it will not be the end of the story. It is not always possible to mutually acknowledge harm, so oftentimes forgiveness is one-sided, where the one harmed is burdened with seeking to forgive one who is unwilling to acknowledge the harm they are perpetrating. In this case, sometimes forgiveness means separation. People can do evil things and so forgiveness can mean creating space or separation between oneself and the harm or the person causing it.
Likewise, for those of us who also cause harm, forgiveness can be something we seek, as we acknowledge our wrong and apologize, but ultimately we are not in control and after apologizing are left with trying to do better and trusting that as we confess sins to God, God forgives us all our sins.
Even when harm is mutually acknowledged, it still doesn’t mean that forgiveness will be a walk in the park. Forgiveness is rarely a one-time thing. In fact, Jesus says to forgive others “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Even today I occasionally find myself mad at my sibling for childhood wrongs or at myself for my own mistakes and I need to forgive again.
Perhaps the “seventy-seven times” to forgive is not how often we need to forgive any one person, but instead is specific to each wrong committed, because Jesus knows that it takes up to that many times to really, truly, permanently forgive.
Forgiveness is key for a loving life. It is hard and there never seems to be an end to forgiveness, yet it is also profoundly rewarding. And from forgiveness, comes the potential for reconciliation, for a rejoining of people who have been harmed and have harmed others. With truth and pain acknowledged, forgiveness asked and received, God then creates space for us to start from a new place, journeying together.