The act of forgiving is a breaking. And a healing.
It still surprises me when someone hurts me.
Yes, in my head I know nobody's perfect — that we're all sinners. But deep inside I'm still an ingenuous child with perfect faith in human nature. I believe in the world of Disney musicals, where everyone is either good or bad, where the sun shines and we all sing and dance together.
And then something happens: a word, an action, something that hurts. On my own with my pain I face reality and wrestle with it.
My prayers then come out of a deep place, with my hands shaking, emotions rolling, crying out the words against every natural inclination: "God, I forgive, I forgive, I forgive! Help me forgive." Forgiveness is one of the most painful things any of us will ever face. At exactly the same time, it will mark us as God's in a way that nothing else can.
Two men represent forgiveness for me, both in the Bible. Joseph was 17 years old, spoiled, and eager to be recognized by his half-brothers, all of whom had been alienated by the overt favoritism shown him by his father. He followed them out of town one day, and when they saw him coming they jumped him, tore every mark of his father's love away from him, and threw him into a pit to die. The next morning, moved by greed and fear, they changed their original plan and sold Joseph into slavery.
He's not the only young man in history to be violently rejected by those whose love he desired. Jesus was 33 when one of his best friends sent Him to the executioner with a kiss on the cheek; when His countrymen shouted down any suggestion that mercy be shown Him; when people He'd spent His life helping nailed Him to a piece of wood and stood by laughing while He died. He suffered terribly at the hands of others.
He wasn't the first, and He wasn't the last.
Chances are you know a little about pain yourself. To be human is to be wounded. And through all the hurt comes the inexorable call of God, most terrible of all His commandments — forgive. We must forgive. God leaves us no option.
The old saying goes that "to forgive is divine." Certainly nothing could be further from the natural human way of doing things. We discover a wound in our souls and immediately want to heal it our own way. We erect walls around it in a bid to make ourselves whole. We take revenge so we won't have to feel weak. We mumble, "I forgive you," but refuse to extend our hands in love, open our hearts to fellowship ... or forget.
In stark contrast, God calls His people to handle brokenness by becoming more broken.
A friend once said to me, "I don't think there can be true forgiveness without an embrace." His words brought to mind the old story Jesus once told about a father with a pig of a son (read Luke 15). He waited in the road every day, hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of his boy coming home. And when that welcome silhouette finally appeared on the horizon, his father went running out to meet him: caught him, kissed him, embraced him, and celebrated his return — and the son hadn't even managed to get his apology out.
Every act of forgiveness is distinctly Christ-like, for nothing goes more against the human instinct for self-preservation. For us to kiss those who crucify us requires brokenness — not on their part, but on ours. God calls us to echo in our own lives the attitude displayed by Christ as He looked down from the cross at the mocking faces of his murderous brethren and said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
The Old Testament story of Joseph takes us through the same journey of betrayal and forgiveness. It begins with a teenage boy sold into slavery by his brothers. It ends with the same Joseph weeping tears of love over them. Joseph knew it would break him to forgive his brothers. He embraced them anyway. His words to them, choked out through tears, stand as a memorial of the power of love:
"Come close to me," Joseph said. "Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you."
Genesis 45 records that, having said this, Joseph "kissed all his brethren and wept over them." Every wall Joseph had ever erected to keep himself safe shattered and fell to the floor, finished by the power of forgiveness. He let go of his fear, of his pride, of his self-sufficiency. He was willing to be broken.
Joseph's open arms and tear-filled eyes reflect the heart of God toward us. God is love, and in love there is brokenness — no pride, no vengeance. Love would rather suffer for the sinner than see the sinner suffer. God forgives the way Joseph did, pleading with those who wronged him not to suffer any more over what they had done.
Forgiveness is not passive. It is a deliberate act of "overcoming evil with good." Jesus once admonished his followers to love their enemies, bless those who cursed them, do good to those who hated them, and pray for those who persecuted them (see Matthew 5). The gospel is the story of the brokenness of God, as He actively pours love on those who have rejected Him. At the heart of all we believe is a Man who holds out nail-scarred hands to His murderers and says, "Come close to me."
Forgiveness is no easy thing. When we have been wronged, we are already hurting. We can't forgive without letting down our pride and anger; without making ourselves more vulnerable. We must let sorrow flood in and humility do its uncomfortable work. We must allow God to break our hearts so that we can kiss those who wound us and weep before them. Forgiveness is not easy, but it is God-like. In our journey to become like our Father, it is of inestimable worth.
Jesus' horror story ended with the Resurrection. Joseph's ended with reconciliation and one final speech. "What you intended for evil," he said, "God intended for good." In the end, we cannot forgive unless we're willing to trust God and believe that this story is bigger than we are. Jesus declared that the road to life was through death. Faced with our own need, we can only throw our heads back, look to our Father, and cry, "Forgive us, as we forgive. Let us be broken, O Lord, and make us whole again."
Copyright 2008 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.