While on vacation I read two books entitled, “Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven” and “Living Gently in a Violent World” by Gregory Jones and Celestine Musekura and Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier respectively. These books were written by a pair of authors one an academic and the other a practitioner. I will share some insights from “Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven” by Gregory Jones and Celestin Musekura towards the end of my message. Musekura is Rwandese whose family members and members of a congregation he had pastored were killed in the Rwandan Genocide. He tells stories of horror as well as the hope and the healing that happens when people and communities embrace the call of forgiveness.
At a philosophical level, Christians know that the Scriptures command us to forgive. But when the term forgiveness is mentioned, like all human beings memories of unkind, horrible things that were done either to us or to our loved ones flood our minds. We remember the abuse, the insult, the false accusations or testimonies that ruined our chances of a better career, the betrayal in a relationship that ended a marriage, the loss we incurred at the hand of someone etc. Gregory Jones put it even better, “We are ambassadors for Christ. This is our gift and our task. But it is also an incredible challenge in a world of Genocide, chair-tossing and hidden bitterness. How do we live into God’s vision of “all things reconciled”? How do we embody forgiveness in our lives and in the world”? (pg. 38).
To begin, let us hear two voices from the New Testament. Jesus taught his disciples to pray thus, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:12,14-15).
Dr. Tom Wright puts it this way, “Forgiveness is more like the air in your lungs. There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly. Whatever the spiritual, moral and emotional equivalent of the lungs may be, it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will also be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness. But if it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other” (Wright p. 39-40).
And now let us listen to Apostle Paul. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:17-20).
Before we understand fully Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian community and by extension us to live as ambassadors of reconciliation, let us look at verse 14 and 15. According to Paul, Christian believers are united with Christ; his love controls us, and it leaves us no choice and nothing can separate us from that love (Rom. 8:35). We therefore no longer live for our selves, relating with others on the basis of how they have wounded us, but rather we must allow Christ’s love to flow in those wounds. Isaiah tells us, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:4-5).
This love engulfs us; it compels us to act, to give life and to choose life rather than despair, which leads to violence and destruction. This way of life is so foreign to the world of vindication and vendettas that we live in. When we walk in forgiveness we appear strange. Paul realized that and hence his admonition for the Corinthian believers to recognize that a brand new reality has come forth and with it a new way of life. With newness come a lot of new things. We have to learn to speak differently, see differently, and operate from a new set of values and ideals. We must now see through the transformed eyes of the good news of the gospel. The old corruptible ways of living must be abandoned and a new way of living empowered by Christ’s love embraced.
However, the steps towards forgiveness are not always easy to take because of the obstacles on the path that we have mentioned already. We live in a world of vindication. Gregory Jones says that in the spirit of our age, “we have both cheapened forgiveness to a therapeutic absolution of guilt and made forgiveness too little and too much.” This stands in contrast to the biblical call for transformed lives and restored relationships. The steps towards forgiveness require an ongoing willingness to embrace the new claim that has been made on us, to speak with a new truthfulness and to live in a new way with one another. It is the opposite of cheap grace and costly despair. Therefore this new life in Christ and the way of seeing other people leads us to being ambassadors for Christ who embodies the new creation in the world.
Paul admonishes us that in light of our new life in Christ, we can no longer regard people or even Christ as we used to before, we are a new reconciled people who loves Christ and empowered by him, serves as his ambassadors of forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us look at the Six steps that Gregory Jones proposes to help us on the journey of forgiveness:
Six Steps Towards Forgiveness:
1. Truth Telling: Being willing to speak truthfully and patiently about the conflicts that have arisen. Take time to talk about the events that occurred. It takes courage to actually go to the other. When this happens, the one taking the step should do so prayerfully and with humility. The person taking this initiative should be prepared for a counter-accusation from the other person and be open to the fact that there might be more to the situation than previously thought that might need acknowledgement from him/her as well. We should however note that it is not always the case that both parties have equal responsibility in the conflict, but going to the situation with open mind might be helpful.
2. Acknowledge Anger: Acknowledge both the existence of anger and bitterness, and a desire to overcome them. I came from a culture where anger was allowed for some and not for others. It was acceptable for men to be openly angry and express their anger at times in unhealthy ways while women and children were not allowed to do the same. I continue to struggle over the effects of these cultural conditioning personally. Cultivate practices that transform hatred into love such as praying for the offender.
3. Concern for the Other: Consider the other a child of God and be concerned for his/her well being
4. Recognize, Remember, Repent: Recognize our own complicity in conflict, remember that we have been forgiven in the past and take the step of repentance. Repentance breaks the cycle of violence and creates space for God to do something new.
5. Commitment to Change: Make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused and continues to perpetuate the conflict. Forgiveness looks forward to the restoration of community.
6. Hope for the Future: Confess your yarning for the possibility of reconciliation.