Mercury-Register February 22

Published in Oroville Mercury-Register February 22, 2014

“Why Forgive?”

Thirty years ago there was one of those moments when forgiveness captured the headlines. I remember standing in the check-out line at the supermarket when I saw the cover of Time magazine. It was the January 9, 1984 issue – I still have the clipping from it. In the picture on the cover, two men who had every reason to hate each other, embraced in a moment of forgiveness. The place was the Rabibbia prison in Rome where Pope John Paul II had gone to personally offer forgiveness to his would-be assassin, Ali Agca. Across the top of the picture of the Pope and Ali Agca embracing was a banner headline with the question: “Why Forgive?”

I was startled to see that question trumpeted across the front of Time magazine. What an amazing headline for a news magazine! Why forgive, indeed? What place does forgiveness have in our world?

What tragically seems natural or normal for many people in our world is not forgiveness but revenge. In Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, we read the story of a wronged man working exquisite revenge on the four men who framed him. Such a story appeals to our sense of justice. We applaud the movie character who gets even with his enemies. Grudges, feuds, retribution, payback, getting even – that’s the standard for many. When someone hurts or offends us, we don’t forget about it. I remember someone who used to say – “I don’t get mad, I get even.”

There’s a certain satisfaction we get in seeing those we don’t like or those who have hurt us get their just rewards. There’s a word for that now. It’s borrowed from the German language – schadenfruede. That’s the feeling of pleasure you get when something bad happens to someone you don’t like. Schadenfruede is that feeling of gratification you have when someone who’s wronged you gets what’s coming to them.

The British theologian, Tom Wright, makes the following statement in one of his books: “If I find myself wanting to see someone else in torment, I am plucking from the tree a fruit which is sweet for a moment but bitter for an hour, and which will poison me unless I repent.”

We may think revenge is sweet, but it’s not. It’s bitter and poisonous. It creates a cycle of destruction and despair. An unforgiving attitude is like acid – it will eat us up inside. To refuse to forgive means that we choose to internalize hate and bitterness and resentment. And it always finds its way back out again – usually against people for whom we never meant it. To be released from that vicious circle is a gift from God.

Radical forgiveness was central to the message of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded us to forgive our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Perhaps we thought Jesus was only speaking metaphorically. But on the cross Jesus dared to pray for his worst enemies. They didn’t ask for forgiveness. There was no confession or repentance. It was a preemptive forgiveness. The first word from the cross is not to the executioners or the taunting crowd, but to God, and it is a prayer for forgiveness – “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” If we are looking for the essential meaning of the cross, it is here in this prayer – forgiveness.

How can we embrace the power of forgiveness? You’ve no doubt heard the expression – forgive and forget. A friend of Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, once reminded her of an especially cruel thing that someone had done to her years before. But Miss Barton seemed not to recall it. “Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked. “No,” she replied, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.”

What the Bible teaches us is that the true power of forgiveness lies not in forgetting, but in remembering. What we are to remember is not the wrongs that others have done to us but rather the forgiveness we have received through Jesus Christ.

Why forgive? – because we know that the only way we can fully comprehend our own forgiveness is to see it inseparably related to our forgiving others. Why forgive? – because to forgive means to be at peace with God and with yourself.

Rev. Dr. Stan Henderson is the Pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Oroville

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