From my discussions with a number of Japanese students during English class, one of the things that most impressed them about Christianity was on its emphasis on forgiveness. A common phrase I would hear in various places of Japanese culture was “Zettai Yurusanai!”, which means, “I refuse to forgive!” But what ran both counter-cultural to their perspective, AND impressed them, was the notion of vicarious suffering (on behalf of others) combined with complete forgiveness, which is found in Christ on the Cross! Though many aspects of Christianity seem very foreign to them, such as “the Son of God dying in our place”, other parts definitely engender a certain awe and respect, such as Jesus Christ praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Perhaps there are few doctrines more antithetical to the Muslim mindset as well! Forgiveness does not come “naturally”!
An Asian Christian apologist says, “If I am asked what separates Christianity from other religions, or what’s different about Christianity, aren’t all religions the same when you get down to it?’, one of the first things that I would say is bound up in this one beautiful word: forgiveness.” The Russian writer, Solzhenitsyn, believed this forgiveness is what truly makes us different from animals. Only humans can perform that most unnatural act of forgiveness that transcends the relentless law of nature.
I’ve heard it said, “We are no more like our Master than when we forgive.” Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother who sins against him. He thinks he is magnanimous and suggests seven times! Jesus makes his famous reply, “…not seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22). Jesus then shares a parable about a man who, after much pleading for mercy, was forgiven for much and yet would not forgive another person who owed him little. In the parable, the master throws the man into jail until he pays back his large debt. Then comes the conclusion: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
The prayer Jesus taught us to pray to our Heavenly Father included, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”. (Matthew 6:12) Author Philip Yancey gives a pragmatic reason why we must forgive that seems very foundational: “forgiveness alone can stop the cycle of blame, pain as well as vengeance and violence. The meaning of the New Testament word “forgiveness,” is literally “to release, to hurl away, to free yourself.”
Forgiveness is NOT forgetting. Deep hurts may not easily be wiped out of one’s awareness. Forgiveness is NOT reconciliation. Reconciliation takes two persons, but an injured party can forgive an offender without reconciliation. Forgiveness is NOT condoning. Forgiveness does not necessarily excuse bad or hurtful behavior. Forgiveness is NOT dismissing. It involves taking the offense seriously, not passing it off as inconsequential or insignificant. Forgiveness is NOT a vague notion of ‘tolerance’, nor is it a way of sweeping the real issues in life under the carpet. Forgiveness is NOT pardoning. A pardon is a legal transaction that releases an offender from the consequences of an action, such as a penalty. True, godly forgiveness IS entrusting that person/offense over to God, and letting Him take control, therefore releasing the one offended, from the offense!
Throughout the Old Testament we read that only God can forgive sins. We hear David exclaim, “He forgives all my sins…” (Psalm 103:3). 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.” I believe it is also true that we can only forgive severe offenses, when we recognize that Christ has supernaturally forgiven our worst offenses and took our punishment upon the cross! HE gives us the strength to do it too!
On January 22, 1999, 58-year-old Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burned to death when the vehicle they were sleeping in was doused with gasoline and set on fire, allegedly by members of a Hindu fundamentalist group, in the Indian state of Orissa. Graham Staines had been working with leprosy patients for thirty-four years.
Hundreds of millions witnessed Gladys Staines, Graham Staines’ widow, forgive her family’s murderers in the name of the gospel on Indian television—a scene which moved many to tears “and may have achieved more for the gospel in India than many years of missionary work,” according to an Indian evangelist. Describing her prompt forgiveness of the killers as a “spontaneous act,” Gladys Staines says, “it took away the bitterness” that otherwise would have remained in her heart. Since the incident she has people coming to her door asking how they can become Christians.
The imagery she used was also powerful. “Let us burn hatred…and spread the flame of Christ’s love.”
A Spanish father and son were estranged. The father later went to search for his son. When he could not find him, the father put this ad in the Madrid newspaper: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.” Saturday noon, 800 “Pacos” showed up at the office looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers. Need I say more?