Why Forgiveness Is More Complex Than We Imagine

In Luke 6:37, Jesus issues a direct and very clear set of instructions:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

In meditating on this verse, I realize that I interpret it simply as “you should forgive other people since God is so forgiving,” which is far too simplistic of a view.  I suspect most of us miss out on the depth of what we’re being asked here primarily because we rarely dare to ask ourselves a simple question with heavy implications for what it means to forgive others:

What are we really asking for when we ask to be forgiven?

In college, one of my best friends had a crush on a girl who was a part of our campus Christian group.  I found this girl difficult to understand; she was shy and cringing, sometimes behaved in inexplicable ways in public, and while kind, seemed otherwise uninterested in friendly overtures. I didn’t get her, or particularly trust her, though I had no real reason not to do so.  Mostly, I found her weird.  And one night, my best friend called me and told me he was thinking of asking her out.  After dropping that bombshell, he asked me for my opinion of her.

I don’t remember what my response was exactly.  It was truthful, certainly, but hardly lovingly so: I was blunt and unkind.  I told him she was strange and weird and that I didn’t like her at all, and that he could probably do better.  I waited for a response.  And then awkward silence reigned for a few moments before my friend told me that the girl was in his dorm room, listening in to every word of the phone conversation.

The immediate anger I felt over the revelation of her eavesdropping was eclipsed by embarrassment and shame.  Here was a girl I did not know, and whom I had judged only on the basis of a few random social interactions, and whose feelings I had undoubtedly hurt.  I felt awful, and made up my mind immediately to talk to her directly: to confess and acknowledge what I had done, and to ask for her forgiveness.

It was a difficult phone call to make.  Fortunately, she was graceful and understanding, and actually ended up dating my friend and being a guest at my wedding years down the road.  But as I sit here now reflecting on Luke 6:37, I think back to that time and I ask myself what it was I wanted of her when I made that phone call.  What was I asking for when I asked for her forgiveness?

I was asking, certainly, that she would accept my apology for the incident and move on from it.  But I was also asking for other things.  I was asking that she wouldn’t judge my entire identity and life by a thoughtless, careless act.  I was asking her to do her best not to hold a grudge.  I was asking her to let me make amends.  I was asking her to believe I was someone better than what my behavior had made me out to be.  I was asking if we could go on from that point to build a friendship or at least a better understanding of each other.  I was trying, in my own way, to tell her: I’m not like that.  I know what it looks like and I know I hurt you, but I’m really not like that.

In the aforementioned verse, it’s worth noting that the Greek word for condemn –  καταδικάζω – refers to the idea of “passing sentence.”  In other words, we are to refrain from passing sentence on others, from handing down the lifelong consequence of an act that deserves it.  Forgiveness is not just a momentary bestowing of “it’s all right.”  It is not a magic fairy-wand wave that says, “It’s okay, I’m not mad.”  Forgiveness is an act which encompasses much more than that, and we understand that instinctively when we ask for it: we want a chance to prove ourselves, to show we are more than our misbehavior, to not have an act or a series of acts define our identities or others’ perceptions of us.

And I am convicted by this verse because I’m not sure I do extend that depth of forgiveness to others.  I easily pardon wrongs in most cases – I’m a soft touch when it comes to that – but I’m not so sure I refrain from condemning.  I hang on to my mental impressions of people and their potential.  My opinions are shaped by the way others act and then they settle, over time, into concrete ideas about who they are, how they live, and what they can do.

If Ananias had allowed Paul’s sins to define his understanding of Paul as a man, we’d have lost the majority of the New Testament.  If Jesus had not seen more in Peter than His denial, we’d have lost a rock of the church.  Forgiveness is not just a sort of absolution from wrongdoing: it is the recognition in others of the potential they have to be more than they wrong they have done.  By refusing to condemn and to pass sentence on those who have harmed us – by refusing to allow someone’s wrongs to define their life and their role in our lives – we set themselves, and ourselves, free.

It is no less than God has done for us, but contemplating the enormity of it makes His grace all the more staggering.


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