Learning to be the forgiven

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By The Staff

Good news! Thanks to the marvels of modern science we now know that forgiveness is not only good for the soul, but it's good for the body, too.

According to results from a forgiveness study conducted at Stanford University, those who go through "forgiveness interventions" - sessions in which people who have been hurt are encouraged to develop more positive feelings toward their offenders - can improve cardiovascular function, lessen chronic pain, relieve depression, lower blood pressure and improve overall health.

Fred Luskin, director of Stanford University's Forgiveness Projects, believes that forgiveness is a skill that can be taught. He defines forgiveness as "taking less personal offense, reducing anger and the blaming of the offender and developing increased understanding of situations that often lead to feeling hurt and angry."

One of the goals of the Forgiveness Projects is to use forgiveness as a health care protocol. Take two aspirins, get plenty of rest and forgive two people twice a day.

Call me cynical, but I don't think it's that simple.

As psychologist Lewis Smedes once wrote in Christianity Today, "When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself."

I agree that forgiveness results in better health for the forgiver; however, I don't agree that forgiveness can be taught or learned in a classroom setting, a clinical laboratory or on a psychiatrist's couch.

In "The Peaceable Kingdom," United Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, "Our first task is not to forgive, but to learn to be the forgiven."

If I'm holding a grudge against someone, yeah, I need to forgive that person, but I can't unless and until I understand how much I've been forgiven.

That's what I believe.

I also believe that a person can't truly forgive - I'm not talking about forgiving a missed lunch date because you forgot to mark it on your calendar, but the deep, soul-piercing wounds, the damage to your psyche and the destruction of your person caused by another's willful act - without the intervention of God. Without the grace of God. (It always comes back to grace.)

The Bible says we are to forgive just as in Christ we have been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32). However, it's terribly difficult to forgive deep offenses.

I'll even say it's impossible, except that with God all things are possible and nothing is impossible with him.

Therefore, since God has said to forgive and since when he issues a command he also makes a way for us to follow it, then forgiveness is possible.

But how? And what do you do with all the hurt and bitterness and memories? Wave it off like it's no big deal? Sweep it under the rug? Pretend like nothing ever happened? Forgiveness is possible, but it's not easy.

In my church's reformed theological tradition, we say everything is a gift from God, from the air we breathe to our ability to repent. Our very faith is a gift to which we respond.

Likewise, the ability to forgive is also a gift, an act of grace. You can't drum up grace or work for it. You certainly can't deserve it - it just is. God gives it; you receive it.

That's how it is with forgiving those who trespass against us, as it says in the Lord's Prayer. For those great trespasses that are humanly unforgivable, God graces us with the ability to forgive. It can't be any other way; at least that's what I think.

So even though you can't work up the ability to forgive, you can ask God for it. You can even pound on the door of heaven and tell God how much you don't want to forgive the other person, but because it's making your life hell on earth, you want to at least want to - and would he please give you the grace to do it?

God's answer is always to point to the cross as if to say, "You cannot truly forgive until you know how much you have been forgiven."

My lies, my deceit, my laziness, my love for comfort, my turning a blind eye to those in need - my sin list is great, and great the cost of my forgiveness.

I have been forgiven much, and as I continue to "learn to be the forgiven," I also learn to be one who forgives.