One of the greatest killers of community is unforgiveness.
There can be a myriad of reasons we may harbour unforgiveness against someone, from minor things like “he didn’t put the toilet seat down again,” to the horrific like the continued Boko Haram atrocities, the Charleston church shooting, or Guido Amsel sending bombs to his ex-wife and their lawyers here in Winnipeg .
In church settings the effects of unforgiveness always lead to disunity; fellowship is broken, and I’ve heard of people going to the same church for decades and never speaking to each other. This is very sad, and extremely contrary to the way of Jesus, who at the end of His life prayed for our unity (John 17).
And while forgiveness doesn’t negate consequences (a forgiven murderer still goes to jail, a forgiven slanderer still needs to recant their words), we know that repentance or the lack thereof is not dependent on us forgiving. This makes it one of the hardest things we can do; and also, one of the most Christ-like. As I know only too well, the act of ‘dying to self’ is greatly needed in order to forgive sometimes.
But because we have been forgiven by God, God expects us to in turn give that same grace to others. Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14-15 sound harsh to our ears: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins,” but there’s really no way to understand these words except at face-value (this is not to say that we earn God’s forgiveness by works of our own forgiveness of others, but shows the seriousness with which God expects us to love others the way He loves us (see Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18)).
Often forgiving someone is not enough to restore unity, however. At least not the way we practice forgiveness today (a shallow, un-christ-like type of forgiveness which says the perpetrator is forgiven, but will never be trusted/spoken to/loved again). This is why Miroslav Volf, in his “Exclusion & Embrace“, talks about the need to forget, or “nonremembering,” in order to forgive in such a way that unity and relationship can be fully restored. This nonremembering properly takes place after “perpetrators have been named, judged, and (hopefully) transformed” (131), and after the victims are safe and have healed/mourned. For without it “as long as it is remembered, the past is not just the past; it remains an aspect of the present. A remembered wound is an experienced wound” (133). This forgetting is not a complete obliteration of the memories, which is frankly impossible, but a sort of “backgrounding” of the memory that allows us to move beyond the offense and pain of it. Volf says that this is the final, and most difficult part, of reconciliation (131).
This week, before next Sunday, examine your heart and see if you are holding any unforgiveness or bitterness towards anyone in your community; and if you are determine to forgive them in the strength of God’s forgiveness given to you. And keep forgiving them for as long as you need to in order to “forget.” It will be difficult, but it will be more worth it than you can imagine beforehand.