There are two ways to understand forgiveness. The first focuses on it as a law that calls on us to repress our natural human instincts in order to do what God wants. It usually ends up either dividing people between those who obey and those who do not. Or, it promotes confession of sin over and over again without any intention of changing our lifestyle. When we turn religious teachings into laws, Jesus’ call to forgive as we are forgiven becomes a difficult commandment; a demand made upon us.
A second way is to see forgiveness as a guideline to a healthy lifestyle. Religious teachings show the way to the good life. God’s Word actually is good news that promises blessing if we have the sense to practice what is taught. If we forgive, we shall find ourselves in a satisfying relationship with God and other people.
Martin Luther King writes of the need for this second way of forgiveness: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate… Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
King believes forgiveness is healthy, because “hate sears the soul and distorts the personality. Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true…Forgiveness is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt. The evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. The evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship.”
The Bible presents this second way of forgiveness as the critical factor in salvation. When God tries to overcome the violence that characterizes humans in the first chapters of Genesis, he finds that his own use of violence does not work. He lays down his weapon, his bow, and begins the history of salvation that involves never again using his great power but rather practicing forgiveness and love.
Of course, we can find parts of the Bible that would seem to picture God using vengeance, punishment, or just fairness (an eye for an eye); but we should acknowledge the scriptures culminate with Jesus calling us to imitate God by going beyond an eye for an eye to forgiveness, even forgiveness of our enemies.
Most of us agree modern society is far from using forgiveness as a way to restore healthy relationships with either individuals or nations. We remain primitives who think our survival depends on doing unto others what they have done to us; and even worse doing it unto them before they do it to us. Perhaps it is time to really listen when Christ calls us to be merciful as the Father is merciful, to turn things around, to make enemies into friends, and finally to live according to the love by which God made this world.