Frank Reed, who was a hostage in Lebanon, disclosed that he hadn’t spoken to a fellow hostage for several months because of a minor disagreement. Most of the time these two men who were at odds with each other were chained together and unable to leave each others side.
Philip Yancey in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace gives us a glimpse into the pain of betrayal that makes forgiveness so difficult. He writes, “Leo Tolstoy thought he was getting his marriage off on the right foot when he asked his teenage fiancé to read his diaries, which spelled out in lurid detail all of his sexual dalliances. He wanted to keep no secrets from Sonya, to begin marriage with a clean slate, forgiven. Instead, Tolstoy’s confession sowed the seeds for a marriage that would be held together by vines of hatred, not love. ‘When he kisses me I’m always thinking, I’m not the first woman he has loved,’ wrote Sonya in her own diary. ‘One of these days I shall kill myself with jealousy,’ Sonya wrote after seeing a three-year-old son of a peasant woman, who was the spitting image of her husband.”
Sonya Tolstoy’s jealousy and inability to forgive her husband drove her life for over fifty years and destroyed all love for her husband. She wrote, “He relishes that peasant wench with her strong female body and her sunburnt legs, she allures him just as powerfully now as she did all those years ago.” She wrote those words about a woman in her eighties that had long passed the beauty of her youth.
Forgiveness, as the story of Sonya Tolstoy points out, is not an easy task. When you think about it, forgiveness is only needed because someone has betrayed our trust and hurt us deeply through that betrayal. How easy it is for us to punish others and ourselves over hurts rather than to give forgiveness or ask for forgiveness. Yet Jesus calls for us to forgive those people who have hurt us and inflicted pain into our lives.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It is interesting that we all cry out for forgiveness from the Father for our sins, but so often forget that God reminds us of our need to forgive others. In Matthew 18 is found the story of the unjust servant that had his debt forgiven by the King even though he owed the King a large amount of money. The forgiven servant then went and had his fellow servant thrown into jail because he couldn’t repay a small debt. When the King found out about it, he threw the unforgiving servant in jail. I think the moral of that story is that those of us who have had our hearts touched by the grace of God will rejoice in the wonder of the miracle of being forgiven. The result of understanding how undeserving we are to receive this free gift of reconciliation with God will lead us to realize how petty many of our grievances are in regards to quarrels with family and friends. If God can forgive me for placing His son on the cross, how much easier should it be for me to ask forgiveness or give forgiveness of others?
Again, I am indebted to Philip Yancey for this quote from Henri Nouwen, “I have often said, ‘I forgive you,’ but even as I said these words my heart remained angry or resentful. I still wanted to hear the story that tells me that I was right after all; I still wanted to have apologies and excuses; I still wanted the satisfaction of receiving some praise in return- if only the praise for being so forgiving! But God’s forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that does not demand anything for itself, a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking. It is this divine forgiveness that I have to practice in my daily life. It calls me to keep stepping over all my arguments that say forgiveness is unwise, unhealthy, and impractical. It challenges me to step over all my needs for gratitude and compliments. Finally, it demands of me that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged and that wants to stay in control and put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive.”
When you and I forgive, the wrong isn’t righted and the pain doesn’t disappear; we are just released from the burden of anger and feelings of revenge. If you’re like me you still want justice even if you forgive, but that may not always be God’s way. When we truly forgive someone then that person is in God’s hands and we are free from the burden of demanding God deal with the person as we see fit. Forgiveness, to me is simply trusting God to handle the situation that eats me up with anger and hatred. Would Sonya Tolstoy have had a happier life if she had practiced forgiveness to her husbands past? I think so. Will you and I live more fulfilled lives if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus and not on each other’s faults and failures? I think so. To forgive isn’t easy, but it is more hurtful to hold onto the pain.