Disciplines of the spirit, pt. 3: Forgiving

Oct 9, 2018 4:00 PM

Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt van Rijn

Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son portrays the love of God for his straying children, but it draws its power from our real world understanding that forgiveness is hard. Rembrandt’s sublime painting captures much of this power. The face of the ragged, penitent son is hidden in the breast of the father whose expression combining both pain and compassion is the focal point of the painting. But looking on are the faces of the uncomprehending friend to the right, the disinterested servant waiting for orders in the background, and the open-mouthed, vacant-eyed incredulity of the unforgiving older son in the shadows. We all would like to think we deserve forgiveness, but we all struggle when we are confronted with one whose offense seems unforgivable—all the more so when we are the ones who have been offended.

Forgiving others is central to the ethics Jesus enjoined on his disciples—he even embedded it in the center of the prayer he taught them, and linked it directly to the forgiveness they prayed from the Father. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive when his brother sins against him. “Seven times?” he proposed, hoping perhaps that this generous offering would please his teacher. Jesus responded, “I do not say to you seven times,” and all the disciples let out their breath in relief—until he added, “but seventy times seven."

Peter’s question indicates that even though he did not “get it,” he got some of it. Jesus had just taught them about the procedure of dealing with grievances, and ended with teaching about forgiveness. What Peter “got” was the fact that it is all well and good to talk about forgiving people who hurt and offend, but it is not at all easy to do. Anyone who forgives easily has not really, seriously been either hurt or offended. The commandment to forgive is a demand that reaches into the deepest part of a person and calls out, “Have you been forgiven, yes or no?” and if the answer is yes, then forgiveness is not optional.

That is why forgiving is a discipline. We must call upon all the strength and resources God provides to us “according to the riches of his glory” in order to accomplish it. It is not automatic. Forgiving requires self-humbling followed by sacrifice. It cannot be done with a simple decision of the will. It may start that way, but it is a decision by which one declares war on his own sense of honor and justice and worth until finally these sense come to agreement, regardless of whether the offender perceives, receives, and responds to the forgiveness.

There is much that can, should, and must be said about forgiving others that I am not going to speak of here. My purpose is to point out that it is one of the core exercises of the Christian’s spiritual life. Going back to Ephesians 3 where this discussion took off, it is as a discipline of the spirit that being mastered gives us the strength to know the multi-dimensional love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (v. 18).

In tomorrow’s post I’ll take up the surprisingly difficult discipline of waiting.