National Forgiveness Day - the last Saturday in October in the United States (1) - is a day every person of faith can honor, and one to which even many people without religious beliefs can relate. For those of us who take seriously the words “Forgive us our sins as we forgive them that sin against us” (Matthew 6:12), the day is an opportunity to reflect on the need for forgiveness and how to make it a part of our everyday lives. What follows are some thoughts to start you on your own reflection on what it means to forgive.
Sometimes it’s possible to forgive and not really forgive. Just saying the words “I forgive you” or telling ourselves we have forgiven someone, or even forcing ourselves to forget the problem, isn’t really the same as actual deep down forgiveness. Saying “I forgive you” with a frown, or telling yourself you have forgiven someone, but still remembering and dwelling on the problem, is not forgiving. We need to forgive cheerfully. It’s said that “God loves a cheerful giver.” How much more could we say, “God loves a cheerful forgiver.”
We invariably know when we have truly forgiven because forgiveness brings peace and even happiness to the one who forgives. The pain caused by the word or deed that offended us may still be there, at least for a while, but it invariably diminishes once forgiveness is in place.
Refusing to be hurt or angry any more and accepting another person despite what they have done to us should be a positive thing. Forgiveness may not be easy sometimes, but it’s right, and it is ultimately something to be happy about whether we are the one forgiving or being forgiven!
Help to Forgive
The fact that forgiving others is seldom easy underscores a truth. Only you can forgive someone who has hurt you, but you may need help to do it. A fascinating survey conducted by the Gallup Organization found that 94% of those questioned said it was important to forgive, but 85% said they needed some outside help to be able to forgive (2). For those of us who choose to ask for it, help is available. Notice what Paul writes on this: “… clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14). The important thing to realize here is that all the things Paul lists in these verses are fruits and gifts of the Spirit (see also 1 Corinthians 12, 13). If we are finding it hard to forgive something, we need to ask for the help that God clearly desires to give.
Forgiveness and What We Don’t See
It’s relatively easy to ask God’s forgiveness for the sins and mistakes of which we are all too aware. But what about those errors of which we are actually unaware – either unaware of their significance or simply unaware of their existence. National Forgiveness Day is not just an opportunity to ask forgiveness for what we know we have done wrong, but also for those things we may be unaware of.
We are all blind to some of our own problems. That’s why David wrote, “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). Every Christian who has known the truth for many years knows that, just like weeds, old hidden errors and new unseen ones continue to crop up throughout life. Usually we have to ask God’s help and to think deeply about this in order to see these things, but if we are willing to do it we can come to see what we need to see – as David also acknowledged: “Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part you shalt make me to know wisdom” (Psalm 51:6).
“Forgive my hidden faults” is a prayer we can all pray. Asking help to see and overcome those faults is another.
Forgiveness is not just something we give, it’s also something we receive, of course. But sometimes, even when we ask God’s forgiveness and believe He has given it, we still don’t forgive ourselves – or perhaps more accurately, fully accept the forgiveness. If you find yourself thinking often of mistakes and errors of the past, perhaps you should consider this. It has been said that a prayer for full forgiveness goes something like this, “Forgive others and help me forgive them. Forgive me and help me to see your forgiveness;” and all parts of this prayer are surely important in God’s eyes. Sometimes just going back over the basic scriptures regarding forgiveness is what we need to do to remind ourselves of its reality. And we need to remember the reality of the nature of the God who forgives. “For I know the thoughts and plans that I have for you, says the Lord, thoughts and plans for welfare and peace and not for evil, to give you hope in your final outcome” (Jeremiah 29:11). If we can see and believe that, it shouldn’t be too difficult to accept the forgiveness that is offered to us.
The Gift That Keeps On Giving:
In a recent article on forgiveness (3), clinical psychologist and Christian pastor Dr. Jared Pingleton makes the simple but profound point that undeserved forgiveness is a gift: “… the most expensive, essential and extravagant gift in the universe.” It is certainly a gift which often reverberates between giver and receiver and even beyond. In a sense, forgiveness is the gift that keeps on giving. First, in giving the gift of true forgiveness to someone, we give a gift to ourselves also. Clinical studies have shown that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold on to resentment, anger and hurt (see www.forgiving.org). Also, if we are aware of how we are all susceptible to many of the same types of errors, forgiving someone can help us to understand our own mistakes - and that’s a gift to us, too.
Finally, we may not often see it this way, but forgiveness is a gift we give to God. Think about this. There is certainly nothing physical in this life that we can give to our Creator: “The earth belongs to the Lord, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1 and Hebrews 2:10). But there are some things we can give to the One who has everything. Remember the words of David, who knew God did not need his physical sacrifices, but knew that “a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Micah 6:6-8 elaborates on this. The gifts we can give to God - which are ours to give - are things such as our love, dedication, repentance, and the true forgiveness we give to others. When we truly and completely forgive someone, that’s something in which our Father can delight. Forgiveness is a gift that goes far beyond the person we forgive.
1 There are several “Forgiveness Days” which originated in different areas. Global Forgiveness Day and International Forgiveness Day are both celebrated in the summer months. In the US, “National Forgiveness Day” is on the last Saturday in October.
2 Review of Religious Research 34:4 (June 1993): 351-363.
3 ”Forgiveness is for Giving”, The Bible Advocate (September-October 2013): 11.