There’s a lot going around about how forgiveness isn’t about the person who hurt you, it’s about how you need to get past the pain and the wound and move on so that you and God can be close again. And it’s about how to let go of all the destructive stuff that’s impeding your ability to live a contented and happy life. That’s definitely part of the issue in forgiving others for the pain they’ve caused you, and the wrongs they’ve done to you. As long as you are holding onto that hurt and that wound, your relationship with God will not be right, and you’ll suffer. You will walk around with a permanently broken spiritual bone that interferes with everything you try to do and that keeps hurting long after it should have healed. But there’s a whole lot more to it than just that. Jesus was very clear that loving each other was second in importance only to loving God. And He was also very clear that treating each other well, with dignity and respect and love, was as important as the first three commandments He gave to Moses, important enough that He pointed out to the disciples that whatever we did to each other, we did to Him, too.
In the liturgy, we sing the Cherubic Hymn, and it talks about us “mystically representing the cherubim and seraphim.” It says, “That we may receive the King of All who comes invisibly up borne by the angelic hosts. Alleluia!” There’s a whole spiritual reality that we, in our fallen and broken state, can’t see or hear or sense except in the faintest of ways. The saints among us, who have spent their lives praying and submitting themselves to God, can sense and experience it better than we can, but even for them, it’s a faint echo of the way we are all intended to live. When in the Liturgy we sing about our King being carried in by angelic hosts, that is not just a metaphor and a pretty set of lines to emphasize how very important the Eucharist is. It is real, and they really do accompany the priest and the gifts around the church in the Great Entrance. They are present through the entire service, worshipping with us. If we could see them, the church would be packed to the rafters with us and with the hosts who are with us. Even though we cannot sense it or experience it, everything we do and everything we say, even the thoughts in our minds and hearts, has ramifications in our spiritual lives. If we break or damage our relationships here, our connections to our brothers and sisters are broken spiritually as well, and so are our connections to Christ.
Relationships are a “two-way street.” We give and we take. We talk and we listen, we do and are done to. We support and love, and we are supported and loved. We hurt others, and we are forgiven by them. We are hurt, and we forgive. Even when it feels as though we are doing all the giving, all the listening, all the doing, all the supporting, all the forgiving, there is still someone on the other end, taking, talking, being done to, being supported, and being forgiven. Christ is in the relationship with both of us, giving us strength, love, encouragement, and support regardless of which side we happen to be on. He is in our relationship as much as we are, because we are connected in and through Him.
When a relationship breaks or is damaged, it takes two things to repair the damage completely. One must repent and ask forgiveness, both of the injured party and of God, and the other must accept the offer and extend forgiveness. It’s my mother’s two-way street, offering and accepting. Both sides work to repair the damage when the offender repents and the victim forgives, and the relationship is repaired and healed. But what if one person is hurt and the offender doesn’t ask for forgiveness? What then? The injured person still has to forgive. God and the fathers tell us that in no uncertain terms.
Think about this for a moment. If we are hurt, and the person who hurt us repents and asks forgiveness, we are told we must forgive, even if they keep offending. Seventy times seven, said Jesus to Peter, which is a way of saying unto ages of ages. We don’t get to say – sorry, all out of forgiveness today, you’ve used it all up. If, though, we refuse, if we won’t accept the healing that is offered, we’re now, in our turn, hurting our brother, and so we’re hurting God. Whatever we do to the least of us, we do to God. So we’re breaking our relationship to God as well as to our brother, and if we don’t repent of that, then we can’t accept the forgiveness God wants to extend. So, in essence, He can’t forgive. Not won’t, but can’t. We have to repent in order for God to forgive.
But forgiveness is necessary even if someone doesn’t admit to the harm they’ve done, and so doesn’t seek forgiveness from the victim. Perhaps even more so. If someone doesn’t repent of the harm they’ve done, then they aren’t seeing their actions as a sin, and they can’t repent of it. What they do to the least of us, they do to God. If they don’t confess the sin, then God can’t forgive them. It’s not that He won’t, it’s that He can’t, because the offender hasn’t realized that repentance is necessary. They can’t see it as a sin and so they can’t confess it and so God can’t forgive them. Their relationship to Christ is broken.
If we wait until they’ve seen the sin and repented to us as well as to God, we may never be able to offer that forgiveness and fully heal the relationship. In that case, if we don’t forgive them for the hurt, we’re impeding their ability to heal on a spiritual level where they can reconcile with God and with us. Because just as not forgiving when forgiveness is asked for continues to damage the relationship, so does withholding forgiveness even when it’s not asked for. Both sides are holding God out of the relationship. The offender is poisoning the relationship and is holding God out of their life and the relationship by not repenting. The victim is also poisoning the relationship by not forgiving. And, because relationships are a two-way street, the poison goes back and forth from one to the other, continuing to hurt each person and the relationship. For, make no mistake – even if neither party ever speaks to or sees each other again, they’re still spiritually connected by the hurt and the damage between them. It’s a bad, evil, and poisonous relationship that neither one may even be aware of, but it’s still there and it’s doing damage. And in this case, the damage and the poison are coming from both directions. If God is being held out of the relationship and apart from each party, by both parties, then neither one can heal, repair their relationship to God, and open a door to allow God back into the relationship.
If we think of our spiritual lives as kind of a room with a connecting door, then every relationship we are in has two of those doors. One door opens into our room, and one opens into the other person’s room, much like connecting doors in a hotel. Each room has a locking door, and only if both of those doors are unlocked and opened can we see and reach and connect with each other. Only if both doors are in good repair, so they open easily and stay open can we have that relationship. And only if both doors are open can Christ enter the relationship and be the part of it He is meant to be. If the relationship is damaged or broken, both of those doors are damaged and stuck shut. It requires effort on both sides to repair the damage. You have to repair yours, by forgiving. Your sister has to repair hers by asking for forgiveness. If she does not, then obviously, her door is damaged and stuck tightly closed. But if you don’t forgive, because she hasn’t asked, then your door is still damaged and stuck closed. Jesus said that He stands at the door and knocks, and He does. But if the doors between you and the person who hurt you are closed, there’s a broken relationship – even if we continue to work and live and see the other, the spiritual part of your relationship (the most important part) is damaged and broken. If you forgive, then you repair your damage and open the door. Yes, the other is still tightly closed, because it is damaged. But remember, Jesus is knocking on that other door. By forgiving, by repairing your door and opening it again, you can join Him in knocking on the door and help the person who hurt you to see the need for repentance, to face up to what they did and to ask for your, and God’s forgiveness, restoring and healing the relationship between you all.