Yesterday I was monitoring a special-accommodation bar exam applicant, which always gives me a little time to read and write. After I posted my poem about forgiveness from my netbook, I started to read a book my sister-in-law Pam gave me a couple of years ago. It’s called Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC by Frederick Buechner.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it’s taken me this long to read it, but that’s the fate of books around my house. They do all get read eventually, and I love books as gifts, but sometimes it takes me a while. In this instance, however, the section I read fit so perfectly with the whole “which comes first, forgiving or being forgiven” discussion that I’m thinking it was God’s timing.
Wishful Thinking includes Buechner’s “definitions” of 150 words, from the perspective of a Christian seeking to understand the world and God a little better. He is humorous and thoughtful, and perhaps a little irreverent at times, but always honest in what he shares. The entry on forgiveness was so well put:
To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, “You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles (q.v.) demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done, and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.”
To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride.
This seems to explain what Jesus means when he says to God, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus is not saying that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiving others. In the first place, forgiveness that’s conditional isn’t really forgiveness at all, just Fair Warning; and in the second place, our unforgiveness is among those things about us which we need to have God forgive us most. What Jesus apparently is saying is that the pride which keeps us from forgiving is the same pride which keeps us from accepting forgiveness, and will God please help us do something about it.
When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience.
When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.
For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.
Wishful Thinking, pg. 32-33.
What Buechner says here is what I was trying to get at with my poem yesterday. In the end, it is not we who do the forgiving commanded by God by our own power. It is God, working in the humble heart, who helps us forgive and sets us free. He does so because He loves us deeply.
And so each day we should pray, “Help me, Father, to forgive in the same way You have forgiven me—fully and unconditionally—so that I may be set free. Amen”