“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
A few years ago I heard a workshop provided by Dr. Ira Byock, the author of The Four Things That Matter The Most. The first two actions of the dying person in Dr. Byock’s book relate to forgiveness: “Please forgive me,” and “I forgive you.”
Many people find it difficult to let go of this world because of the resentments and regrets they hold. The concepts of resentment and regret address the ebb and flow of relationships. Resentment addresses the anger or hurt we hold against another; regret speaks to the anger or hurt we bear against ourselves.
I remember the resentment I held for many years against a church leader who actively campaigned against my ability to receive any opportunities to serve as a pastor of churches who expressed an interest in my gifts and availability. For many years this resentment was hardly available to my awareness. One day I was sitting in a Bible Study on forgiveness when I realized that I was nursing my resentment toward this church leader. At the very moment I was in touch with my feelings of resentment, I was flooded by gratitude. My resentment washed way as I became grateful for the very group in front of me. I wouldn’t be sitting in that room in Phoenix except for that church leader’s actions. To this day, when I sit with the dying, the mentally ill, the hurting, the grieving, I am thankful for how the trajectory of my life was set off by a man’s bullying and anger.
As I sit with people who are facing the final journey of their life, I talk to them about forgiveness. I remind them of this last word of Jesus and ask them if there is anyone they need to forgive.
Many times I hear stories of hurt, anger and resentment. I entered Mary’s home and began building a relationship with her. Over time, I told her about Jesus’ last word of forgiveness. “Is there anyone you need to forgive?” Lying in her bed, she quickly said, “Yes, my husband. He abused me for many years. I can’t forgive him.” She told me about his abuse. “He’s dead now. It is too late to forgive him.” I reminded Mary that forgiveness was for her not for her husband. Mary’s hurt was holding her to her abusive, dead husband like Superglue holds a finger to a piece of paper. I agreed with Mary that she could not forgive her husband if by forgiveness we were saying that what her husband did was acceptable. Forgiveness does not mean condoning the actions of the offender; forgiveness means releasing our judgment so God can actually God can judge the offender. The spiritual reality is that God cannot get to the offender while we playing judge and jury. Judging is God’s work; when we judge we are acting like God. God will stand aside and let us be judge and jury.
I agreed with Mary that she could not forgive her husband on a human level. However, as a Christian she could let Christ in her forgive her husband. The Christ who said to his abuser, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” would pray the same prayer on her behalf this very day.
As Mary opened her heart to receive my words, she opened her heart to receive the Good News of freedom through the forgiveness offered by Jesus the Christ. She learned the power of the words of Jesus of Nazareth who taught us “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14). Mary welcomed new freedom into her life.