This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly. ‘Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’ When their message came to him, Joseph wept”. Genesis 50:17
How many among us were treated like Joseph? How many among us went through the difficulties Joseph experienced? But even knowing everything Joseph endured, his father asked him to forgive. The letter does not say that the father forced his other children to say sorry to Joseph. When Joseph saw the words of his dead father, he wept and “reassured” his siblings telling them “don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children”.
We are not called to forgive persons who caress us but those who have hurt us. The strength of a Christian resides in how to love and to continue to love even when they have been hurt through disappointments, sufferings, and aggressions that offend their personal feelings, doctrines, beliefs etc. Regardless how often one has been hurt, we must forgive. That is the message that Christ teaches in Luke 17:3-4 ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying “I repent,” you must forgive them.’
The imperative form is the One that we all follow as Christians use here to tell us to forgive. As we read the Bible, we know that Jesus-Christ did not use the imperative form very often apart from the casting out of demonic spirits and healing people. But here in this teaching, He makes usage of this form of speech to show that Forgiveness is paramount in his whole message. This emphasis is in the Book of Matthew when His disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray. The only passage in this prayer that refers to alterity, (otherness) is forgiveness: “forgive me as I forgive others”.
This is a prayer that most of us repeat since our childhood, but do we understand now as adults that what Christ says here is that we should not ask for God’s forgiveness if we have not learnt to forgive others who hurt us? Many might intentionally escape this part of Christ’s Prayer in their mind, although it is, and continues to be, a paramount confession during our prayer moment. As we pray to God, we confess that we forgive others. But do we really forgive others, or are we intentionally lying to God, our Father?
In any case, it remains that each of us is individually responsible to answer this question, but if we are sincere, and if being Christian really means followers of Christ to us, then we need to take forgiveness very seriously. For it is revealing our intrinsic nature, the expression of our capability to love.
Our ontological process as Christians relates to sin as being intrinsic to our human nature. Since Adam and Eve, we are sinners. And “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”. 1 John 1:8
Now if we recognise ourselves as being sinners what is the next step to consider?
For any healthy common sense, if we acknowledge that we are sinners, then the next thing to do is to consider Forgiveness. For when one stops only at the acceptance of being a sinner but does not do enough to forgive properly when hurt, then such a person is like a slave who owed his master money and went to him to ask for redemption, but himself refused to accept to reduce the debts that others owed him. Such a person is not authentic according to the Bible.
The authenticity that Jesus teaches us is to do to others what we would wish to be done to us. So now, if one expects to be forgiven after hurting others but refuses to consider forgiving others when they have been offended, isn’t it clear that such a person needs to learn what Christianity is about. The Bible does not teach us as being the gravity of the universe, but to love others as we love ourselves. What it implies is that we need to love ourselves, and through the love that we have for ourselves, understand that loving others is a necessity in our lives. And if love is a necessity then forgiveness is an essential step in human relationships.
So now some might think that they do not love themselves. They think that they hate themselves. But the answer to such depressive thoughts is that if they hate themselves it is because they are Christians yet. If Jesus did not consider self-love as being a great commandment of the relationship between us and others, He would not state in Mark 12:31 that you should “Love your neighbour as yourself”. The assertion of the Son of God implies that being Christian requests introspection, acceptance of being a sinner, being attached to Jesus; who opens us up to love, so that we are able to love ourselves even knowing that we are sinners; this way we know to forgive and love others regardless of what they have done to us.
When put down in this form, some might think that forgiveness is an unachievable ideal. But the recent history of South Africa proved that not only individuals but even an entire country can forgive. When Apartheid was the daily suffering of South Africans every analyst in the world thought that the end of the brutal and racist System would come only through bloodshed, but Apartheid was defeated without bloodshed. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the majority of the society decided to forgive, and give each other the only power that strengthens humans: Love.
In the following pages of this month’s issue, we will conduct you through different testimonies of Forgiveness. Since Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been a living icon that proves that forgiveness works, we dedicate our main article to him, and we pray to God that every page of this magazine should help you to improve your capabilities to forgive others.