When we talk about forgiveness, we first have to determine what it is that we're even talking about. Most of us define forgiveness as an act, a one-for-one give-and-take where when one party is definitively wronged, he or she chooses deliberately to extend forgiveness to the offender solely for the offense identified and agreed-upon. For example, I just gave an entirely-too-wordy-and-contrived definition of forgiveness, and you, in turn, forgive me for it.
That is one definition of forgiveness, and it is an important one, but it also sets up a very difficult situation. It requires that the parties confess there is a wrong between them. We know from our own experience that this is not always the case, that both parties do not always agree that something wrong has been done to one or the other. They may even, in fact, believe that wrong has been done to both, but agree on neither wrong, and then forgiveness becomes an insult and a point of greater contention than the wrong ever was. You forgive me? What did I do?
There is, however, another kind of forgiveness that does not require this agreement on wrongs but is extremely valuable, God-honoring, and holy just the same. It is not an act, but an attitude of forgiveness.
And it is with this kind of attitude that we ought to strive to live.
This is what we're asking about when we talk about whether it is possible for a man to continue to see the world with sober eyes when he believes he's been wronged by it. This is what we're talking about when we want to know if someone can see beyond his or her own pain and hurt and betrayal and anger to be reasonable and fair and wise and just and loving. This is what we're wondering about when we want to know whether we are our basest human selves or if there is something nobler about us, something more in the image of God than maybe we even imagined.
Can we live with an attitude of forgiveness?
An attitude of forgiveness decides ahead of time that forgiveness is the plan. It determines to embrace and encounter the world with forgiveness on its fingertips. It lets things roll off of it because it doesn't need to take them to heart; it's already taken them to the Lord, and if necessary, it will take them to Him again.
An attitude of forgiveness sees what's really going on with eyes that see beyond what the human flesh can feel. It sees, above all, the broken human condition, the fallen world, the very real reality that things are not as they are meant to be, but they are this way instead. It sees with eyes that grieve before they hurt, then hurt for the grief and long for the restoration and ache for the redemption of all that is not as it was ever intended to be.
An attitude of forgiveness is willing to put itself aside and to say, no, this is not how I wanted this to go and it's not how it should have gone, but it is how it is and it is now up to me to figure out what to do with that. And an attitude of forgiveness determines, ahead of time, that what we're going to do with that is not let it change who we are. Not let it determine our response. Not let it define who we are, but that we have already defined who we are by knowing how we will respond.
We are a people created in the image of God, and we are defined by forgiveness.
So when we talk about forgiveness, there are a couple of things we could be talking about. We could be talking about the act of forgiveness, but this requires us to acknowledge from all sides that there is a wrong between us, and that's not always easy or even possible. But we could also be talking about an attitude of forgiveness, which requires only that we acknowledge that this world is not as it was meant to be but that there is something more.
It is an attitude of forgiveness that is most telling about who we are. And it is an attitude of forgiveness that is most valuable in helping us to live and love truly from the heart of God in our world.