Often we find ourselves still acting out of emotion or impulse—the old self—rather than from a renewed mind. When that's the case, we can have all the knowledge and intelligence in the world and still make wrong decisions that hurt others. As Romans 8:6 says, "To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace."
All of us have said and done hurtful things we've later come to regret. We must recognize that other people do the same.
Does this mean we shouldn't hold people accountable for their wrongful actions? Not at all! When Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do," He wasn't saying, "Father, forgive them, because what they're doing is OK." He was saying, "God, don't hold this against them."
Jesus didn't deny that what they were doing was wrong; He simply forgave them. What a contrast to our typical reaction when someone does something wrong to us!
We tend to hold a grudge against them for life. "I will never trust him or her again," we say. Caught up in our suffering, we feel justified in our refusal to forgive the person who has caused us so much pain.
Women have to be particularly careful in this regard. Our nurturing nature can lead us to nurse, feed and give life to our emotions of hurt, anger and betrayal.
The longer we feed, the greater the bond; the greater the bond, the more difficult it is to sever the tie. When we constantly feed our negative emotions, we end up in bondage to them. They take control of us, and we begin to do and say hurtful things that rival the things our offenders have done and said to us.
If the crucifixion means anything, it means that through Jesus Christ we have been given another chance in life. Now, as Christians, it's our turn to extend the same "second chance" to others.
Keeping in mind our own need for forgiveness, we're called to live a lifestyle of forgiveness, praying the way Jesus taught us in Matthew 6:12: "Forgive us our debts [wrongdoings], as we forgive our debtors [wrongdoers]."
Tearing Down the Walls
Jesus forgave His wrongdoers because He knew they were imperfect. He also forgave them, I believe, because He knew that people need the kind of true fellowship that only forgiveness can bring—fellowship with God first and then with one another.
Jesus' crucifixion removed the rift that existed between God and all humankind. Now, as His followers, we are called to remove the rifts that exist in our various relationships. As 2 Corinthians 5:18 tells us, "God ... has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation."
Few feelings are more painful than the feeling of alienation from the people around us. We all need fellowship with other people. For this reason, the worst thing we can do when we've been mistreated is to hold a grudge or try to retaliate; these things only strain the relationship further and cause more alienation. We must forgive instead, taking that first step toward reconciling the relationship.
When Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them," He wasn't removing His wrongdoers' responsibility; He was removing their guilt. And by removing their guilt, He was tearing down the wall of defensiveness that alienated them—and us—from God.
That's what happens when we forgive people: They no longer feel the need to be on the defensive because we have sent the message that their actions are not our focus; rather, the relationship is what is important to us. In other words, we've let them know we're not willing to allow anything—not even their hurtful words or deeds—to separate us from the love we should have for one another.
When we don't forgive, however, we erect a wall that keeps us from reconciling and sharing love with the ones who've mistreated us. Forgiveness, on the other hand, opens the door for reconciliation and makes possible a new, lasting fellowship based on love.
Forgiveness brings with it a wonderful sense of freedom. When we forgive others, we're free from the anger, frustration and anxiety of holding a grudge or trying to get even. When others forgive us, we're free from the guilt and fear that makes us want to seclude ourselves and duck behind every wall.
Once we understand that no one is out to get us, that we don't have to watch our backs for fear that we're going to get stabbed, then we can begin to feel the peace and freedom necessary to open the way for true fellowship with others.
But what if the people who mistreat us never admit their mistakes or ask for our forgiveness? Do we still have to forgive? The answer is yes.
If Jesus could find the strength to say, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do"; if He could find the mercy in the midst of a blood bath to forgive His transgressors, despite their lack of remorse; then certainly we in our smallness can forgive those who have treated us unfairly, whether they ask for it or not.