“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
As Jesus hung dying on the Cross, he prayed aloud to the Father to forgive those who crucified him. As we draw closer to Good Friday, and the image of the Crucifixion gets clearer, these words grow louder and heavier; but are we hearing them right?
Our Lord was certainly praying for forgiveness for those directly responsible for his impending earthly death, but that was not all. His prayer extended beyond that moment, past those offenses, all the way to you and me. Jesus was praying for the ‘whole human condition’ (or ‘sub-human’ as we are not living up to the humanness that God intended) of self-focus, selfish determination, and perspective. They killed him because they couldn’t see beyond their fear and desire. The others only watched because they couldn’t stop looking inside their selves where there was only them. Father forgive them…
Jesus prayed this prayer as he died knowing that the conditions which fostered and promoted this event would not die with him but would live on in every generation yet to come. Jesus was letting go of the ministry and all that came with it and accepting the Father’s grace, mercy, and love to guide and cover all that would come next.
Jesus prayed this prayer even as the Holy Spirit was poised to intercede to help us rise above the world and find peace in the One who forgives us. He had already taught the people the lessons of prayer and forgiveness and given them/us the prayer that reminds us of how important it is and convicts us of our sloth: …forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
In the portrayals of the crucifixion, we hear Jesus pray from the Cross, not as a whisper—an afterthought breathed out almost unconsciously, but as a proclamation! His forgiveness prayer was effort-filled, an act of will and decision, and so must ours be. Forgiveness is an action we perform, not something that just happens to us. We must take part in, energetically pursue, and continuously focus on forgiving, in order to be set free. In his best-selling book, The Shack, Paul Young writes:
“Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat [sometimes your own].…You may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely. And then one day you will pray for wholeness…”
Young writes of the multiple times we attempt forgiveness, not because we aren’t asking, but perhaps because we aren’t letting go. We often think about letting go (if we actually ever think about it) as something that just happens: “he just let go.” In reality, it is an action at the end of deliberation and a thought process: “he let go because he knew this was the best chance he had.” It is the same when we are trying to forgive others or accept forgiveness ourselves; letting go requires investment and takes effort.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons we find it so hard to forgive or accept forgiveness; that the effort required to let go demands a level of introspection which opens doors we don’t want to be opened. I have known people who are defined by their pain, their anger, or their hurt. A real-life event, over time, becomes the ground that defines their life. No longer a single painful moment, it becomes the lens through which all life is viewed and in which they live. To undertake the process of forgiveness will require letting go of the way we have lived because it’s the best chance we have.
This will be a monumental undertaking and a frightening one; still, we are called to it as a foundation block of our faith. Jesus said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) As monumental and frightening as it may be, it is what we must do, and doing it will truly set us free.
Letting go of the hurts and disappointments, letting go of anger and resentment, letting go of the wrongs we have done to others, those done to us, and the wrongs we do to ourselves, letting go in a positive affirming way will fundamentally change the way we see the world and how we interact from that moment on.
Letting go is about feeding our compassion, our love for ourselves and each other. When we are letting go, we are actively facing our pain and actively choosing to let the Father take it from us. Perhaps a good visual image is one of an astronaut in the Space Station holding something, and when she lets it go, it drifts away. No violence, no crashing to the ground, just freedom, unencumbered freedom.
Letting go in this way is adopting an attitude of forgiveness which isn’t activated when we are wronged but is a deep abiding daily practice. Forgiveness is no longer a transactional event in response to a thing, it is how we live our lives.
Letting go of the burden of self and embracing the Holy Spirit, we are joined with Christ and receive the mercy of the Father. Accepting the Father’s forgiveness, we are able to forgive “…those who trespass against us.”
Letting go in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†