Forgiveness is one of the hardest of concepts for people to grasp, Christian or not. It goes against our nature. When someone does something to us, physically or emotionally, our first response is to seek revenge (often disguised under the term “justice”). It takes a lot of effort to do a 180 on our feelings and forgive another person. Many a marriage has ended because of one partner not being able to truly forgive the other partner for some offense. Even if a couple goes into marriage counseling it can take years to unearth what the real offense was, and sometimes it goes back far into their past, something they both thought they had moved passed, only to find that it was gnawing at one of them relentlessly, never really forgiven.
If we find it so difficult to forgive someone else, how can we readily accept that God has forgiven us? Most can’t. A pastor friend of mine once told me this was the hardest thing for some in his congregation to accept; unlike in the Eastern and Roman churches, there was no one to say the words, “Your sins are forgiven”. It made it difficult for some to believe that they were really forgiven for what they had done.
I don’t know if that is true or not, but I do know that even among the Eastern and Roman churches there are those who will say that, even after confession and penance, they just don’t feel like God has forgiven them. This is not because God hasn’t forgiven them, but because they are unable to accept His forgiveness. Why should the Creator of all things accept the penitence of this lowly person? Who are they to deserve the forgiveness of the God who spoke light into existence?
I believe it goes to our human relationships. Can you remember the last time your spouse, boy- or girl-friend, family member, or a close friend asked you to forgive them of some offense, great or small? Why? Why do you still remember it? The essence of forgiveness is to forget the offense, that is how it works with God, not only does He truly forgive what we have done, but He strikes it from our lives. We have a problem accepting this concept because we cannot do it ourselves.
My son envy’s my memory at times (as I do his), mine is odd in that I can quickly forget something. I can read a book, then next year re-read it as if it were the first time. He can remember a book he read a decade ago, and not really enjoy reading it again. But, when it comes to offenses… Even though my brother did something long ago that offended me greatly, and I have forgiven him and really doesn’t bother me anymore, I can still remember it. When I look at my wife, who is really great at this forgiveness thing, I can remember times when I did something really wrong against her, and even though she forgave me (and she rarely remember those things), I still feel the guilt.
It’s the same with God’s forgiveness. We can, rationally, know the He forgave us, and understand that to Him it is as if we never sinned, but we cannot help feel that guilt, deep down inside. We cannot forgive ourselves.
If you are looking for an answer to this, I don’t have one. Even the early Church Fathers struggled with this concept. The Eastern book of wisdom (the Philokalia) is replete with verses outlining their struggles, so we are not alone, and are in very good company. Perhaps, when our time in this world is past, and we stand before our Lord, and He takes us into His embrace, saying to us, “My child, you are forgiven”, we will finally be able to accept it’s full meaning.