You want me to forgive him?!”
When I was a kid he did horrible things to me; he used me sexually every day for years—and you’re telling me I need to forgive him!”
She’s manipulative and disgusting; why should I forgive her?”
My first class on forgiveness at the local homeless recovery center got cancelled this week because the women all had the flu. So, I’ll take the opportunity to respond to the objections above, which will doubtless come up when I do teach it. I often run into this sort of objection in counseling. Asking the victim to forgive can seem like taking the pressure off the perpetrator and putting it back on the one who doesn’t deserve it. Why is this a good thing?
In my last post, I cited Yeshua’s clear instructions on forgiveness. But secular researchers in recent years have discovered the power of forgiveness apart from any reference to Scripture at all. Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, writes,
Learning to forgive is good for both your mental and physical well-being and your relationships. Studies reveal:
- People who are more forgiving report fewer health problems.
- Forgiveness leads to less stress.
- Forgiveness leads to fewer physical symptoms of stress.
- Failure to forgive may be more important than hostility as a risk factor for heart disease.
- People who blame other people for their troubles have higher incidences of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancers.
- People who imagine not forgiving someone show negative changes in blood pressure, muscle tension, and immune response.
- People who imagine forgiving their offender note immediate improvement in their cardiovascular, muscular, and nervous systems.
- Even people with devastating losses can learn to forgive and feel better psychologically and emotionally.
Luskin, Frederic. Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, loc. 170 of 3665.
So, apart from any reference to God or religious obligation, forgiveness is a “proven prescription for health and happiness,” as Dr. Luskin puts it. For a believer, this prescription also includes an element more powerful than the whole list above. Since I’m using a medical metaphor, I’ll use the Latin name: Imitatio Dei, the imitation of God. I suppose the Latin name makes this concept sound Roman Catholic, but it’s a foundational Jewish idea as well. A couple of examples:
- At the splitting of the Red Sea, the Israelites sing,
The Lord is my strength and might;
He is become my deliverance.
This is my God and I will enshrine Him;
The God of my father, and I will exalt Him. (Exod 15:2)
The word that the New JPS version translates as “enshrine” here is an’vehu, an unusual word that some translations render as “glorify” or “adorn” him. The Talmudic sage Abba Saul interprets it as two words, ani (I) and hu (he), “I and he”, meaning, “Be thou like him: just as he is gracious and compassionate, so be thou gracious and compassionate” (b.Shabbat 133b, Soncino trans.). “Be thou like him” means imitatio dei, imitation of God.
- Another Talmudic discussion (b.Sotah 14a) gets into more detail:
What does it mean, “You shall walk after the Lord your God”? Is it possible for a person to walk and follow in God’s presence? Does not the Torah also say “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire”? (Deut. 4:24).
The Torah commands the imitation of God—walking after him, in the words of Deuteronomy. But how is it possible to imitate a deity who is so far beyond us that that he’s like a consuming fire? The Talmud goes on to explain:
It means to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. Just as He clothed the naked, so you too clothe the naked, as it says “And the Lord made the man and his wife leather coverings and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). The Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the ill, as it says, “And God visited him in Elonei Mamreh (Gen. 18:1); so you shall visit the ill. The Holy One, Blessed be He, comforts the bereaved, as it says, “And it was after Abraham died that God blessed his son Isaac…” (Gen. 25:11), so too shall you comfort the bereaved. The Holy One, Blessed be He, buries the dead, as it says, “And He buried him in the valley (Deut. 34:6), so you too bury the dead.
As in Abba Saul’s comment on Exod 15:2, imitating God doesn’t focus on God’s power and transcendence; it means emulating his compassion and mercy. To apply this practice of emulation to forgiveness: just as God is merciful and forgiving, because of who he is and regardless of we are, so we are to be forgiving, not because of who the offender is, but because we seek to imitate a merciful God.
Paul makes the linkage between forgiveness and imitation of God explicit:
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Messiah forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Messiah loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 4:32–5:2)
Changing our story of grievance and abuse is in our power. Our practice of forgiveness doesn’t depend on the offender apologizing or mending his ways. It depends on the infinitely greater forgiveness of God. Forgiving lifts us far beyond the grievance that weighs us down and onto the upward path of imitating God.