The Power of Forgiveness

We take many things for granted in our post-Christian world. Consistent with our human nature, we can be given the Son of God as a sacrifice for all of our faults, and get used to it. Moreover, we can gloss through many of the lessons Jesus teaches us to enact as cliche phrases with little change in our lives. One of these teachings—that we forgive those who trespass against us—is the subject of what I wanted to write about today.

Recently I watched and reread sections from the book and screen adaptation of Silence, by Shūsaku Endō. The story follows two Jesuits who go to the persecuted country of Japan in the late middle ages. While in Japan, they become connected with many of the hidden Chrisitian communities, initially through their guide, Kichijiro.

Kichijiro was a Japanese Christian who apostatized while the rest of his family held true; he watched them all die. Throughout the beginning of the movie we watch Kichijiro insist that he is not Christian, only to come to confession with one of the priests to ask for forgiveness. The movie could have ended his story there, a hopeful note of a broken man coming to God for mercy, but then he betrays the Christian village. And then he betrays the priest who heard his confession. And then he apostatizes again. And Again. And Again. Nevertheless, Kichijiro keeps coming back to the priest, begging for confession and forgiveness. In one climactic scene we see the inward struggle of the priest: the contempt this Jesuit Father has for the man who betrayed him. Yet he hears his confession regardless.

When I first read the book I found it easy to despise Kichijiro for his pathetic recourse and failure to sin. It was hard to feel anything good for Kichijiro, who had so few qualities to recommend him. As time passed, however, I began to think through the book more. In many ways, I do the same thing as Kichijiro. I go to confession, make a firm act of contrition to sin no more, and then I sin. Again and again and again. After this realization, Kichijiro moved from being my least favorite character to one whom I could relate to, one who points me to a greater appreciation for the truly unending mercy of God.

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them. Luke 17:3-4

I love this passage because it points to the command God gives which highlights how we should treat the Kichijiros in our lives: namely, to forgive them, whenever forgiveness is requested.

Forgiving others whenever forgiveness is requested sounds so simple. Just don’t hold onto anything and make peace? Yet how hard it is to fulfill this rule. When a parent disowns their child, or a sibling cuts another off, how can you introduce forgiveness into that? When someone regularly and consistently lets you down, promising improvement but never delivering, how do you forgive that? Or those times when you do everything in your power to be supportive and available for a friend going through a difficult time just to have them take out that anger on you, ruining the friendship. How does one enter into forgiveness in these situations?

Oftentimes it can be so much easier to walk down the path of anger and resentment. Upon being insulted or diminished or even ignored by someone, we can take pleasure from that person’s suffering. I am reminded of a variety of movies where the death of a sleazy person evokes a laugh, whereas the death of a random civilian evokes sorrow. [1] As resentment builds, it ferments callousness, making it easier to ignore or find pleasure in the suffering of others. Oftentimes building up resentment leads to cycles of passive aggressiveness that are only able to be healed when forgiveness comes into play. In Ephesians, Paul writes on this exact issue, commanding us:

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31-32

While we all may acknowledge the goodness associated with forgiveness, we forget the true freedom it allots us. Deep resentment holds us back, making our thoughts all about the subject of that anger, disabling us from growing or improving ourselves. Moreover, resentment can hurt others and it is not constructive and almost never results in improvement of the situation. While it is difficult to rise above anger to forgive and love, it is the only way to truly get out from this self-destructive cycle. It is one thing to love the non-existent perfect person, but loving one who is fallen helps give us a taste of God’s love for us. In loving those who sin against us, we more fully live out our calling as Sons and Daughters of God.

[1] For example, the death of the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, in Jurassic park. Here is a character that is clearly greedy and willing to take shortcuts at the expense of safety, so his death is portrayed in an amusing way—sitting on a toilet. It is interesting how, because of his faults, we don’t see his death as a tragedy because we place his value significantly below characters we better identify with.


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