Forgiveness Brightens the Horizon
Can we respect and even love our ancestors while still recognizing that they were flawed human beings – just as we are?
When we look into the past, sometimes we question what people were thinking in making the decisions that they made. For instance, we can wonder why a significant portion of the population defended slavery for a long time. Or why Hitler was allowed to progress so far before the rest of the world stopped his atrocities. These questions can only be answered with a full view of the complexity of the time. Lacking a full view, we may begin to assume too much – we might even think we would not have done such a thing. The Bible warns against thinking we are better, specifically in Galatians 6. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself” (v. 1–3). Indeed, it’s likely that if we were alive in that time period, we would share something of the common view of the day.
In recent years there has been discussion about colonialism and the lasting effects of nationhood being established by a displacement and exploitation of the first peoples of the land. We recognize that God has created all people in His image and that it is sin to treat someone else poorly. The evidence of this happening as European settlers were establishing new nations on the North American continent is undeniable. In this, we can recognize the motivations in the corrupt nature of humankind. We only have to look at ourselves to see lust for power, wealth and influence.
None of us lived in the past and we are not responsible for any actions of others in the past, but it is useful for us to consider what those actions of the past have normalized for actions and privilege today. It’s not a light or comfortable matter to consider that mistreatment of people in the past has helped to shape continued disadvantages even today. To outright deny mistakes of the past is not productive in the discussion either. It prevents us from accepting that the goal ought to be a future full of the same potential for all people. As citizens, we need to live today remembering what Jesus taught in the Golden Rule: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matt. 7:12).
God’s kingdom has been preserved in our lands through the ages by the power and effect of God’s forgiveness, through the merit work of Jesus. The people of God have reached the eternal rest of the righteous because God saw them through the atonement work of His dear Son. They were sinners in their lifetime, but God’s forgiveness preserved them in faith. God’s forgiveness is found in the preaching of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in His kingdom here on earth. In light of this, it is a dangerous path to remain critical and unforgiving of the sins of others in the past. It shackles us to our own understanding and steals away the freedom from sin that God’s children can own. It is also foolish to pretend that offenses did not happen. It denies reality and puts the wrong light on former saints. We need to remember that they lived of the gospel in their lives, just as we need to today.
Perhaps someone brings to our attention that we have offended them. It may or may not be a surprise to hear. Either way, we need to have open ears to hear the sorrow that we have caused through our actions. If we can own our offenses and ask for forgiveness, then Jesus is able to own them for us and we can leave them there. If we are only interested in defending ourselves, then the offense remains an unhealed wound.
We can struggle with how to approach an individual about offenses. Perhaps a direct, yet careful approach is best. We can say, for example, “I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to visit with you about this sooner, but we have offenses between us.” Maybe if we have treated someone poorly, we could say, “I recognize that I have treated you poorly and wish to talk about it if you are able to.” When the offenses can be discussed and when the gospel is preached, it’s important to be able to forgive from our heart. If there is something preventing us from being able to forgive the offense, then perhaps it’s okay to involve someone else, mutually agreed upon, to help us converse about it. There are also times when it’s productive to get help from a professional counsellor in order to work through past situations in a healthy way.
It’s no mystery why Jesus needed to stress that we love one another. He knew how difficult it is for us to do that. When we consider the pain that humans have caused one another, we can collectively hang our heads in shame. May we always remember Jesus’ example as we approach realities from the past, whether personal or from the collective human experience: He was treated unjustly yet remained forgiving.