The Power of Forgiveness
What is the power of forgiveness? It is the power of humility. It is the power of love. It is the power that engenders true healing in oneself and in our relationships with others. It is the only power that can truly overcome anger, grievances, bitterness, jealousy, and injury, but only if it is done fervently and righteously. This, we know, is not easy. We know this because Jesus is our model. In this power of forgiveness, Jesus willingly suffered and died, in order to make salvation available to all of us.
In the verses before this passage, James talks about prayer said in the name of Jesus, the Lord, as having the power to heal bodily sickness. In this verse, he is talking about another kind of healing, that is, the healing of our souls and of our relationships with one another, and with God. ʺConfess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.ʺ (James 5: 16)
What does it take to confess our sins to one another? It takes humility–on both person’s parts. The one who is confessing has come to the sorrowful recognition that he or she has sinned and in doing so, he or she has injured him or herself, or some other and, as a result, they are overwhelmed with a desire to be forgiven. For the one hearing the confession of the other, humility is also required. That humility is in the recognition that I, too, am weak. I have also failed at times. Because of this, I know what the other’s sorrow feels like, and I know how hard it is to admit my failings. I know the inner struggle with the embarrassment of having failed in doing the good. I, too, have felt ashamed for having failed myself and the other whom I have injured. This takes great courage as well as profound trust and faith in the other to go to one another for this healing. How else should we do this well but in the righteousness of humility? It is our duty to heal one another in this manner, not to condemn one another. Here we are reminded of the petition in the Lord’s prayer: ʺForgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.ʺ It takes humility to recognize the challenging wisdom of those words. I will be forgiven in accord with how well I have forgiven myself and others.
We are reminded here as well of Jesus’ words to the disciples on Pentecost: ʺReceive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.ʺ (John 20: 23) We have no trouble understanding the first clause of this statement. It is the latter clause that we do not spend enough time contemplating. ʺWhose sins you retain are retained.ʺ This does not mean that we have either the right, or the power to ʺretainʺ the sins of another for any reason. What it means is that those sins we refuse to forgive are retained on our souls, not the other’s. If the sinner is truly repentant, God forgives him or her unconditionally. Even those that, for whatever human rationale, we feel ought not be forgiven. Our lack of forgiveness does not affect God’s forgiveness of the other. Rather, it affects our own soul’s well-being. There is also the matter of not being able to forgive oneself for some particular failing. This, too, is dangerous for our soul, and for our mental health. In thinking that God could not forgive something we have done, we sin against the Holy Spirit. Without realizing it, we are setting limits on God’s infinite love and forgiveness. Indeed, we deny God’s infinite and unconditional love and forgiveness in doing so. We have put ourselves beyond God’s love. We are choosing the paralysis of unrelenting guilt over the gift of God’s tender-loving and unconditional forgiveness. This is the ultimate sin of pride.
It is, in some strange way, very simple. When we see one another as God sees us, and love one another in the way God loves each one of us, how else can we respond but in righteous humility, forgiving one another freely and joyfully? This is the healing power of God. For God, no sin is too great to be forgiven. If we confess to one another and pray for one another fervently, out of humble righteousness, healing will be the result. Reconciliation will be the reward. This is a power worthy of those made in the image and likeness of God, of those who call themselves Christians. To refuse to forgive, to refuse to pray for one another, is to give in to the falsehoods of the world. It is obvious, is it not, that the world is already dark with the consequences of un-forgiveness.
We who call ourselves Christian are called to be Christ in the world for one another. The central message of Christ’s life was forgiveness. Forgiveness, then, is the very core of God’s commandment to love one another as he loved us. (John 13: 34) It is love’s power manifested for healing in the world, both between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and others. Yes, even our enemies, and those who ridicule, insult and persecute us because of our faith in God. How else are they going to know the reality and power of God’s love if we do not forgive one another and pray for one another fervently and righteously? How else will the world be healed? How else will we get past the living hell of accusation, condemnation and un-forgiveness that makes the world so endlessly mad? Christians, let us live like Christ in this suffering world. Let us ʺconfess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that we may be healed,ʺ so that we may help heal the world.