By Dick Staub
Religion News Service
How do I forgive those who have wronged me? Can I restore a relationship with someone who has deeply hurt me? Can ethnic groups set aside centuries of grievances and warring ways? Can the proverbial lion lay down with the lamb?
My friend Marty composed the music for the most successful game franchise in history, Halo. He wrote the music before the game's story was fully developed. To guide Marty, co-creator Jason Jones suggested three words: ancient, mysterious and epic.
Those three words also describe the essence of forgiveness.
Ancient stories of conflict in the Judeo-Christian tradition start with Cain and Abel, move on to Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and right into the New Testament with squabbles among Jesus' disciples.
Every major world religion teaches that forgiveness is good for us. Yet, in real life, forgiveness is counterintuitive and therefore mysterious and rare. Even though Jesus commanded that we forgive our enemies, the lack of unity among his followers is evidence of the difficulty of following Jesus' example.
There is also something heroic about forgiveness. Gandhi, who knew a thing or two about the hard act of forgiveness, said it takes strength: "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."
The other day a genuine saint I know told me she was having a problem forgiving someone. I was a little surprised, given her age and maturity, but I guess I was also encouraged. If even she still needs to grow, I guess I shouldn't get so discouraged when my rough edges come out in obvious ways almost every day.
My friend and I talked about Jesus' words from the cross, where in the Gospel of Luke two of Jesus' sayings are about forgiveness. First, Jesus teaches us by example -- to extend forgiveness before it is asked for. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
The Aramaic word to forgive means to "untie." Jesus knew that the fastest way to free himself from his enemies was to untie himself from their negativity through forgiving them.
But Jesus also reminds us that forgiveness starts with us, not with the one who has wronged us. Hanging on to our anger and bitterness only hurts us. That's what author Anne Lamott meant when she observed, "Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die."
Jesus forgave before he was asked for forgiveness, but the act of asking was still important as we learn from the thief crucified along with him. He turned to Jesus and essentially asked for forgiveness saying, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth: Today you will be with me in paradise." Forgiveness offered, then asked for, then accepted, is the pathway for a restored relationship.
We release our pain when we forgive -- even when it is not asked for. However, the relationship is not restored until the other party asks forgiveness. When both parties seek and give forgiveness, it is possible for them to reconcile and to again "be with each other"
Forgiveness is always good for us, but sometimes requires divine intervention. Near the end of his book "Life After God," author Douglas Coupland admits he cannot be the person he wants to be without God's help.
"Now here is my secret," he writes. "I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God -- I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond able to love."
I'll say Amen to that.
Dick Staub is author of the just-released "About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive" and the host of The Kindlings Muse. His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com.