Forgiveness—The Power to Change the Past

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you

This article originally appeared in the January 7 , 1983 issue of Christianity Today.

Two anxieties dominate most of our lives. We are anxious in the face of our unchangeable past; we long to recreate segments of our private histories, but we are stuck with them. We are anxious in the face of our unpredictable futures; we long to control our destinies, but we cannot bring them under our management. Thus, two basic longings, lying at the root of most others, are frustrated: we cannot alter a painful past or control a threatening future.

God offers two answers to our deepest anxieties. He is a forgiving God who recreates our pasts by forgiving them. He is a promising God who controls our future by making and keeping promises. By forgiving us, he changes our past. By promising, he secures our future.

By his grace we participate in his power to change the past and control the future. We, too, can forgive, and must forgive. We, too, can make a promise and keep it. Indeed, by sharing these two divine powers, we become most powerfully human and most wonderfully free.

Toward the end of her almost epochal book, The Human Condirion (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt turns finally to these two neglected powers of the human spirit, concluding that only when we act after the fashion of the biblical Lord can we overcome our darkest forebodings. There is, she says. only one remedy for the inevitability of history: forgiveness. And in the next chapter she says there is only ore way to overcome the unpredictabilities of the future: to make promises and keep the promises we make.

These two powers of the human spirit are, I believe, two things necessary to keep life human. If we lose the art of forgiving, and if ...

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