Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:19-23
Spiritual power—the Holy Spirit’s power—is an amazing thing. It’s like wind blowing through us and fire burning in us, giving us resilience and courage, capacities for mercy and forgiveness, passion and understanding that can take our breath away. It’s what makes us more of who we are. St. Paul describes it as power “at work in us, able to accomplish far more than we can ask for or imagine.”
One of the most important spiritual decisions we make in life is how we choose to live in relationship to the Spirit’s power. This isn’t a one-time choice, but a daily practice. For while the Spirit comes to us as a gift, our receptiveness to the Spirit is something we can and must cultivate. Even when we aren’t feeling anything akin to inspiration, we can practice the skills and capacities that the Spirit may draw upon and amplify. Think, by way of analogy, of the artistically or athletically endowed: the most gifted spend hours each day practicing, working far harder than most of us realize at what they have received as a gift.
Inspired by Jesus’ first charge to his disciples when he breathed his Spirit upon them, consider the Holy Spirit’s gift of forgiveness, and the work of it. Forgiveness may be the most important spiritual gift and practice for Christians, patterned after Jesus’ own forgiving ministry. Jesus taught, practiced, and embodied forgiveness throughout his life and on the cross as he died.
Yet forgiveness is a universal virtue, finding expression in many faith traditions. In a small book, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, the Buddhist writer Jack Kornfield offers simple truths about the power of forgiveness and how urgently we need it.
- Quoting the Buddha: Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed.
- Forgiveness is the necessary ground for any healing. It is hard to imagine a world without forgiveness. Without forgiveness life would be unbearable. Without forgiveness our lives are chained, forced to carry the sufferings of the past and repeat them with no release.
- Forgiveness does not happen quickly. For great injustice, coming to forgiveness may include a long process of grief, outrage, sadness, loss and pain. True forgiveness does not paper over what has happened in a superficial way. It is not a misguided effort to suppress or ignore pain. It cannot be hurried. It is a deep process repeated over and over in our heart which honors the grief, and in its own time ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.
If you are struggling to forgive someone, or to forgive yourself, take comfort that it is among the hardest of tasks, one at which we often fail when left to our own resources. Remember, too, that forgiveness is the Spirit’s gift, making possible far more than we can ask for or imagine. But like all gifts, we must be open to receive forgiveness, by cultivating in our hearts a desire for it and a longing to be free from the burdens of the past.
How, then, might we open ourselves to the Spirit’s gift of forgiveness?
Asking for it is a good place to start, as is practicing the forgiveness of lesser transgressions. Forgiveness is a gift but it is also a habit.
If the wound we’ve suffered or caused is too raw, we can give ourselves time to heal, practicing compassion for ourselves and finding safe places to release feelings of resentment or anger. We need to be careful, however, that release does not become a steady rehearsal of anger and recrimination. For anger can also become a habit.
It’s also important to distinguish between the times when forgiveness comes easily, and when it will be a long, slow journey. On the long roads, we needn’t seek to forgive too soon, but be open to God’s mercy and love. Forgiveness takes time.
Jesus has entrusted us with the greatest of responsibilities: to be persons of forgiveness and healing in his name. If we forgive, he tells us, others will be forgiven. If we retain their sins—that is to say, if we hold on to them and refuse to forgive—they will be retained, at great cost both to others and to ourselves. But while the work of forgiveness is ours to do, the gift of forgiveness comes to us, and through us, from the Spirit of God. It comes as a gift, in its time, to all who are open to receive.