* This article first appeared on Patheos on November 9, 2016.
“This isn’t middle school anymore,” one of my ninth grade teachers used to say whenever someone complained about homework, “it’s not a bunch of warm fuzzies.” Neither is forgiveness, and for many of us the holidays can feel more like forgiveness boot camp than walking in a winter wonderland.
As our families disappoint once us again, old hurts flare up, and holiday shopping ends in shouting matches, forgiveness can like an assault to our humanity. Could God really ask us to stoop that low, to forgive that person?
For Jesus, forgiveness felt exactly like iron nails tearing into his wrists and leather whips ripping up his back. Whether it’s happening on a cross or over Christmas turkey, forgiveness is painful, but it’s also where we find God at his best and most beautiful.
God at his best and most beautiful
God doesn’t ask us to forgive because it’s the right thing to do. For God, forgiveness is personal, he does it his own sake. “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sin no more.” (Isaiah 43:25, italics added).
God forgives us because it brings him joy to unclutter and unclog the space between us and him (Hebrew 12:2). He chooses to forget our sin because he wants to have a relationship with us that isn’t hindered by our severe underperformance—the hundred little ways we neglect and abuse him.
Three reasons to forgive over the holidays
When we look at the cross and see God’s approach to forgiveness, we find three reasons why forgiving is a good game plan for the holidays:
1. Forgiveness builds relationships
Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where family and friends always met up to our expectations? Where forgiveness was unnecessary? Unfortunately, that world isn’t a reality because you and I live in it.
Hurt and disappointment are guaranteed when it comes to family, so if we hope to have deep relationships with any of our family members, we need to go into the holidays prepared to forgive them for their underperformance. Without forgiveness, the holidays will devolve into blame and score-keeping, and we’ll be one step further from discovering how God can transform relationships.
2. Forgiveness frees us from bitterness
In some cases, the wounds inflicted on us are too severe to pursue a deeper relationship and maintaining healthy boundaries is the most we can hope for. Other times, the family members who hurt us may never ask for forgiveness. Even in these scenarios, forgiveness has the power to free us from bitterness.
As Jesus hung on the cross, he asked God to forgive the pharisees who were spitting at him, the soldiers gambling for his clothes. They were still in the act of murdering him, but Jesus didn’t wait for their repentance before asking God to forgive them.
Sometimes we refuse to forgive because we’re afraid that it will minimize the evil done to us, but this misunderstands what God calls us to. Biblical forgiveness sees the full depth of the trauma, but then entrusts it to God and believes that he will punish it, either in the death of Jesus or in torment of hell, and that one day we will experience total healing in the presence of God.
This hope—the belief that God’s justice and goodness are stronger than the evil inflicted on us—breaks the grip those acts of evil hold over our future. Only forgiveness empowered by the Holy Spirit can free us from hurt and bitterness, even as we stutter and halt towards it.
3. Forgiveness makes God’s love visible
When someone makes a snide comment about the gift we bought, we get to build that family member’s future reality. We can build a world of karma and make them bear the consequences for their meanness by blasting them with icy silence, or we can usher in the supernatural world of grace.
In choosing forgiveness, we make the eternal realities of God—his forgiveness for our sin and how he refuses to hold it over us—tangible to our family member. We bring a bit of the kingdom into the present so that they can taste the goodness of God and catch a glimpse of what he’s got planned for when Jesus returns. Sure they don’t deserve it, but neither do we and God forgave us.
Forgiveness isn’t just about maintaining relationships and freeing ourselves from past hurt, it’s also a chance to join God in making him visible to our family members.
Better than a bunch of warm fuzzies
The holidays often remind us of how broken our families are and the pain we’d like to forget. It can be hard to believe the angels’ promise that Jesus will bring peace on earth, especially when Aunt Martha shatters the cease fire before the pumpkin pie is served. So when the conversation starts to heat up, lets remember the God we’re celebrating, and how he became a human to give us life, and teach us how to love. Forgiveness wasn’t a bunch of warm fuzzies for him, and it won’t be for us either this holiday season, but it is an ounce of glory.