Forgiveness is not the name of an emotion or a feeling or a condition of the person. It is the name of an activity, and it consists of the willful assumption of the harm done to one by another, and the willful refusal to require reparation for that harm.
This is important to note, because many if not most discussions of forgiveness focus on the potential benefits to the one who forgives in terms of a sense of peace, or a wash of well-being that follows in the wake of the departure of resentment, or the experienced liberation of no longer sitting in a judgment seat, or other emotional and spiritual rewards. Forgiveness in this way of thinking is regarded as a sort of therapeutic technique, engaged in to accomplish personal evolution of one sort or another.
But while it is certainly true that the act of forgiveness may result in experiences of that sort, just as they may result from acts of kindness or acts of patriotic self-sacrifice or acts of loyalty, it is also true that they may not. Forgiveness is available to – and in Christian thinking, required of – the hardhearted as well as the softhearted. It is an objective of one’s will, and the only certain result – for a Christian – of its full accomplishment is to relieve someone else of his burden of spiritual responsibility, both to oneself and to God.
And if we understand it as such, perhaps it begins to become clear why forgiveness lies at the very foundation of the Christian life. The human will, free to choose and utterly responsible for its own activity, is God’s fundamental gift to each of us. It is the gift represented by the image of God breathing His own life into us. It is the bedrock upon which the Christian life must be constructed, the seed out of which divine maturity must grow.
True forgiveness, with its sacrifice of pride, of self-concern, with nothing mattering more than it – not even “seventy times seven” – is the appropriate first step of the will on the Way of Christ, the first step that must be taken if there is to be any journey at all.