To Forgive or Not to Forgive: The Heart Choice
by Aziz Sarah
Spring 1990 at 5 am: Israeli soldiers break into my home and invade the room I share with four brothers. They ask for our identity cards and ask us questions. Later they decide to take my older brother with them, as he is suspected of throwing stones at cars. He is 18 years old at the time. My Mom pleads desperately with the soldiers, but to no avail. She would not see her son again until ten months later, upon his release from prison. While he was in prison he was interrogated and beaten for fifteen days, until he would admit that he threw the stones. Eventually he gave in. When he finally came out of prison his condition was so critical that we rushed him to the hospital. He held on for about a month and then died after surgery. I was 10 years old at that time. Years of mourning followed in my family, but I could not accept my brother's death the way that they did. I became extremely bitter toward God. I could not understand how he could allow my brother to die so brutally and unjustly. Why would he do that to me?!
I wanted revenge, but I didn't know who to take it out on. I understood that I couldn't take revenge on all the Jews. I knew that they were not all responsible. But I did want revenge on the ones who hurt my brother. I began to hate the army and all its soldiers, and grew up with deep bitterness. While my family decided to move on in life, I did not and I was consumed with a mission for revenge.
When I got to high school I found a way to express my bitterness: I got involved in Palestinian politics so that I could legally enter Israel. In politics, I found my revenge through writing. I became the editor of a political magazine designed for and directed at the youth groups of a political movement. My writings were full of bitterness, and they expressed all the anger in my heart. I wanted to pass my anger on like a fire to as many people as possible. In many ways this became my life's passion, and accordingly, I became a prisoner to these feelings. After some time, I could not live with them anymore, so I tried to run away from them by leaving the country. My grades were good enough to get scholarships to leave Israel, but God did not allow it. My anger toward the Jews kept me from learning Hebrew before that point, and then I was stuck in Israel without the ability to speak the national language.
Then in my Hebrew Class I was invited to study the Bible. At that point, I realized that I had to deal with my heart and confront my bitterness. I started to learn about forgiveness, which had seemed impossible to me all my life. As I started believing in Jesus, I realized that I had to live like him. This included forgiving those who sinned against me. I learned that I needed His forgiveness for my own sins, but I still did not want to forgive the soldiers that killed my brother. After being in the Church for a while, I started changing. Suddenly I was becoming friends with disciples of Christ who were both Arabs and Jews! I decided not to hate all the Jews or all the soldiers, but to reserve my hatred for those who killed my brother. I wouldn't give that up.
Mark 11:25 - "And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your sins."
I had so many sins for which I needed forgiveness. Still, I didn't believe that I could forgive others. I had good reasons to hate and I couldn't just overlook them. But it was tearing my heart apart. How could I betray my heart? How could I betray the blood of my brother? His murder changed my life like nothing else. Could I really move forward? I felt it was impossible, that I would never forgive. Yet what is impossible for man is possible with God.
What helped me to forgive?
1) Jesus expects his followers to forgive others as He forgives them. There are no exceptions. With my sins I am in no way better than those who killed my brother (it took me a long time to accept that). I am a sinner and need forgiveness as much as they do. If I want to be forgiven I need to forgive. That was hard to accept too. I prayed that God would open my eyes so that I could see who I really am. For some time, instead of moving towards forgiveness, I moved toward ignorance and deceit. I thought I had forgiven, but I only deceived myself and justified my sin. I told myself it was normal to be a little bitter and that I don't have to forgive completely. Jesus, however, gave me full forgiveness and I couldn't do any less. When I learned that my sin killed Jesus, I knew that I was guilty of murder as well. I killed someone innocent who loved me and wanted the best for me.
2) Jesus understood that forgiveness is not easy. It is does not come naturally. Jesus had to go to the Cross to achieve forgiveness for me. I have to go to the Cross as well to forgive others. During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered (Hebrews 5:7-8).
"He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 'Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me yet not my will, but yours be done.' An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:41-44).
Jesus had to suffer to achieve forgiveness, so we have to expect and accept that forgiveness will also be painful for us. Despite the pain of being betrayed, spat at, and treated without mercy, Jesus did not give in to Satan, but sought help from God. Although he was distressed when he went to the Cross, he did not let this keep him from submitting to God. As we carry our cross of forgiveness let us remember Jesus. He prayed with tears. He told God that it was hard for him to carry the Cross but he still did it. In the Church we face the same thing right now we get hurt and bitter and angry, but we have to make a choice to forgive exactly as Jesus did. Forgiveness is not between us and the church it is between us and God. We are responsible before God to forgive others completely and unconditionally. He forgave us fully, but this was only possible because he denied Himself and went to the Cross to accomplish it. We need to make the same decision in our lives: We need to go to the Cross so we can forgive those who have hurt us.
- Aziz (Jerusalem)