Forgive like a President

I always knew the basic history of Nelson Mandela’s Story. His death in December 2013 was a significant historical event and one which prompted commentators, historians and others to comment ad infinitum on the man, his achievements and even some of his  shortcomings.

Nelson Mandela released from prison

Nelson Mandela released from prison

I was personally moved by the whole event in a way I didn’t expect. At the time I was in an intense season of life  (the detail of which I’ll spare you) and one evening I found myself watching a most excellent documentary by David Dimbleby. Dimbleby had been privileged to meet and interview Mandela in 2003 and his interest and knowledge of the man is obvious to the viewer.

I was struck by a moment during a segment about Mandela’s release from house arrest – his famous walk to freedom. I don’t recall the exact narration but it was to the effect of: He chose to forgive all of those who had oppressed him without revenge or reprisal. He forgave them unconditionally.

The only other person I can think of who selflessly forgave like this was Jesus. When Jesus was crucified among his last words were “Father, forgive them”. This was not  just an appeal but the granting of forgiveness by Jesus to the very people who had just crucified him and were gambling for his clothes.

I was dumbfounded. In this particular season of my life I was feeling pretty bad about certain situations and while I felt that no one in particular was directly to blame for this, my attitude towards others was marred by the way I felt. I needed to forgive whoever it was I thought was in the wrong. Even if there was not really a direct offence towards me!

Why could I not see that in my situation – where I had grown to a place where I didn’t feel willing to forgive – that this is what Jesus called those who believe in him to do: to forgive graciously? I was also a little embarrassed: Why did it take the death of a statesman to hammer the point home when  I probably knew the answer all along?

Living with unforgiveness in your life causes bitterness to take hold. I certainly felt bitter. Where a root like bitterness takes hold, it grows and grows (think Japanese Knotweed) and spoils the whole of life. It needs dealing with before it has the opportunity to spread.

Jesus said:

…if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV)

It seems fairly plain to me: If we can not forgive then how will Jesus forgive us? As a Christian, forgiveness is life. God forgiving us for all the messy things we end up doing in life is the key to living eternally with our maker who loves us!

Shortly after watching this (ok a few days then – I’m a bit slow) I realised what I needed to do. It didn’t matter if I was right and the other was wrong (or more probably, I was wrong and they were right), the fact remains that because I was harbouring bad feeling I felt unable to forgive which was leading to more pain and bitterness on my part. I came to a point of realising that no matter how hard it felt I needed to freely forgive and change my mind about the situation. Forgiving released me from the bitterness.

As a demonstration of his intent Mandela went on to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  – a deeply significant body it seems in the re-uniting of a nation divided by erroneous and racist policy. Again, note the tone of this:  those who had wronged others admitted their wrongdoing directly TO the person wronged, asking forgiveness and in turn the wronged had the opportunity to publicly grant forgiveness. Amazing.

I only wish I could always freely forgive like a president. And like Jesus does.