Paul’s “letter of tears” may have included a harsh reprimand for one individual who harmed Paul. On those days, shame – especially public shame – was a powerful weapon. A public shaming would lead to terrible suffering, sometimes even suicide. Paul realized the effect his words would have had on the individual and here he pleads with the Corinthians to forgive so that the suffering may end.
There is an interesting notion here that the pain caused by withholding forgiveness extends to all who are involved. Indeed, while withholding forgiveness might pain the perpetrator, there is also pain and suffering for the one holding a grudge. Often, the pain lingers far longer for the one who remains angry than for the one who has forgotten what she or he has done.
Forgiveness offers relief from that lingering pain. Some withhold forgiveness because of the belief that forgiveness means that the offense was acceptable. But that is not the case. Forgiveness means accepting that the scales of justice are unbalanced, that the offense was not acceptable, but that we are willing to live with the imbalance of justice and love the person despite their faults. Forgiveness may not be a once-and-done action; it may be a decision made daily, or a work in progress that may never be fully realized, but progresses further each day. Forgiveness frees not only the offender, but the offended as well.
As I get older, I find I have had plenty of time to screw up. In fact, I’ve done some pretty reprehensible things that I’m not proud of. As is the nature of shame, I kept many of those hidden, even from myself for a long time. Finally, I had the opportunity to confess each and every one of those to a person who listened without judgment. After the experience, I felt much lighter, as if those sins were washed away for good. Ever since that day, I have found I have far more acceptance for others and their flaws. Not only do I find it difficult to judge others after having faced the worst of myself, but I also desire for them the same forgiveness and release from bondage to sin that I experienced myself. Forgiveness is a powerful elixir for shame and judgment.
2 Corinthians 2:1-10
So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.