…but it’s really hard!
This morning I preached two sermons on the subject of forgiveness. It’s a tough issue, which trips up many people, whether Christian or not. For Christians, it’s a central matter, enjoined upon us by many texts in the New Testament. Some examples:
Matthew 6:12, 14-15:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 1but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matthew 18:21-35: The primary text for today’s preaching. Read it HERE.
‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’
2 Corinthians 2:5-10:
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.
Those are explicit references to the need to forgive those who sin against us. There are many others, perhaps less explicit, but which underscore the point that forgiveness is in some way central to Christian life. God’s forgiveness has been opened to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If God has extended the olive branch of forgiveness to us, why is it so hard for us to extend that same gesture to other people?
I can’t answer for others, only for myself. In my case, I recall two specific instances of people who caused me great hurt. In both cases, the pain lingers, in one case for about forty years! That’s a long time to carry a load like that, but whenever I think about this matter, some of the hurt still floats to the top. In the other case, somewhat more recent, and very much more painful, the pain resurfaces at all kinds of inopportune times. (Sidebar: what would be an opportune time?)
Some of the readers of this blog will have some awareness of the more recent event. I would be very surprised if anyone had any idea about the earlier one. Nonetheless, both are in my baggage, which I have been trying to dump ever since. In neither case am I any longer in contact with the individual who caused me the hurt, and I do not intend to initiate anything. If contact should happen in the future, I will have to deal with matters as they come.
Can I forgive either of these people? I don’t know. I do know that I need to, but I also know that I may not be able to if and when the occasion arises. And that’s the problem. Forgiveness is a fundamental part of the life I have chosen to follow, but it is the most problematic part of that life. The instinctual urge is to seek revenge, to lash out at the one(s) who have caused us pain. But the call to turn our pain into the seeking of reconciliation requires us to go against our instincts.
The story isn’t over. It may never be over. But every day, I hear the call to seek reconciliation, to offer forgiveness, and to live in God’s love.
Forgiving others doesn’t mean forgetting what happened, but begins with remembering, and using that memory to seek reconciliation and a new relationship built on learning from the errors of the past. “Forgive and forget” is a naive idea. Rather we should seek to “forgive and go forward.” We can’t undo the past, but we can strive to build a better future.
What is forgiveness, after all? In the words of psychologist Diane Cirincione:
Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.
Pray for me, a sinner.