The rain flooded so many homes in the north shore this month. Couches, chairs, boxes of papers were discarded in the streets. It was easy to tell which neighborhoods had flooded basements. And we know that putting all of the ruined furniture outside and draining the water was only the beginning of the clean up. If the water had crept up, dry wall reconstruction was necessary. The basement of the church flooded so much that we needed to remove all of the carpeting. We could have just run a carpet cleaning machine over it. But instead we hired a crew that promised not only to clean, but to “deep clean” the damage, a deep clean that would remove all evidence of flooding. That meant all meetings or programs in the basement would have to be put on hold until the work was complete, and that would mean a lot of inconvenience. But in the end it would be worth it. It would look like new, and we wouldn’t be reminded of it.
Real forgiveness is a lot like that in life. We can either clean or deep clean. Sometimes in life we try to “forgive and forget” but we hold on to resentment. We don’t go for the deep clean. After all, it does take more effort and cost. Have you ever intended to let something go, something that needed to be put outside, but later realized that it is still there? You didn’t go for the deep clean. So many times we store things that we feel are out of sight and out of mind, but they are only put “out of sight.” We have kept something that should have been thrown away. This happens especially in our relationships with others. Writer Gabriel Marquez wrote about a married couple that held onto to a fight they had over a bar of soap. Neither side would back down. The fight had led to seven months of silence between them. Marquez writes in the book Love in the Time of Cholera: “Even when they were old and placid they were very careful about bringing it up, for the barely healed wounds could begin to bleed again as if they had been inflicted only yesterday.”
Why do we hold onto grudges that need to be forgiven? Maybe we feel that the person who offended needs to be taught a lesson, that they need to be punished for what happened. But usually it is the person who is holding on who is punished. Have you heard of hoarding? Television has revealed how far hoarding can go. You may not realize it, but there are people who keep so many
possessions that many rooms in their homes have not been entered in years because the rooms are piled to the ceiling with clutter. It might be old magazines or newspapers, old clothes, or just odds and ends, and the items begin to fill rooms and even fill homes. Sometimes hoarders get trapped inside and can’t get out. An organizational expert said that the reason people hoard is because they feel they may need something again, or because the object holds memories that they do not want to forget.
When we hoard the offenses against us we waste precious space in our lives. We don’t need to fill ourselves with the clutter of grudges. We don’t need to preserve a bitter past. Why not clean it out and fill that space with fresh, clean experiences that begin right now? The Bible tells us that is the way we should forgive. When the Bible talks about a deep clean forgiveness it uses beautiful Hebrew imagery and clever Greek analogies. The book Forgive and Love Again lists the word pictures that the Bible employs. There are images of throwing out garbage that has been piled up. There are images of shooting an arrow out of sight; letting a ship leave the dock and sail away; and cleaning a wall of graffiti. Each of these and many others share the same deep clean action.
Several years ago I attended a conference led by Gregory Jones of Duke Divinity School who wrote the book, Embodying Forgiveness. He taught that forgiveness is a choice that we must make. It is not a feeling. In fact, we may never feel as if we need to forgive, especially if the person doesn’t deserve it. We may feel that they have not earned the right to be forgiven. If a person could earn it, they would not need to be forgiven, but it probably cannot ever be earned completely.
Jones said that there is a difference between therapeutic forgiveness and Christian forgiveness. When you forgive with therapeutic forgiveness, it makes you feel better. You get it out of your life. That is a good thing but I think he might say that is the clean, not the deep cleaning. Christian forgiveness involves God. In the New Testament Paul writes about forgiving others because God has forgiven us. This is a different motivation that puts it beyond the therapeutic model. It means that when we forgive someone, the forgiveness that we offer is a gift of mercy based on God’s gift to us. The humility of God’s forgiveness brings a realization that if we can truly be forgiven, then we are able to truly forgive. So in some way when we forgive others, we have brought the matter to God, and God puts it away.
This seems a little complicated because it is. It is the Biblical idea of “Vengence is the Lord’s.” Have you ever heard that saying and wondered what it means? It means that we put away the right to get even. We surrender vengeance but not justice. I heard that when Pope John Paul was interviewed
after he was shot, he said that he forgave the person, but that the person still had to go to prison.
Remember what Gregory Jones taught: Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. God never says, “Forgive them if you feel like it.” Forgiveness is not about your feelings. If you have been deeply hurt, you will probably never “feel” like forgiving someone. Forgiveness is a choice, a decision you make in your heart. Forgiveness means letting go of the anger and the desire for revenge. After we’ve been wronged, wounded, cheated, betrayed, nothing seems more natural than to get even with the person who hurt us. We want that person to feel at least as much pain as we felt. We want suffering because of what happened to us. But that is keeping a room of garbage inside ourselves that haunts us again and again and keeps us from being deep clean.
Maybe it is not another that we need to forgive. Maybe we need to forgive ourselves. We know that it is true. Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself. And when we resent ourselves and keep that inside, it can make us sick. Science has proven again and again that your blood pressure can shoot up, your digestion can become unsettled, and your mind can race when you do not forgive yourself. The physical effects can immobilize you. I remember when my friend Cade and I were warming up for our high school baseball game. We threw the baseball back and forth in a steady rhythm. He looked away right as I released the ball. When he looked back the ball hit him right in the face. I felt so bad that I couldn’t play in the baseball game that day. I felt ill with guilt.
Another moment happened just recently. I was talking to my mother on the phone about a decision to move to another side of Winnetka. She said that she would visit to help us move. Whenever we move she loves helping, but my wife Christine loves pampering and entertaining her, which adds a lot of stress to the busyness of a move. So as I hung up the phone, I accidentally pushed speaker phone instead of hanging it up. After Christine said, “Why does your mother always visit when we move?” the phone’s off the hook signal went off. Maybe she didn’t hear that comment, the world will never know. Christine finally forgave me, but it took a long time for me to forgive myself for adding another chapter to the adventures of mother-in-law – daughter-in-law relations.
We punish ourselves for mistakes we have made in our past. We feel guilty and shamed. That self-loathing needs to be redeemed. We cannot hoard those feelings. Dr. Fred Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, writes: “Feeling bad about things you’ve done in the past can create a pretty painful present. So while you’re learning how to forgive yourself and move on, give your mind and body a break from all the shame and guilt by
replacing them with gratitude. Forgiveness is a tool with which we face what we’ve done in the past, acknowledge our mistakes, and move on. It does not mean that you condone or excuse what happened. It dose not mean that you forget. Remember the saying, ‘For everything there is a season’? Well, there’s a season for our suffering and regret. We have to have that; but, the season ends; the world moves on, and we need to move on with it!” When you do not forgive yourself, you keep something between you and God. In John 8 Jesus tells a man, “I do not condemn you, go and sin no more.”
The best example of forgiving yourself is found in the contrast between the apostles Judas and Peter. Judas hung himself after he wronged Jesus. Peter was warned not to wrong Jesus, but he did several times. Each had a huge amount of guilt. Yet Peter forgave himself and made significant changes in his life. Peter became a vital part of creating and leading the church. What’s in your life right now that you are carrying around? What is cluttering up your life because you cannot forgive another or forgive yourself? Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” With God’s help, we can all have a deep cleaned life and grasp a future free of the clutter of vengeance. We can forgive because in Christ we are forgiven. Our Scripture from Isaiah says if we are as red as scarlet, or like wool that has been dyed twice and is as red as crimson, God will make us as white as snow. And God can. Through the power of God, may we all be deep clean. Amen.