“The Gift of Forgiving”

Isaiah 55:9

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

When I was a young pup working for IBM, I remember stomping off to church one Sunday.  Either I was too angry to go to work or just needed to do something that was not work.  Like so many just starting careers, I worked long hours and weekends.

I recall being blinded with anger about the way my manager and his manager were treating me.  I was working on a big deal, close to winning or losing; I was also naïve, and they were taking advantage of me. A long list of wrongs and injustices was burning a hole inside of me.

Our minster at St. Luke’s Episcopal in Montclair NJ had left a successful law practice to become a preacher, but carried his experience by deftly arguing his sermons as if summing a jury.  He taught me so much of Justice.  Mercy.  Beliefs.  Behaviors.  God as judge and savior.

That day, Nick Cook’s sermon was on the five forms of forgiveness.  Pairing personal stories with biblical teachings, he moved from one example of forgiveness between people to another.  It was real life, intellectually appealing and captivated me.

After so many years, I can honestly say I no longer recall the first four of the five forms of forgiveness.  The only form that remains with me today, the form of forgiveness that seared through me was the fifth.  Nick professed; “if you cannot find it within your heart to forgive another person, get on your knees to ask God to forgive you, for there is nothing that our God is unable to forgive in human life.”

I learned that allowing wounds to fester will separate us from God, diminish God’s grace.

I went back to work.  I was still angry and still saw the injustices. But, everything had changed. Somehow I forgave them.  They had not sought forgiveness nor really cared about the wrongs I felt.  Apology?  No way. But, by God’s grace I forgave them and felt a burden lifted.

That morning, I learned of the healing power of forgiveness by receiving a divine gift.  I also felt the direct connection between worshipping God on Sunday and my life from Monday through Friday.

Why is forgiveness so hard?  We can recall the details of events, the wrongs, the severity of wounds, or the distance between expectations and reality.  Sometimes we make them up…but most times not.

When we think about forgiving each other, how do you separate the call to forgive from a desire for repentance, reparations, apologies, justice and yes…punishment.  We find all these in scripture as well as our lives.  So at what time do you forgive?  After apologies and contrite heart?  After justice is served?  It seems complex.  These are the stories that compose our lives, and the emotions are not to be denied.

Since telling my story about forgiveness at a Stephen Ministry meeting, I’ve had several heart-felt conversations. I learned some of you don’t like to talk about forgiveness since it acknowledges shortcomings, failings, or grievances, and some of us would just like to ignore these.

But, we are a Christian faith community.  All the major religions of monotheism and of the east place forgiveness at the core of teachings and worship. Forgiveness is part of our human existence, and to not forgive or receive forgiveness is toxic.

Some mental health professionals and academics may prescribe a 9-step method to forgive, and the Internet has a 13-step process to isolate emotions and pursue forgiveness.  Stanford University even has a “Forgiveness Project.”

There are other mental health professions who are joined by pastoral counselors who claim forgiveness is not a process.  They argue no one can prescribe how, why and when, since genuine forgiveness is highly dependent upon each person and the events in his or her life.

But, the one thing they all agree upon is the ability to forgive opens the path to emotional and spiritual health.

I think we are all just people, trying to get it right before God and with one another.

We are so filled with emotions, persuaded by a culture that promotes self-preservation, celebrates trumping one another and holds on to grudges as a source of power.  Does forgiveness really make us less competitive?  Our world challenges us to believe in and practice the simple gift of forgiveness.

In Isaiah, God speaks to us; “ incline your ear to me so you may live.”  We are told to “seek the lord…God is near…and will abundantly pardon.”  Isaiah confides God’s ways are not our ways; God’s thoughts and ways are higher.  We can only be humbled by limits of our understanding, and then calmed by accepting what is clouded or complex for us is a simple and life-giving gift from God.

In scripture, the root of forgiveness means to release, to cover over, or to put into the ends of the ocean.  Forgiveness is the heart of the golden rule and practiced over and over again by God when the Israelites strayed, when David inflicted cruelty, and countless other examples.

On October 2, 2006, a thirty-two-year-old gunman entered a one‐room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Ordering the boys and other adults to leave, the killer opened fire and shot the ten remaining girls execution-style, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building.

The unfathomable had happened to children.  As a nation, we mourned with the Amish but then were astonished by them.  Before the sun had set on that awful October day, members of the Amish community appeared at the home of the family of the man who had slain their children, to forgive him.

Amish Grace, written by authors who teach at small colleges with Anabaptist roots and have studied the Amish for years, describes how forgiveness has been embedded in Amish society through five centuries of tradition and is grounded in the firm belief that forgiveness is required by the Christian gospel.  This book also recounts interviews immediately after the tragedy and then much later with community leaders and families of the victims.

A mother, whose daughter died in the shooting, acknowledged that forgiveness is an ongoing struggle.  “Forgiveness stretches out over time, but you have to start out with the will to forgive.  The bitterness may reenter your mind from time to time, and then you have to think about forgiveness again (Kraybill et al, 120).”

The Amish will pray The Lord’s Prayer three to five times a day, every day.   It is the prayer they most rely upon when speaking to God as a community and claim it for personal petitions.  The Lord’s Prayer weaves their need to be forgiven and to forgive into the fabric of their lives and culture.

For the Amish, forgiveness does not mean; “‘I didn’t really mind’ or ‘It didn’t really matter.’  I did mind and it did matter, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to forgive at all.”   The authors observe; “the decision to forgive does not mean a victim has erased bitter emotions, but it does mean that emotional transformation is more likely to follow (Kraybill et al 135).”

Perhaps their simple life style allows them to humbly accept God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours, but yet by doing so, they can draw close to God.

Isaiah paints an image of God’s ways as beyond our human ability to grasp, but also insists God is not disinterested in our lives or unable to connect with the earthly realm.  God comes to us as the one who animates the rain and snow, and sows the seeds to produce the bread we eat.

In Jesus Christ, God lives in a human body. In Jesus Christ, we have an image of God who endures hurts, lives amidst injustice, and breaks down the complexity of our lives.  Forgiveness is the point of Jesus’ entire ministry:  he was a friend of tax collectors, sinners and promised the kingdom to those culturally excluded.

Jesus taught us to approach God with child-like intimacy and trust.  When speaking to his disciples, he prayed a simple prayer.  Father…you are in control…help me this day…forgive me…help me to forgive others.

A remarkable translation of scripture, The Common English Bible, believes the common Greek employed at the time would have us pray the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us the ways we have wronged you (God) just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.”

To forgive is to ask to be released from the actions, words, thoughts and feelings by which we have hurt or ignored others.  Our relationship with God can be healthy only when our relationship with other men and women is free from bitter resentments. (Eduard Schweizer Gospel of Matthew. 151).

The relationship between forgiving another and receiving God’s grace is tightly coupled but is not a transaction, or a conditional if/then.

Forgiveness removes a barrier with another person and in doing so takes us a step closer to receiving more of God’s abundant grace.   If we are holding on to two suitcases of baggage filled with wrongs, how can we take hold of a new gift?

I take to heart a caution about pushing too hard on forgiveness.  Noted scholar in pastoral care, Pamela Cooper-White, criticizes the tendency of Christian churches to pressure victims of sexual abuse to forgive too quickly. She writes, “all too often, survivors of violence are re-traumatized by pastors who press forgiveness upon them.  If the survivor tries to forgive too soon, she can fail, and her failure will reinforce all the self-blame and shame (Cry of Tamar).”  Cooper-White’s observation may be applicable in other traumatic events and we, I, cannot be too cavalier in dispensing advice.

We are just trying to get it right with God, one another, and ourselves.  We need to keep trying.

Our lives are stories.  When we tell our stories, either to another or to ourselves, it will be marked by instances in which we have suffered an injustice, been neglected, felt diminished by another, or were deeply wounded.  Our lives are shaped by these unique events. How often do we carry the burden of a hurt without any intent to forgive?  Or, does your story include when you have forgiven another person or felt forgiven?  To unlearn the habit of feeling bitter, resentful or hurt requires us to retell a story that embraces the gift of forgiveness. This requires risking a future other than the one imposed by our memory.  Forgiving is spiritually courageous.

We can be stingy with forgiveness. We may equate withholding forgiveness as a way to ensure we are not hurt again.  To not forgive can make us feel powerful.  Yet, we do not become weak through forgiveness, we can become stronger.

We might avoid forgiving the one person who is most challenging to forgive: ourselves.  We know our thoughts, words and deeds that deny God’s love. We know the gifts, talents and dreams we don’t pursue because they are too risky or will upset someone.  Perhaps start by forgiving yourself.

Lent calls us to examine the content of our lives as we prepare to receive the hope of Easter.

Some will choose to observe Lent by giving up a practice, habit or consumption that is not life-giving.  We’ve probably heard them for years and maybe even made a similar commitment to give up drinking or chocolate or sweets for 40 days.

If “giving up” and sacrificing resonates with you.  Fine. Why don’t you try to give up a grudge or a hurt?  This may free the path to forgiveness.

But, if the season of Lent is to draw us closer to God, let’s pursue Lenten practices that lean towards God and seek to restore this precious relationship. Reframe Lent not as “giving up” but instead as making room for God to enter a cluttered and complex life.

Seek God, and if in the seeking you find obstacles in your way, let them go, not just for Lent, but also for good.   Choose to move closer to God, and you might find the ability to forgive.  Choose to be open to receiving new life on Easter and forgive yourself.  Then keep this Lenten practice as a discipline to stay close to God after Easter and into the days and weeks that follow.  Keep making room.  God has always made room for you.