The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant by Jan van Hemessen
I have had many pastoral conversations in the thirty years I have been ordained. The most common involves a person in crisis or who has a loved one in crisis, typically health related. The second most common conversation involves some aspect of forgiveness. Almost always the person coming to see me is struggling to forgive someone.
Jesus tells us to forgive a person seventy times. He knits forgiveness into the very fabric of the prayer he teaches us to say every day. Hanging on the cross his dying words are “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He even dares to make God’s forgiveness of our sins contingent on our ability to forgive others.
So we know we have to forgive, but there are times when it is hard, really hard. In truth, it can be one of the most difficult practices of the Christian faith. Over the course of my conversations with people, I have learned how wrong assumptions about forgiveness contribute to why we find it so difficult to do.
Here is one wrong assumption I hear often: I am not very good at forgiving. Most of us are much better at it than we realize because we do it all the time. You are driving and the person in the car next to you does not see you and cuts you off. When he realizes what he has done he waves his hand to say I am sorry. All is forgiven and you get on with your day and with your life. This kind of forgiveness happens all the time.
Here is another wrong assumption: if you forgive, everything will have to be like it was before. Pope John Paul II visited his would-be assassin in prison to tell him he forgave him, but the assassin still remained incarcerated. I read the story of a woman who shared something deeply personal with a trusted friend, asking it to be kept confidence, only to have that friend turn around and tell it to the members of their bible study group. The woman eventually forgave her friend, but never again shared anything personal with her.
Yes, you are to forgive a person seventy times, but after the second or third time you need to take steps to ensure the offender does not keep hurting you. There are times when forgiveness involves moving forward by maintaining consistent boundaries about appropriate behavior.
Another wrong assumption: if you still feel hurt, pain, and/or anger then you have not really forgiven the person. This week I watched a TED Talk by Sammy Rangel. It is both inspiring and difficult to hear. From the time he was three years old he endured his mother’s unimaginably brutal and degrading treatment until, at the age of 11, he ran away, lived on the streets, became a member of a gang, and fell into a life of drugs, crime, and violence. He goes to prison at 17 and comes out, in his words, more animal than human. His life begins to turn around the second time he is in jail as he participates in a counseling program and confronts his past. Now in his forties, he has forgiven his mother, but as he tells his story, it is obvious the experiences he suffered still hurt.
Extending forgiveness is just one step in what may be a long journey. Some hurts never go away completely, nor should they. But you want to work toward a point where they do not dominate your life. At the end of his talk Rangel says this:
As you can see, getting to this point is still very difficult to talk about… What I have learned is although the details of our lives may be different the underlying process of getting stuck or suffering in our parts of life is the same for all of us. We do not have to be victims of our experiences or in the way that we tell our stories but interestingly enough, stories are the only way out and it is us who creates those stories. We hold the power to change our stories and what they represent. I invite all of you to consider if it would serve you well to create a new story and a new path and to please remember that the things that held you down will one day hold you up.
Today Rangel has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and is helping young men and women get out of gangs and hate groups.
Emmett Aldrich, a mediator who uses Christian principles to help people resolve conflicts, writes this:
Healing from a hurt may generally come with the passage of time, but you must allow yourself time to reach the level of forgiveness appropriate for the circumstances. Deeply emotional circumstances or extremely sensitive hurts… will take time to move beyond the hurt before a person can even begin to consider forgiving those who caused the hurt.
When you are deeply wounded it is difficult to generate forgiveness, but your wounds won’t heal unless you forgive. In his book There is No Future without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu tells the story of two former soldiers visiting the Vietnam War Memorial. One veteran asks the other, “Have you forgiven those who held you as a prisoner of war?” The other answers, “I will never forgive them!” The first veteran responds, “Then it seems they still have you in prison, don’t they?” In his book What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey writes, “Not to forgive imprisons me in the past and locks out all potential for change. I thus yield control to another, my enemy, and doom myself to suffer the consequences of the wrong.” When you forgive you let go of being a victim and begin to live your life again.
This also is from Emmett Aldrich:
Forgiveness is perhaps one of the most emotional and psychological experiences we will ever encounter. It involves feelings of anger, revenge, resentment, hurt, hostility, sadness, bitterness, retaliation or retribution. At the same time, depending on whether we are seeking forgiveness, are asked to forgive someone else or forgive ourselves, it can also involve reconciliation, compromise, concessions, contrition, atonement, repentance or redemption.
The reason God forgives us is to create the possibility we can grow and become a better person. We extend forgiveness to others in the hope they will grow and become better people. Not to forgive locks the other person in his or her mistake and none of us should be defined by our worst moments. The core of who we are is set at baptism. Each of us is a beloved child of God and we are related to one another as members of a household of faith. When we are wronged this relationship is damaged, and when we forgive we do our part to help it be restored. This is what God does for us and it is why God asks us to forgive each other.
I really struggled writing this sermon. This past week I had two more conversations with parishioners struggling with forgiveness, so I wanted the sermon to be a perfect and definitive statement on how and why to do it. I have come to see that forgiveness is not a mechanical act nor is there a recipe for how to do it. Each hurt is as unique as the person who experiences it and forgiveness is more an art than a science. Please know if you are struggling to forgive you are always welcome to come and talk with me.