Whenever I’m preaching, I listen to a wonderful podcast from Luther Seminary called “Sermon Brainwave.” Three biblical scholars talk about the week’s lessons and about the sorts of things a preacher might want to focus on or mention. And they often have great ideas and insights. This week, they were talking about the theme of forgiveness that is so clear in both the Old Testament and Gospel, and as they were talking along, one of them burst out, “It’s just so hard! Forgiveness is the hardest thing in the world to do!” Everyone laughed, mostly because we all know how true that is.
Jesus gave us a lot of challenges – feeding the hungry, making sure that the poor are treated justly, giving to those in need. But this one is different.
“Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
I don’t know about you, but even getting to seven times seems impossible to me! We are instinctual creatures, and our first instinct is to defend ourselves. If someone hurts us once, we are not about to let them hurt us again! And we have diagnostic labels for those people who do allow themselves to be hurt over and over. So is Jesus telling us to do something which surely can’t be good for us? I don’t think so. Let me talk a little about what forgiveness is and is not.
First of all, forgiveness is not permission. We have an obligation to make sure that we are safe and not in physical or emotional danger. And we have that obligation for those we love as well. If we are hurt by someone, in whatever way, we have to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent that happening again. Sometimes people who are in abusive situations think that forgiveness means allowing the abuser to continue. That is not true. In some situations, the person who hurt us may not have intended harm – they may have said something which they thought was harmless, only to discover later that it hurt us. But if we allow them to continue saying hurtful things, we don’t help anyone. It may be that all we need to do is to tell the person that they hurt our feelings. In more serious situations, we may need to make physical distance between ourselves and the person who has hurt us. But the important thing is that we do not allow ourselves or someone else to be hurt when we forgive.
Second, to forgive is not to forget. That doesn’t mean carrying a grudge or refusing to forgive. But it does mean not being naïve or childish. If we know that a friend is likely to say something tactless when we ask their opinion, it’s probably wise to avoid asking their opinion! People do and say all kinds of thoughtless, dumb things. Sometimes they are aware of it and sometimes not, but if we know someone well enough to know that they are likely to be hurtful in a situation, we need to find a way to keep that from happening.
Third, forgiveness is not once-and-for-all, at least not usually. If we have been hurt in some significant way, we will find the anger and resentment coming back from time to time. We are reminded of the hurt, and all of a sudden, we are feeling it all over again and wanting revenge and retribution, just as we did at the time. So we sometimes have to forgive seven times, or seventy-seven, or seven thousand!
Forgiveness is not permission to be hurt, it’s not forgetting, and it’s not something we only have to do once. So what is forgiveness? Perhaps the most striking feature of forgiveness is that it is a letting go.
Forgiveness is letting go of the need for revenge or retribution. The world does not need to operate on an endless eye-for-an-eye system. Surely, if the ongoing horrors in the Middle East have taught us anything, it should be that that system of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, doesn’t work. When we seek vengeance, we only cause more hurt, and the hurt may be to the other person, but it is most profoundly to ourselves. The damage that we do to our own hearts (and sometimes to our own physical health) by carrying that rage is deep and lasting. As the writer Anne Lamott says, “Refusing to forgive is like eating rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” And it creates an endless loop of hurt and destruction that never makes anything better.
And forgiveness is letting go of our need to control the universe. When we refuse to forgive, we are living out the delusion that the past can be changed. We say, “If only he had done such and such.” Or “I never should have said that.” But the past. The things that happened are over and done. There is no going back in time to fix them or demand they be different. And so forgiveness is letting that go and realizing the truth that the past is past. Forgiveness allows what happened to be what it was instead of pretending that it somehow could have been different.
And finally, and perhaps most important, forgiveness is letting go of other peoples’ power over us. In forgiving, we are claiming ourselves. As long as we hold onto the hurts of the past, we are not our own. We belong, at least in part, to the person who hurt us. But when we forgive, we let go of the power of that person over us. We no longer allow them to take up space in our hearts. We are free to live fully as ourselves and to let go of the role of victim which diminishes us. And, in the end, that means that forgiveness is really for us. We forgive, not just for the sake of the one who hurt us, but for our own sake. We forgive so that we can live in the freedom and happiness that God intends for us.
Listen to the Psalm for this morning again: “Bless the Lord, oh my soul/And all that is within me, bless His Holy name./ Bless the Lord, oh my soul/ and forget not all his benefits./He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities;/ He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with loving kindness./ As far as the east is from the west, so farhas he removed our sins from us./ As a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him. “
Nelson Mandela spent 10,000 days in prison simply because he worked for justice in South Africa. When he was finally freed, he could have carried rage or resentment or hatred. But he came out with love and a commitment to make his country a better place. When asked about it, he said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Nelson Mandela was able to forgive, and we are able to forgive, because we are first loved and forgiven by God. God’s love lifts the burden from us and frees us to love – both ourselves and others. May God give us also the grace and courage to leave our bitterness behind, to let go of the past and to walk with joy and freedom and courage, into the future.