The Discipline of Forgiveness (1)

rope forgiveness

Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church

August 31, 2014

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this
that caused the Lord of bliss

to lay aside his crown for my soul?
Hymnal # 439

God’s wondrous love

The central message of Christianity is that God loves the world, and an essential element of that love is God’s forgiveness – that is, that God keeps on loving us even when we have grieved God’s heart.

To understand the depth of God’s love and forgiveness is difficult for us, because we know there are limits to our own love, and we know our ability to forgive is also limited. But we also know that if we want to follow Christ, we must learn how to be loving and forgiving.

So from the very start our spiritual journey involves two immense challenges:

understanding and receiving God’s wondrous love for us,
and learning how to love others as God loves us;

understanding and receiving God’s wondrous forgiveness,
and learning to forgive others as God forgives us.

This is not just a challenge for individual Christians, it’s a challenge to the whole Church:
A Church that proclaims that its God is a God of love and forgiveness must teach its own people how to be loving and forgiving.

Wisdom from the Scriptures

Many people today think of ‘the God of the Old Testament’ as a God of judgment and anger. But along with the stories of God’s wrath and judgment, stories of God’s love and mercy are woven through the books of the Old Testament. Just consider today’s reading from Exodus, where God meets Moses at the burning bush, and tells Moses he hears the cries of a suffering people. Because of the depth of God’s love, Moses is sent to set his people free. (Exodus 3:1-15)

The theme of forgiveness is also woven through the Old Testament. The first book, Genesis, ends with the story of Joseph – whose brothers were so jealous of him that they threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Joseph was carried away to Egypt, where he ended up interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, and became a leader of the Egyptians. At the end of the story (we’ll hear it two Sundays from now), Joseph was able to forgive his brothers in spite of the magnitude of their sins against him. (Genesis 50)

In the New Testament, God’s forgiveness is a central theme of Jesus’ message. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus teaches us that we, too, will always be welcomed home; but in the parable of the unforgiving steward, Jesus calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Jesus is telling us that our ability to receive forgiveness is linked to our ability to forgive others.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus emphasized the connection between receiving and giving forgiveness. He taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us.” Jesus followed the prayer with additional teaching about forgiveness: “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt 6:9-15)

The first disciples of Jesus knew well his teaching on forgiveness. This morning we’ve heard a portion of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome: “Let love be genuine… Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-21)

When we hear Jesus say, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:21-28) , we imagine ourselves being called to do great and difficult things for God. But what if our cross is not anything great, but the small, daily decision to love others when they are unlovable, the infinitely painful practice of forgiving others when they have hurt us? For those of us who find it hard to forgive – that would be almost every human on this earth – Jesus’ example of forgiveness may be the most difficult discipline of all.

Wisdom from modern medicine

Whenever we are hurt, we can quickly react with hurt, anger, or denial – and if we don’t stop and think, we can act out of those feelings. In addition, if we hold on to those feelings, they can fester into deep resentments and bitterness.

Researchers have found that unforgiveness has many physiological effects. These include increased heart rate and respiration, a narrowing of the blood vessels, and the release of powerful hormones such as adrenaline. All of the body’s systems are affected in a variety of ways. When this stress continues over a prolonged period of time, severe damage and illness can occur.

Mental health professionals also recognize that people struggling with unforgiveness often appear “stuck.” It is as if a part of their personality is fixed at a certain incomplete point. Think of someone you know – perhaps even you, yourself – who, in spite of being an accomplished adult, can sometimes be very childlike in relationships with others. Although there are many causes for this, unresolved bitterness is often at the core of the problem.

Forgiveness is necessary for our mental and emotional well-being. Indeed, forgiveness is a medicine that stops the infection of resentment that develops into the rotten disease of bitterness. Forgiveness interrupts this downward spiral and helps to set us on a path towards mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wholeness.

But how can we learn to forgive?

This summer Rob and I drove to Washington State and back, seeing family along the way. I had the joy of spending time with my brother and both sisters. Each visit had the same pattern; we retold stories of our childhood, things we did and said to each other, things our parents did and said to each other and to us. These were powerful memories – they must be, to last into a person’s seventies! And while there were many happy memories, there were also painful ones – remembering things said and done that hurt us, that angered us, things that have never been forgotten.

We are all bound to the past, with remembered joys and lasting pain – and each of us has learned, over many years, the importance of forgiving.

But why do these old memories have so much power? Sometimes I think a painful memory, especially a memory of deep hurt, is like a rope that binds us to the person who once hurt us. It is as if, in our minds, every time we see that person – every time we think of that person – that rope tugs at us again, the memory rises, and we are back at the original hurt, the original injustice, all over again.

I know our family isn’t the only family that has these lasting memories. Perhaps we all tie emotional cords around the people who hurt us – thinking that we have caught them, that we will never forget what they did or said.

And yet – when I’ve tied someone to me, I’ve also tied myself to them…. And until I untie that old cord, until I let go of them, I will be bound to them forever.

Some contemporary Christian wisdom

Richard Rohr writes,

Forgiveness is simply the religious word for letting go.

To forgive reality is to let go of the negative story line, the painful story line that you’ve created for it. If that story line has become your identity, if you are choosing to live in a victim state, an abused consciousness, it gives you a false kind of power and makes you feel morally superior to others.

But let me tell you, it will also destroy you. It will make you smaller and smaller as you get older. You will find that you have fewer and fewer people you can trust, fewer and fewer people, if any, that you can love. Life itself becomes a threat. Your comfort zone becomes tinier and tinier.

Thankfully, God has given us a way to not let the disappointments, hurts, betrayals, and rejections of life destroy us. It is the art of letting go. If we can forgive and let go, if we don’t hold our hurts against history and against one another, we will indeed be following Jesus. After the crucifixion, there’s no record of Jesus wanting to blame anybody or accuse anybody. In fact, his last words are breathing forgiveness: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).


Next week: practicing forgiveness