Cutting the chains of broken pasts: the grace of forgiveness
"Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." Jesus said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."
Forgiveness. What a challenging subject for our present day. Forgiveness, forgiveness, forget forgiveness. First we need justice. We need recompense for the wrongs done to us. We need recognition of the harms caused. I get this response. I’ve had this response. Here’s the fundamental problem with it though. If you are waiting for the other to admit, to acknowledge, to repay, you might spend your entire life waiting, festering in anger, frustration, bitterness, and cynicism, eventually pushing others away and hardening yourself emotionally so that you become brittle emotionally, and fragile in the face of subsequent challenges.
But wait, you might say to me. It was the person’s fault who wronged me. It was those people, or that group, that did this, this is all on them. But this is simply not true. I have listened to people recount horrific crimes done to them: women and their children raped by soldiers in front of their husbands before their husbands were murdered in front of them. So many forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse by family members - husbands, fathers, mothers, step fathers, uncles, siblings, classmates, priests, teachers, and doctors. I have heard of the most complex and convoluted stories of hurt, betrayal, manipulation, and more difficult stories where there is no clear blame, just complex relationships with misunderstandings and differing expectations.
And in all of these stories, those who are able to heal, those who are able to move forward living a life that is meaningful, purposeful and good to them, are those who are able to forgive the people or persons who hurt them, even when the latter individuals do not accept responsibility. Sadly, it is those who hold on to the pain done to them that become chained to it, imprisoned by it, as time goes on. They end up reliving that hurt and betrayal in every subsequent circumstance, so often missing the opportunity for joy, hope, peace and love right there in front of them.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek to hold people accountable for wrongs they commit, or to speak out against them. And I certainly believe we should discern and act in such a way as to seek justice, fairness, equality, and opportunity for people. The difficulty comes when our willingness to forgive is contingent on first getting justice or vengeance. For as I said, doing so can leave us chained to our past, and unable to create the space for others to change. And I think part of this is that we forget the central premise of forgiveness for Christians. Or we get the order of things all wrong.
You see when Jesus says, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,” it’s vital to remember that this prayer presumes that we can let go of what is owed us and forgive when we are wronged because we have already been forgiven for not giving to God what we owed God: perfect love, perfect peace, perfect words, perfect actions in response both to God, and to every other human being we encounter. Indeed, we owe to God and we owe to every other person, perfect love. But in a world of imperfect relationships, it is only through having been first forgiven by God who bears ours AND others’ failures; our fundamental and repeated betrayals; that being reconciled to God and neighbour is opened to all of us specifically when we do the tough work, painful work, fear invoking work, humble and self giving work, the faithful work of facing into our fears of rejection, and hurt, and anger and betrayal, JUST AS JESUS DID.
This is the way of Jesus. This is the life of Jesus. These are the words of Jesus. Abide with me, rest in me, for your evil, your sins are forgiven, now go and do likewise. Forgiving others, even those who don’t acknowledge their wrongs, allows us to live out that perfect love for neighbours, even those who harm us, enemies, in other words, that God demands of us. These are the first two commandments and all the others lead to this central point.
To forgive is to let go, not so that the one who hurts us is affirmed in what they have done - they are judged by God who sees all of their works. To forgive is to let go so that you don’t turn to your own sinful coping devices as Israel did, as Paul did at the cockcrow, as Judas did, as blind Paul did in murdering Christians: blind and deaf to God’s way.
To forgive can be terrifying, agonizing, and painful. It requires a sense of humility that few of us want to bear because we think it means suffering hurt and pain, losing face and status and settling for injustice. But this was Jesus’s way. He bore the reality of this so that it didn’t become the only reality open to us, making forgiveness irrelevant and vengeance the smart thing to exact, tearing everyone down until we are all dead. But justice and the peace and hope that arise from it is not attained through punishment and death. Rather justice is something opened up as a possibility only when forgiveness is on the table. Because forgiveness allows people to ask, to seek, to believe, even weakly, to come to terms with what they’ve done, to confess it openly, to bear the consequences, and still give reason to persist in the hope and faith of something more, better, meaningful, purposeful, holy, true, good and ultimately just.
Forgiveness opens the way for you to find God’s healing from wounds inflicted by others rather than closing you off to that healing. But it also opens the other person to God’s healing for themselves and whatever provoked their treatment of you. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re struggling with hurt and brokenness or frustration and anger, and you don’t know how to forgive, you don’t feel brave enough to open yourself to it, remember Jesus’s words: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” AMEN