Forgiveness is a tall order. Wading through life gives us all plenty of opportunity to forgive others and to need that same forgiveness ourselves.
And yet with all this practice we routinely have trouble getting this forgiveness business right.
More people come to me for help in forgiving someone who has injured them than any other pastoral issue. So the next few posts will offer some reflections on forgiveness.
The Christian starting place is not a commandment that we learn to forgive. And it is certainly not a biblical how-to for the forgiveness process.
Jesus taught us to approach life as people who have fouled things up and who know the joy and the relief of God’s extravagant mercy.
Notice that my claim is that Jesus taught us this. I didn’t suggest that all Christians have gotten our minds around it.
Here’s one reason I say this.
“I know that God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself.” More people have said this to me than I like to count.
Parents regret being unkind to their children or simply being absent.
Moments of cowardice, intimate betrayals, petty dishonesties, marital infidelities, and a thousand other kinds of personal failings burden some people with the weight of a persistent remorse.
Guilt gets bad press these days. But strictly speaking it’s a healthy response to our own wrongdoing. A well-formed conscience alerts us with pangs of remorse when we do something wrong.
Feelings of remorse direct us to admit that we blew it. We were wrong.
So far so good. It’s the next step that burdens so many lives.
One misstep is to turn guilt about a specific act into a generalized sense of shame.
For instance, years after his father had committed suicide, Frederick Buechner found a little note his father had written tucked inside one of his books. The note read: I’m no damn good.
Buechner’s father gave up on himself. And while they do not take their own lives, people we rub elbows with every day give up on themselves in small ways. They hide what they take to be ugly about themselves for fear of rejection or ridicule.
There is another misstep that may at first sound healthy and positive. Some admit their mistakes and dedicate themselves to making up for their failings.
The problem with this strategy is that it commits us to justifying our own existence. Even if we could make up for the harm we had caused others in the past, I’ve never met anyone yet who avoided hurting other people along the way or failing to live up to their best selves at various turns.
It’s like continuing to borrow (or gamble) to get out of debt. We never catch up. As long as we’re trying to justify our own existence, every new day comes with the same question. What have you done for me lately? Today could be the day we find out you were a mistake.
Forgiveness begins with each of us. That’s not to say that I take the initiative by forgiving others. And it certainly does not mean that I forgive myself.
Forgiveness begins with my sober recognition that I have failed to get things right. I do not and cannot justify my existence.
I am in desperate need of mercy. And Christians believe that this is precisely what we have received. The Cross of Jesus Christ has justified our lives once and for all.
Even if I could, I do not have to forgive myself. It’s above my pay grade anyway. God forgives me.
Entering each day as a recipient of mercy changes everything. I am free to love today and free from the fear of failing. God’s mercy is not a one-time offer. It’s the unwavering foundation of a whole new life.
So what does this mean about how to forgive? And does forgiving mean forgetting? The following posts will take up these questions, among others.
This question also came up last night at our Bible study: Have you ever not received communion because:
“Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend….”
It was the second clause that we were discussing, and I admitted that there had been two times in my life when that clause held me back from communion. We call that conscience. Do we acknowledge it, or do we skim past it with the ritual? I can only answer for myself.
The first time I withheld myself from communion at church was a personal family matter that was very much “in the neighborhood.” The second time was in this century, and my neighborhood was global, and the neighbor was the President of the United States. Having to re-think and personalize him humbled me a little bit (probably not enough), but enough to stop hating him and to allow me to re-join our community.
Certainly I don't think forgiving means forgetting; but it does mean that the other is human too, and you work as hard as you can to prevent that person (government) from making the same mistake again.
This is the opposite to de-humanizing that I wrote about before; this is humanizing. Finding where we can connect is very important.