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Forming the Forgiveness Habit

The parents of a newborn daughter overheard their toddler talking to his baby sister in her crib. The little guy said, “Tell me what it’s like to be close to God. I’m starting to forget.”

This story has made the rounds. And even though it may not report an event that really happened, it does convey a truth about the spiritual life.

We are unsettled by a once-intimate connection that haunts us from the edge of conscious memory. A connection that would assure us that we are loved, that our life matters. A connection toward which we may grope in the form of lesser loves like pleasure or wealth, power or prestige. 

Such loves inevitably disappoint and leave us empty and disheartened. We are looking for something more that such things may promise but can never deliver.

St. Augustine famously put it this way in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” More recently, the author and non-believer Julian Barnes says it a way that I find especially striking, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” (from Nothing to be Afraid Of)

Jesus is God connecting to us and connecting us to each other. In other words, God is with us. Already. What is missing, as Richard Rohr frequently says, is awareness.

As it turns out, Jesus teaches us how to become aware. He models everyday practices that open us to God’s presence and align us with God’s love. 

His extended teaching on these practices appears in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). To illustrate the lesson, we’re going to focus on one of those practices. It’s found among what commentators have named “The Antitheses.” They call them this because Jesus repeatedly says, “You have heard it said…….. but I say.”

At the risk of oversimplifying, I invite you to think of the Antitheses as crystallizing what it means to be a disciple: We gradually become our true selves by getting over ourselves. Or, to paraphrase Jesus a little more closely, we get a life by giving our life away. Or as he put it elsewhere, we take up our cross and follow him. We become our true selves by loving what God loves how God loves it.

So, let’s move from this general summary to the specific practice of forgiveness. Here’s what Jesus tells us:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

Very few of us seriously consider murdering another person. By contrast, most of us do get angry from time to time. Some of us are quick to anger and others have become habitually angry. Whether our anger takes the form of seething resentment, passive aggression, bitter cynicism, or episodic explosions, it’s all some form of anger.

When he equates anger with murder, Jesus is warning us about the potentially destructive power of everything from irritation to rage. He’s not saying, “Don’t feel that way.”  On the contrary, he exemplifies righteous anger from time to time himself. Remember his exchanges with religious authorities and that little incident when he upended the money changers’ tables in the Temple.

However, Jesus is, well, Jesus. He embodies the wisdom required to channel volatile passions into loving action. A wisdom that lots of us are in the early stages of learning. His goal is not to blame us for what we don’t know. He aims to impart his wisdom to us.

We all know that Jesus is big on the whole forgiveness thing. So it’s no surprise that he will teach us to move from anger to forgiveness. But Jesus has no illusion that we’ll hop right into forgiveness just because he tells us to. Forgiveness is hard, hard work. It can become a habitual spiritual posture, but building a habit takes time, effort, lots of repetition, and no small amount of divine help.

So, as a preliminary step in learning to be a forgiving person, Jesus tells us to do this: 

“When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)

In other words, start learning how to forgive by remembering that you’ve hurt somebody.

You’ve probably heard that hurt people hurt people. That seems true to me. Jesus appears to have thought so too. But he want us to draw a different, deeper lesson from that saying than what we normally derive.

Well-meaning friends and pastors and teachers have probably told you to remember that the person who has hurt you was probably hurt by someone else. That’s how they’re dealing with their own pain. The idea is that you’ll be more likely to forgive the offender because you understand this about them.

Jesus turns this sideways. He says, yes, hurt people hurt people. And you’re a hurt person. So that probably means that you’ve hurt people. Jesus edges us away from focusing on the injury someone else has caused us to the pain that we have caused others. He helps us get over ourselves.

Paradoxically, we discover that we are already forgiven only once we realize that we need it. It may seem odd to hear, but contrition—our sincere remorse for hurting somebody—is a kind of knowing. Knowing that God loves us. Knowing our true self as the beloved. And that’s the first step on the path toward becoming a habitual forgiver.

In the end, we don’t forgive because Jesus tells us we have to or so that God will forgive us. We forgive because we realize that we are forgiven. In other words, at least for a moment, we remember what it’s like to be close to God.

Looking for a Lenten study? My latest books include study guides for groups or individuals. Click here to learn more about Looking for God in Messy Places and click here to check out A Resurrection Shaped Life.

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