That is forgiveness
Researching forgiveness online, I stumbled across a video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65aYpfDkAvU) that claimed, in typical internet hyperbole, to be the greatest illustration of forgiveness ever. So I watched this portion of a sermon where a pastor shared a story about a bit of unorthodox counseling. A couple had come into his office because their marriage was in jeopardy. They were bickering quite a bit. Each felt a distance growing between them. They simply were not getting along any more. When the pastor asked them to be more specific about their issues, he was surprised to find out they did not name any of the “biggies” – money, sex, or kids. Instead they were complaining about everyday, petty kinds of stuff that almost every married couple deals with. He snores. She didn’t put gas in the car. He doesn’t clean up after himself. She seems to be on the phone constantly.
Not one of these things were the reason for their discomfort in their marriage, but the cumulative effect of all of this was overwhelming. It was clear that they were holding a bunch of little stuff against one another. It was clear the pastor what he needed to do. He needed to get them to let go of some of this.
His counseling technique was, let’s call it, interesting. He gave each of them a pad and a pen, sent them to separate parts of the room. Then he instructed them to write down every complaint they had against the other. “Make a list,” he said, “of every time the other has hurt you, offended you, made you feel bad.” They immediately started writing. Remembering every little incident they each filled several pages. When it looked like they were done, the pastor asked, “Are you sure you’ve written down everything? Are you satisfied that you haven’t left anything out?” Both looked over their pages and agreed they had it all.
“Good,” said the pastor. “Grab your list of complaints and follow me.”
He led them from his office, down the hall toward the sanctuary, but they didn’t go to the sanctuary. Instead the pastor stopped short and instead opened the door labeled Men’s Room inviting the couple inside. He led them to a stall and invited the couple to stand around the toilet with him. The pastor then said, “I want you to take those papers and toss them into the toilet.”
A little perplexed and hesitant, not sure they really wanted to let go of all this stuff, the couple finally did as they were asked. The papers went into the water and the pastor flushed. The three of them watched in silence as the hurts, the complaints, the troubling things about their marriage swirled and disappeared.
He then led them back to the office and said, “That’s forgiveness. If you want to talk about this stuff again, if you want to punish your partner, then you go get that paper.”
Gross, I know. I don’t think I’ll be using that counseling technique anytime soon, but I like the point he is making. There is some stuff in our lives, some hurts, some pains, that we just need to flush away.
I would guess that if I asked who in this room can think of someone who has caused them harm, hurt their feelings, made them feel bad, everyone would raise a hand. Life in community is not easy. We do things that annoy one another, bother one another, and even hurt one another. Sometimes those things are done intentionally. Other times they are accidental or at least unintended. It happens in our families, like this couple. It happens in the classroom when something is said as a “joke” that really hurts. It happens at work where one may be condescending to us. It happens when a friend lies to us, even if they say it was to save our feelings. Gossip, questionable ethics, threats, physical harm, emotional abuse, neglect… The list could go on and on. Big things, little things, all kinds of things hurts in our lives.
What do we do with them?
As Christians we can often find ourselves conflicted. On the one hand, we know we are supposed to forgive. On the other, we want to protect ourselves from the hurt. Does Jesus really want us to become unprotected doormats? No. Jesus wants to free us!
As we have shared this worship series called Radical Forgiveness I have become even more aware of just how difficult it is for us to flush our hurts. I have had several people talk to me about their specific issue, and wondering if I think they should actually forgive that person who has hurt them so deeply, and continues to hurt them. It would be so much easier for me to say that you are justified in holding on to your hurts, that yes those relationships should remain strained and broken, and yes that other person is a jerk and God doesn’t like them either. That would be easy, but that would be wrong. That is not what I read in the Bible. That doesn’t match what I know about God. God is a God of forgiveness.
I am so happy about that when it applies to me. I know I need my sins forgiven. I know that I have done things that God has told us not to do, and not done things that I am supposed to do. So I am very happy as I rely on God’s mercy and grace.
I am far less happy though about God’s grace when it applies to that coworker who sabotaged me and almost derailed my career, or that parent who messed me up into adulthood, or that goofball that cut me off in traffic. Then, in the more difficult situations, I want to know about the justice and wrath of God.
Two Sundays ago I preached what I called the “Three-Word Sermon” (http://www.joeiovino.com/2011/08/08/three-word-sermon-sermon-text/) The three words were “You are forgiven.” I really liked preaching that sermon, and concluding with those three phrases we most want to hear sincerely uttered to us that echo the Kingdom of God: “I love you,” “I forgive you,” and “supper is ready.” I think that is a message that we need to hear. We need to let go of those things that we have done for which we have trouble forgiving ourselves. It is so good to hear that second most popular response to the question – I forgive you.
The problem comes when we begin to realize that the “Three-Word Sermon” doesn’t just apply to us – but also applies to everyone else, even the people who have hurt us.
Forgive and forget?
As I intimated earlier, many Christians struggle with this internal dilemma of knowing Jesus calls us to forgive, yet wanting to deal with the offense. I believe that struggle comes from a misunderstanding of what forgiveness is.
Most of us were taught, and consequently believe, an old adage that says, “forgive and forget.” As if forgiveness is pretending that the hurts never happened, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to victimized by the same person time and again. That is not the case.
Jesus addresses that in the Bible lesson today.
My guess is that most people, even those who have never come to church, read the Bible, or gone to a Sunday School class know the second part of this morning’s reading – the seventy-seven times part. Many though may not know the first part, and both need to be read together.
The entirety of Matthew 18 is a conversation between Jesus and the disciples that talks about living in community, especially a community of faith. The chapter opens with Jesus and the disciples talking about false teachers who lead people away from God. The conversation then turns to those who tempt others to sin, and about God’s love for those who are outside of the church. Then the conversation turns toward those who hurt us.
Jesus says this, “If another member of the church sins against you…” forget about it. Just forgive them, assume it was a mistake, pretend it never happened, stop being so sensitive, and move on. Uh…no! That is not what Jesus says. He doesn’t tell the disciples just to sweep the whole thing under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. Instead he gives them a multistep process for dealing with the offense – one that we should continue to follow today.
Step one is to confront the person “when the two of you are alone.” Jesus says that if there is restoration, awesome! If not, don’t give up yet.
Step two is to grab a couple of friends and bring them with you and confront the person again. If there is reconciliation now, great. If not, move on to step three.
Step three is to “tell it to the church.” Ask the church to arbitrate this dispute between you and the one who has hurt you. If there is reconciliation, fantastic. If not, now we have a problem.
Jesus says that the next course of action is to boot the person, kick them out of the church. That doesn’t sound very forgiving by our definition of “forgive and forget.”
Peter then chimes in with a great question all of us want the answer to: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As much as seven times?” Peter is asking our question – When is enough, enough? When are we allowed to hold onto our anger and take revenge on the one who has hurt us?
Peter is trying to be generous and maybe even a bit pious when he offers the number 7. It was a fairly common rabbinic teaching in that day that the answer to the question was THREE. Forgive the offender 3 times, but if it happens a fourth time you didn’t have to forgive anymore. Scholars point out that Peter’s guess of seven doubles the conventional wisdom and adds one for good measure. He is going above and beyond in forgiving by the standards the conventional wisdom under which his culture lives.
My guess is that Peter expected Jesus to say something like, “Oh no, not seven. Maybe 5.” Well, Peter got the first part right, Jesus did say, “Not seven times,” but then he continued going completely the other way. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” – or “seventy times seven” – there is probably a footnote in your Bible telling you that the Greek could be translated either way.
So the number of times you need to forgive is 77 or 490. This means, of course, that all of us need to get much better at our record keeping of who has wronged us. We need to get a ledger with a page for every person in our lives and spend time at the end of every day marking down how they have hurt us. Then when they hit 491 – bingo! We got ‘em!
Uh, no. Jesus is not saying that we need to keep a better record of the people who have wronged us, but rather that we need to stop keeping track altogether.
And alas, we have that Christian dilemma of forgiveness. Just a few verses earlier, in the previous paragraph Jesus told us that when someone won’t own up to their hurting of you, there is a process that may lead to kicking the offending person out of the church. Now he is telling us to forgive everyone all the time. Which is it, Jesus? Justice or forgiveness? Forgiving or voting them off the island of my life? Am I supposed to be a doormat or a rock?
Again, I think the problem is that many of us have a distorted view of forgiveness. A fellow pastor put together a list of “a few things forgiveness does not mean:
- It does not mean approving of what someone else did.
- It does not mean pretending that evil never took place.
- It does not mean making excuses for other people’s bad behavior.
- It does not mean justifying evil so that sin somehow becomes less sinful.
- It does not mean overlooking abuse.
- It does not mean denying that others tried to hurt you repeatedly.
- It does not mean letting others walk all over you…
- It does not mean forgetting the wrong that was done.
- It does not mean pretending that you were never hurt.
- It does not mean that you must restore the relationship to what it was before…
- It does not mean there must be a total reconciliation as if nothing ever happened.
- It does not mean that you must tell the person that you have forgiven them.
- It does not mean that all negative consequences of [those actions] are canceled.”
If you were with us for week 1 of this series, almost a month ago now, we talked about how we as Christians are working toward “restorative justice” that will bring us back into the relationships we were designed to have, way back in Genesis 2. Forgiveness, remember, isn’t about pretending it never happened. In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, that’s not forgiveness that’s amnesia. Nor is forgiveness about waiting until someone has “paid” for what they have done to us. That is punitive justice. Forgiveness is something else. Forgiveness is letting go of the pain in our lives, even as we remember the hurt.
Let go or be dragged – American proverb
Near our hotel when we were on vacation earlier this summer, was a series of older homes that had been transformed into little, local shops filled with knickknacks, wall hangings, and things like that. Rather then renovating the old house into a store, one of the shop owners had cleverly used the rooms to display their wares. So in the former living room was living room stuff, in the old bathroom were bathroom decorations, and in what had been the kitchen were items that would most likely be displayed in a kitchen around the cabinets and sink. They even had one of those old refrigerators with a latching door on which they displayed a series of magnets. As I walked by my eyes caught one particular magnet. It was a little, square black magnet with these words written upon it: “Let go or be dragged. -American proverb.”
This is the key to forgiveness. It’s about letting go. Letting go so you don’t get dragged, dragged down into the sewer chasing that paper with the list of old hurts. Forgiveness isn’t about forgetting – that’s would just be utter foolishness. If someone is repeatedly hurting you, Jesus said in the first part of the passage that we should get them to stop, and if they won’t stop that we should cut them loose.
He also says though, that we need to forgive so often that we lose track, whether the number is 77 or 490. Again, I believe that Jesus’ answer to Peter was not to turn us into perpetual victims, but rather to free us. To free us to receive what God has in store for us.
For Jesus this not just an us-and-them issue, this is an us-and-God issue. Our inability to forgive can get in the way of our relationship with God. I see evidence throughout the gospels that alert us to the fact that our dealings with the people around us matter to God.
For example, every week when we say the “Lord’s Prayer” together what do we say about forgiveness? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” In essence we ask God’s forgiveness to match the forgiveness we are willing to share. Our ability to be forgiven is connected to our ability to forgive.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us that “when you are offering your gift at the altar,” today we might say coming to church, “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). We are doing a series this fall on the “Sermon on the Mount” where I imagine we will look at this text more closely. Gor today, let’s suffice it to say that Jesus is telling his followers that their relationships with one another matter in their relationship to God. Get that right, then come to church.
In Matthew 25 when Jesus gives the well-known parable of the sheep and the goats he says that what we do to the people around us, we are doing to him. Sometimes we are doing the blessing thing – we feed, clothe, visit, etc. But when we don’t do those things we are denying Jesus. There is this connection between the way we treat others and our relationship with Jesus.
Finally, we have this morning’s passage where Jesus gives us, his followers, a blueprint for fixing broken relationships. Why? Because it matters. Our relationships with others affect our relationship with God. When we are in a struggle with another, our pathway to God’s presence and peace are blocked.
When Jesus tells Peter to forgive 490 times, he isn’t trying to turn him into a doormat. He is trying to free him. He is telling him to “let go or be dragged.”
We cannot will it
I lay all of this out very logically, somewhat matter-of-factly, and as if I have this all figured out and nailed down. As I do I am reminded of a quote I found online: “Forgiveness is a whole lot harder than any sermon makes it out to be” (Elizabeth O’Connor). I understand that.
Let me confess that this is one of those sermons may be more for me than it is for you. I have those people in my life that I have trouble forgiving. Times when I have thought I flushed the whole thing, but when the moment is right, I can recall the hurt and feel it again.
I am comforted somewhat by the words of C. S. Lewis who wrote in Letters to Malcolm, “Last week in prayer, I discovered, or at least I think I did, that I suddenly was able to forgive someone that I had been trying to forgive for over thirty years” (O’Connor & Lewis quotes are from the sermon “Forgiveness” by Ronald Scates at http://www.centralpc.org/sermons/1999/s990711.htm).
I’ve had similar experiences where I have retold a story that used to bring up great anger in me, and now I can talk about them calmly and somewhat detached. I remember that person hurt me, and even how they hurt me. But I don’t let it or them continue to hurt me anymore. That is forgiveness.
It doesn’t happen in an instant. It might, in fact, take 30 years or more. It also doesn’t happen easily. It is far more difficult than this or any other sermon might make it appear. But we all need to work at it, and pray for it, and allow the Holy Spirit to soften our hearts, loosen our grip, and allow us to let go.
Think of your forgiveness to another as a thanksgiving offering to God. Remember that as followers of Jesus we recognize that we have been forgiven. We have experienced the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ. We know that there is nothing that we have done or could do that would make God love us less, and that when we are able to confess our sin, our mistakes, to God he forgives us through the redemptive power of Jesus.
We understand that forgiveness is also available to all who seek to receive it. As we heard in the Lord’s Prayer, we are to be forgiven as we forgive. May we today hear that in reverse – that we are called to forgive as much as we have been forgiven. Today, let us pray for ourselves and for one another, that we might be set free from the record keeping of our hurts, to receive the rich blessings that God has in store for us.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.