On a scale of 1 to 10, how good would you say you are at forgiveness? Is it easy to let the frustration roll off when someone cuts you off in traffic? What about when a friend makes an insensitive comment? Or a stranger is rude for no reason?
Little things like that don’t cause too much pain, but some bigger things may feel harder to forgive. They tend to stick with us. We hold tightly to those hurts on purpose. That person hurt me, we think. I’m not trusting her again. I’ll remember this. We’re trying to protect ourselves, and it’s a natural tendency: we learn from what hurts us so it hopefully won’t happen again.
And unfortunately, by this time in our lives, we may have experienced heartache, unkindness, and loss. We may have had our turn with sorrow, abandonment, and rejection. We’ve made friends and lost friends. We’ve had family fun and family fights. We may have been unfairly accused of something or felt misunderstood or maybe we lost out on something we wanted really, really badly.
All disappointments. All painful events. All things we need time to recover from. All things that we may still blame people for.
The idea for this message came when I was talking with a friend who was going through a rough patch with a family member. They had never really seen eye to eye, and when they were younger, they’d said some hurtful things to one another. My friend had made the effort, through the years, to stay in touch with her relative, trying to help her when she had health problems and be there when the person needed support, even though the relative has continued to be critical of her. “It’s hard to do sometimes,” she told me, “but I don’t do it because she deserves it…I do it because that’s who I am.”
I thought about how freeing that is, being able to do what you know is right in your heart, no matter how the other person behaves. One thing doesn’t have to depend on another. That felt like forgiveness to me, a way to be true and loving and real in the moment, not expecting anything—even fair treatment—in return.
I already knew the title, the topic, and the scripture for this message, when I woke up to the news of the horrific shooting in the New Zealand mosques. As news of the nightmare spread quickly around the world, I realized that forgiveness has to offer something not only for the hurts and challenges we face in our personal lives, but also for great evil done at such an unthinkable scale. It must address the brokenness of our hearts, the dire concern we carry for our world, the separation we feel from others that tempts us to despair.
In both scripture references we are using today, the writers present forgiveness first and foremost as an inside job, beginning in the heart of each believer and then radiating outward into daily life. “You desire truth in the inward being,” the psalmist writes. “Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” This secret heart might be the place where we hold that quiet grudge against someone who hurt us years ago, or it could be a silent, hidden thought of wishing evil for another—even one who has done evil himself—as a means of retribution, a hunger for justice, a forgetting of grace.
The psalmist asks God to make him clean, whiter than snow, writing, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” This is hard—likely impossible—for us to do alone. We need God’s grace to do it for us. But if we are willing—and willing may be all that we can be—God is faithful—sometimes in miraculous ways–to do the rest. God is all about the peaceful healing, the reconciling, the welcome of God’s children, the whole world over.
In her book, Practicing Peace, Quaker Catherine Whitmire tells the story of David, a teacher in the Friends school in Burundi who in 1993 lost several students in an attack on the school during violence between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples. Following the devastating event, in which several of his students were killed, he sank into a deep depression and knew he was losing the will to live. In prayer, he received what he called an “outrageous” spiritual message, telling him he had to “come to terms with what had happened” and offer forgiveness to the ones that had brought such unthinkable violence. He struggled with whether Jesus’ words were to be taken literally—and if they were, could they possibly apply to such a great evil?
Soon God gave David a chance to find out. He met a man on the street who confessed that he had had a part in leading the soldiers to the school that day. Instead of reacting with rage and judgment, David was surprised to find he took the man’s hand and said, “By God’s power, I forgive you for your part in bringing the soldiers to kill our students.” The author writes, “In that moment David experienced a sense of deep peace radiating throughout his body, and he realized that by choosing forgiveness over vengeance, he had mediated God’s love into the world and that Love had begun to set him free.”
She concludes, “Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or condoning what was done; it does mean seeking to release ourselves and others from the painful grip of the past.”
This idea of forgiveness as freedom was echoed in the amazing words of Eskil Pedersen, the leader of the Norwegian Labour Youth Party, after a terrorist attacked their gathering in 2011 and killed 77 people, mostly teenagers. At the memorial event, Pedersen said, “We have been changed and marked by what has happened. We will always be known as the July 22 generation. And that gives us power. Because we have the power to decide what the future will be.”
“The power to decide what the future will be.” Amazing, yes.
Psychologist and researcher Dr. Frederic Luskin designed a forgiveness program called Forgive for Good after he found himself obsessing and growing increasingly bitter about the loss and betrayal of his closest friendship. His wife was the first one to point out how his inability to forgive was changing him—making him grim, angry, suspicious of others, unable to see the good in life. He began exploring forgiveness—what blocks it, what helps it, and how to find it—and applied what he found to his own life. He also discovered that forgiveness set him free to decide his own future, and he wrote a book about it and began to offer seminars on how to forgive.
In one example, Luskin writes about a young man named Jeremy who came to his forgiveness seminar, obsessing over the fact that he’d been lied to by his boss. He’d lost all trust and respect for the man. Luskin writes, “Unfortunately, there are no “do overs.” We can’t change the past. I asked Jeremy if being upset for two months changed what happened. I asked him if being upset for another two months would change what happened. Jeremy, of course, knew the answers. So I asked him to take a couple of slow deep breaths to calm down and then create a story that has him surviving his boss’s actions and being happy in his life. As he invented the story, I saw him relax and noticed that his breathing became more normal. Finally, I told him that forgiveness is the first and most important step in living out his new story.”
Forgiveness gave him the space and freedom to decide what his future will be.
Luskin says that we have trouble forgiving because we turn our experiences—unknowingly–into grievances. A grievance emerges when two things coincide: First, something happens that we don’t want and we take personal offense at it. Someone cancels a dinner date, again. A person gets the promotion we wanted. Somebody close forgets our birthday. Someone who should remember.
Next, we blame the person for things turning out the way they did. She always cancels at the last moment, we think. She doesn’t care about my time at all. I’m not planning dinner with her anymore. Soon we’re nursing that sense of upset, going over the list of wrongs she’s done in the past, convincing ourselves what an untrustworthy and uncaring friend she is. As we dwell on our growing sense of upset, we create a grievance story out of what happened.
And those grievance stories can be dangerous. They might stay with us for an hour, a week, or a lifetime. But worse, they can become a kind of shell we—and the person we’re upset with—get trapped in, bound up in pain and blame. That keeps us locked in the past, nursing our grievances, missing out on life in the present, missing the good all around us, unable to find God in our midst.
Luskin says that that learning to forgive without holding on to grievances doesn’t mean we can’t be angry when others have done wrong or that we shouldn’t seek restoration and justice—and perhaps new legislation—in the aftermath of atrocities. He said in fact expressing our anger and seeking justice in healthy ways gets remarkably easier when we are not bound by our hurting and trapped emotions. When we forgive, our minds and hearts get washed clean, released from the past, and the way forward becomes clear.
As Jesus talked with Peter, he was insistent that there is no hard-and-fast rule about how many times we forgive wrongs done to us. Peter seemed proud to suggest to Jesus that he was able to forgive seven times, and he must have been surprised to hear Jesus say “no, seventy-seven times.” (Some translations say, “seventy times seven” here…which is actually 490 times!)
In his notes on this passage, Richard Foster writes, “Jesus the sage goes well beyond conventional wisdom by offering the counter-intuitive answer that one must completely forgive—forgive as many times as it takes—in order to be like Jesus himself. And he adds that we’re not just talking about a grudging forgiveness, but rather forgiveness from the heart—a heart that has been washed clean by the loving grace of God.
In 1992, Foster wrote this about forgiveness: “Forgiveness is a miracle of grace whereby the offense no longer separates…It means that we will no longer use the offense to drive a wedge between us, hurting and injuring one another. Forgiveness means that the power of love that holds us together is greater than the power of the offense that separates us. That is forgiveness. In forgiveness we are releasing our offenders so that they are no longer bound to us…freeing them to receive God’s grace.”
Whether our hurts are big or small, whether they are for ourselves or for the world, forgiveness is the means by which God’s grace flows into our lives, restoring our minds and cleansing our hearts. We are released from the impossible burden and blame of the past. And then, knowing how God’s forgiveness works in us, we can be part of the healing that is so needed in our world. It may begin with something small—or something that feels impossibly difficult. It is all the same to God. As writer Alex Myles said,
“Praying for the one who hurt me was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But it brought me far more peace than hating them ever did.”
That peace comes from a freed and renewed heart, washed with the forgiveness of God’s grace. A little prayer, a little willingness—perhaps rereading Psalm 51—is all we need, and God is faithful to do the rest.
- Psalm 51: 6-12
- Matthew 18: 21-22
- Whitmire, Catherine. Practicing Peace. https://www.amazon.com/Practicing-Peace-Devotional-Through-Tradition/dp/1933495073
- Luskin, Frederick. Forgive for Good. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/006251721X