The Hard Work of Forgiveness

If you are a human being, chances are good that forgiveness—at least sometimes—is something you have to work at. Of all the things Jesus taught and modeled—devotion to God, integrity of mind, openness of heart, just and merciful actions—forgiveness may be the hardest lesson to understand, the hardest to choose, and the hardest to live by consistently.

There are many reasons for this built right into the dual nature each one of us has. We have the old half-joking example of having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each trying to sway us into the thoughts and actions they think we should take. There’s also the story of the serpent in the garden of Eden, who enticingly planted the idea in Eve’s mind that she would be even better, even more if she just took a bit of that apple, which of course God had told them not to do. The snake convinced her that she wanted it, she needed it, and he undermined her trust in God’s word to them. The serpent somehow knew where she was most vulnerable—her own image of herself—and that’s where he planted the seed of his lies. The rest—as we all know so well—is the history of the struggle between truth and illusion in this world. It has tempted and confused us ever since.

Like Eve, we too are vulnerable in our self-images—the concepts we hold about who we are, what type of people we want to be, how we behave, and what standards we live by. And when someone somehow offends or violates those ideas—by insulting us, taking advantage of us, or doing some other hurtful thing—we do what we need to do to re-establish our boundaries so we can feel safe again.

In fact, through all the years I’ve been a chaplain, I’ve come to believe that much of the anger we experience in the course of our normal lives is really our way to re-establish and protect our boundaries when we feel they’ve been disrespected and ignored.

Think of two young children playing on the beach. One toddles up and squats down to see what the other is doing as she digs with a little blue shovel. Looks fun, the toddler thinks, and wants to try it himself. So he reaches out to take the shovel from the little girl and she promptly pushes him backwards and he sits down hard in the sand. It’s an example of a simple boundary violation and a natural action that fixes it. Not right or wrong—although the little girl’s mom might be horrified, especially if the little boy starts to wail—but simply how a system can adjust itself back into right order.

Hurts and boundary violations, insults and injury, and sometimes real and deeply wounding trauma and loss are unfortunately part of many human lives. They touch all of us at some point. We are always hoping, yearning, trying to live peacefully—while also doing our best to stay safe. We negotiate those boundaries with others continually: Is he going to try to take my shovel? Does he have my best interest at heart or his own? And for the most part, we continue through our lives to weigh those questions of how much to trust, how close to get, how much to share with those around us.

Once someone violates that boundary in some way, we take note and a door closes in our minds and hearts. Well, I won’t make that mistake again! We tell ourselves. That door closes to protect us. Our trust in them is broken. You have probably heard the old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I might be tricked once, this saying suggests, but it’s on me to learn from that so I won’t be hurt the same way again.

You can hear that all this is about keeping ourselves safe, hoping to avoid being wounded by others, trying hard to discern who’s our friend and who isn’t. But you can also see the hard problem of forgiveness. Where is there ever room for grace, for repair in that pattern? How can we hope for peace—internally or externally—if we carry a big clipboard around, listing all the people who’ve wronged us, always ready to add more names to the list? How would we possibly “turn the other cheek” when someone just slapped the other one? Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that be acting as though we hadn’t just learned that person isn’t safe? And what about the justice of making that wrong thing right?

Our Old Testament scripture for today comes from the book of Hosea. He is writing during a dark and turbulent time and the children of Israel had all but forgotten God and turned to worshipping all sorts of idols instead. Throughout the book we hear God’s heartbreak that his children have betrayed him and also how God again and again turns toward them in hopes of restored relationship.

In the passage Sherry read for us, you can hear that there is wounding on both sides. The children of Israel have broken God’s heart by continually forgetting him and worshipping false idols. You can hear God’s frustration here:

4What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?

         What shall I do with you, O Judah?

         For your loyalty is like a morning cloud

         And like the dew which goes away early.

5Therefore I have hewn them in pieces by the prophets;

         I have slain them by the words of My mouth;

         And the judgments on you are like the light that goes forth.

6For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice,

         And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

And this raises another problem. How can the children of Israel begin to build a trusting relationship with God when they believe God sent plagues and judgments and death to punish them? And how can God ever forgive these children who fail Him over and over and over again, who seem to love everyone and everything else but Him, when all God wants is loving, true relationship with them?

Gregory of Nyssa, who was a bishop in Asia Minor some 300 years after the time of Jesus, wrote:

“This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because like slaves we … fear punishment, nor to do good because we hope for rewards, as if chasing in on the virtuous life by some business-like arrangement. On the contrary, disregarding all those things for which we hope and which have been reserved by promise, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This, as I have said, is the perfection of life.”

Friendship is what God wanted and wants—then and now—with the children of Israel and every child ever after, including us. Not sacrifice, friendship. To know and be known by another.

Throughout the Old Testament, God gives us examples of leaders, prophets, and kings who are near to God’s heart and could easily be considered God’s friends: Moses, certainly, and King David, Daniel, and the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah are a few we could name. But we had to wait until the New Testament—and the arrival of Jesus—to learn how forgiveness frees us and others from the hurts, mistakes, and bad actions of the past.

Speaking to a gathered crowd, Jesus gives a hard lesson on forgiveness—hard because it runs counter to the Old Testament approach to justice, the eye-for-an-eye mentality the people were so accustomed to hearing. Justice in that day was harsh and swift, and the mindset was that retribution, judgment, and sacrifice was how you made a wrong, right; how you made the injured whole. But Jesus suggested a whole new way, which must have been hard for them to hear:

27“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29“Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. 30“Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. 31“Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34“If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. 35“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. 36“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Jesus is talking here about repairing what divides us, putting down our clipboards in the name of peace, doing our part in the bigger and more important work of bringing in God’s kingdom. He wants us to see the hope and promise of this new way to live, a better way—a way to live with joy and freedom under grace. The Old Testament law is about controlling our actions with harsh and swift punishment when we stray; New Testament law brings the promise of grace and healing and the repair of our relationship with the God who loves us. If what we want is to be God’s friends, Jesus says, we need to go beyond what normal “sinners” do. This is not about balancing the scales but about repairing the broken relationship, choosing peace, and believing in “that of God” in each other.

As we all know, Jesus lived and died by the truth he taught. On the cross, he prayed for those who were crucifying him. He wasn’t saying their actions were okay—and when we forgive someone, we’re not saying there was no harm and that it all should be forgotten. Rather Jesus prayed for them, their healing, their wholeness in God. “Repair what’s broken, God” Jesus is praying, “They don’t understand what makes them do what they do—draw them close and heal them in Your love.”

Forgiveness is not a way to give someone who did a bad thing a Get Out of Jail Free card. It’s important that truth and justice work themselves out so that God’s right order can be restored. But in our hearts, instead of feeding our resentment and anger, we can choose to pray that God will set us all free and help us understand the blind spots and mistaken beliefs that make us hurt each other. Father, forgive them—Father, forgive us—for we know not what we do.

The amazing thing about forgiveness is the change we will experience in our lives as a result. When we choose to turn others loose, we feel lighter and more in tune with God; the door to our heart opens, and we have more room inside and in our lives for divine companionship.

This is a lovely, simple prayer for forgiveness we could offer daily to erase any names we’ve gathered on our clipboard of wrongs:

“If I have harmed any one in any way either knowingly or unknowingly through my own confusions I ask their forgiveness.

If anyone has harmed me in any way either knowingly or unknowingly through their own confusions, I forgive them.

And if there is a situation I am not yet ready to forgive, I forgive myself for that.

For all the ways that I harm myself, negate, doubt, belittle myself, judge or be unkind to myself through my own confusions, I forgive myself.” *

Thanks to all Jesus taught and lived, we have the example, the choice, and the ability to live a life of grace that truly heals the divisions and judgments, hurts and confusions of our world. It begins with each of us, in the quiet freedom of our hearts. Let’s stop trying to force an Old Testament answer on a New Testament problem. Offer grace. Live mercy. Set people free and pray for them, like Jesus did, and in so doing, we’ll discover that our spirits are open and ready—truly now–to be the friends of God.


  • OT Hosea 6: 1-6
  • NT Luke 6: 27-28 and 23: 33-34

*Note: This prayer is not something I wrote. As often happens during the week while I’m writing our messages, things pop up in my awareness that go along with the topic. This prayer was posted on social media this week and attributed to an anonymous author.

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