Reclaiming Forgiveness

Perhaps we need to reclaim the use of the words “I forgive you” — which are rarely spoken these days. Instead we say: “Oh, that’s all right,” or “Don’t worry about it,” or “I’m OK,” — and, most of the time, we’re lying. What was done wasn’t ok, we’re not fine with it, we haven’t forgotten what happened; it hurt or distressed us or made us sad.

The Gospel Text

The Gospel of Matthew 18:21-35, as interpreted by Deborah Beach Giordano

Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, if another member of our community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"

Jesus replied, "Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

"Imagine that an IRS agent discovered an error on a tax form from 1992. At the time it was only a hundred dollars — but over the years the fines had increased the amount due to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There was no way the man could come up with that much money. The tax collector prepared the order to have the man's wages garnished, his bank accounts frozen, and his possessions sold.

In despair the man fell on his knees before him and begged, 'Give me a chance! Let me have time to arrange for a loan, and I will pay everything I owe.'

Taking pity on him, the tax collector promised to write off the amount and let him go free.

That same day, as he was having lunch, the man saw a friend that he'd loaned a hundred dollars. He grabbed the fellow by the shirt and shook him, "Where's that money you owe me? I want it now!"

Astonished, the fellow stammered out, "I'll get it for you soon. Just give me a little time."

"No way!" he shouted, "You bring me that money today or I'll take you to court and get every dime you owe me and then some!"

Sitting in a corner booth, the IRS agent watched with dismay. After finishing his meal, he walked over to where the man was sitting, savoring a glass of wine.

The tax collector sat down across from him and said, 'You heartless creature! I forgave you all that you owed because you pleaded with me. Why wouldn't you show mercy to your friend — just as I did for you?'

Outraged, the IRS agent went back to his office and handed the file over to the Collections Department — who would make certain the man did not rest until he had paid his entire debt.

Now, how do you think our Just and Fair God will feel toward you, if you don't sincerely forgive your brother or sister?"

Photo of a flower

~ Forgiveness,
      Continued ~ by Deborah Beach Giordano

How Far?

I concluded my earlier Reflection on the subject by outlining several of the most challenging questions that arise when we look at Jesus’ call to “forgive.” How far must this forgiveness extend? Are we to forgive those who do not notice or care that they have sinned against us? What of the wicked ones whose consciences are never troubled, those who do evil over and over — with gleeful, malicious intent?

Is there any point in forgiving such chronic sinners?

"I Forgive You."

an eraserLet me reiterate what forgiveness is not. It isn’t permission for the person to continue doing wrong. It does not belittle or downplay the suffering that was caused or the harm that was done. It doesn’t erase the memory of what happened. And it in no way means you must put yourself at risk ever again.

“I forgive you,” is an acknowledgement that you have been hurt. It means that the person did something wrong: that he did something that needs to be forgiven.

When someone has apologized, your forgiveness means that you believe she is sincere: that she is genuinely sorry for what happened, and will do everything to avoid repeating the wrongdoing ever again. You hope that she has learned from her mistake and will be a better person in the future.

Perhaps we need to reclaim the use of the words “I forgive you” — which are rarely spoken these days. Instead we say: “Oh, that’s all right,” or “Don’t worry about it,” or “I’m OK,” — and, most of the time, we’re lying. What was done wasn’t ok, we’re not fine with it, we haven’t forgotten what happened; it hurt or distressed us or made us sad.

Forgiving someone means that they did something that needed to be forgiven. It clarifies the situation: “Yes, what you did hurt me. I’m still hurting, but your apology helps me to feel better. It means you care about how I feel, and gives me hope that you won’t do it again.”

Forgiveness is a gift: an opportunity for a new beginning and a healed relationship — when the “sinner” has apologized and asked our forgiveness.

But what about when he hasn’t?

My Forgiveness Story

As many of you know, I am a spiritual abuse survivor (read the full story). The perpetrators were the senior pastor at the local church, and a man I will call the “CEO” of the region, who refused to admit or take action against this clergyman’s ongoing misconduct.

For weeks and months after I escaped from that church I lived with what had gone on there; replaying over and over in my imagination what was said, what was done, and who was involved. I was enmeshed in my sense of betrayal; dwelling on the wrongs that had been done, the hurts that had been suffered, and the anger that I felt.

I wanted ... no, I needed restitution. The congregation had been demeaned and humiliated; people who had become my friends had been driven from their church home, several abandoned “Christianity,” and most avoided public worship in any form. A cabal of evildoers had harmed the body of Christ, and something ought to be done.

Something was supposed to be done. Something needed to happen. The Lord of Righteousness had been offended, and His integrity should be defended. If what had been done was not actively, publicly refuted — people would think that harmful, abusive, nasty and controlling behavior was what Christianity was all about.

God needed to act: decisively, and at once. Decency and the Lord’s reputation were at stake.

God with the Smite buttonAnd, to be honest, so was my faith. I wanted God to smite those sinners; to demonstrate that their hateful behavior and deceitful ways were contrary to Christ’s teachings. Day after day I prayed that “justice be done” — forgetting (ignoring) that Jesus taught us to pray for “forgiveness.”

A reasonable and holy hope turned into an obsession. A goal became a god: my need for “justice” turned into an idol I worshipped above God’s own Self; I prayed for, yearned for, wept over and thought about almost nothing else. The wrongs that had been done became entrenched in my soul — as if those were the only things that mattered.

Their sins took over my life: infecting my thinking, destroying my hopes, eroding my faith, and undermining my ability to recognize What God Can Do. I felt helpless, angry, and sad. Evil had conquered, and there seemed to be nothing I could do.

And that is why forgiveness is absolutely essential.

Getting Unstuck

Finally — after many months — I realized that I had to stop looking back at what had happened, and pay attention to what was going on in the present. I realized that I was stuck: mired in the nastiness of what had happened, caught up in my own need for “justice,” and blind to the truth that God makes all things work together for good.

making a listI remember the moment when I finally “got” what had happened and realized Who was in charge. It was a rainy evening, my dog was lying at my feet, and I was reading a description of a recently published self-help book. The reviewer commented on his difficulty with one of the recommended exercises: “list ten good things that have happened to you lately.” Just for the heck of it, I decided to make my own list.

The first item on the list was, “Leaving the Church from Hell.”

a lightning strike

It may seem an exaggeration, but truly, that fact hit me like a thunderclap. Evil hadn’t triumphed at all: rather, God had used the mad pastor to free me from an unhealthy and controlling organization. And not only me, but many others as well. We had all found places to “come to rest” where our gifts and graces were honored and our walk with Christ encouraged.

God had been at work “behind the scenes” — leading us where we needed to go — while I had been grumbling about the success of the wicked, and doubting that justice and righteousness existed in our world. And even in the midst of a hellish experience, the Light was shining; Spirit was leading me and teaching me. I had learned to speak the truth in the face of lies; to insist on what was right, despite the cost; to proclaim the gospel while demons shrieked and shouted threats.

Our God truly does make all things work together for good. But when my attention was focused on the deviltry that had been done, I was unable to see the grace, holiness and healing works that were all around me. It’s like when you’re driving a car: if you spend all of your time looking in the rearview mirror, you won’t see what’s on the road right in front of you.

Declaration of Independence

When we forgive those who have sinned against us, we are free from the power of their sins. We are free from believing what they believe, from behaving as they behave, free from their prejudices, their hatreds, their threats and their lies.

Forgiveness when there has been no apology, no repentance or recompense requires that we turn the demand for justice over to God. This sets us free from wanting anything or expecting anything from those who have hurt us. We will no longer wait for the telephone to ring, the registered letter to be delivered, the newspaper headline announcing their resignation. It is a “letting go” of what has happened; we are releasing ourselves from our connection with what they have done.

A reliable TeacherForgiving evildoers is an act of radical faith. It is to boldly lay claim to Christ’s worldview: that this is God’s kingdom — not a demonic campground; that good triumphs, that justice will prevail, that Life and Light and Love are eternal, good, and blessed.

When we forgive, we affirm that God’s grace surrounds us, sustaining us in all things, and ever and always at work in bringing all things together for good. We declare that the Beloved can transform even the worst tragedy into an avenue for hope and healing. We dare to believe that the Merciful One can redeem even the worst sinner.

With God, nothing is impossible.

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,

Deborah +

This Week's Spiritual Exercise

List ten good things that have happened to you lately. Were any of the items on the list a surprise? Was God at work in ways that you hadn’t noticed?

a long list