Practice the Forgiveness You Need

by | Sep 17, 2017

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ and in anger his lord handed him over to be tormented until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Matthew 18:21-25

A dentist has a sign on his office wall that reads: Floss Only the Teeth That You Want to Keep. It’s one of the better signs I’ve heard of, although my favorite remains one I saw in a neighborhood coffee shop: All Unattended Children Will Receive a Cup of Espresso and a Free Puppy.

Floss Only the Teeth That You Want to Keep. What would be an equivalent sign for a doctor’s office be, do you suppose? Exercise Only the Muscles That You Want to Last. Or Care Only for the Body Parts That Are Important to You.  

What might our equivalent sign be hanging on the wall of a church? One might be Practice Only the Forgiveness You Need. Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”  

I never used to think of forgiveness as something to practice, like scales on the piano. Practice implies monotonous repetition, until something foreign becomes second nature. Practice assumes that we start off not being very good at whatever we’re practicing. With practice, however, lies the hope of improvement.  

A few years ago, I found myself stuck on an airplane that wasn’t going anywhere. It was a connecting flight for most of us on it, and for most, it was the last stretch of a long journey home. But due to the perfect storm of technical, staff, and weather-related difficulties, we sat on the tarmac for what felt like forever—5 hours in 90 degree heat.

To my right was a woman who had perfected the art of complaining. There was plenty to complain about, but listening to her litany of grievances against everyone in the airline industry was more than I could bear. I pretended to sleep. To my left, across the aisle, was a man who was as good-natured as anyone I have ever met, managing not to be the least bit irritating with his cheerfulness. He engaged in pleasant conversation with everyone around him, except me (because he thought I was asleep). He wanted to get home as much as anyone, but he never complained, whereas the woman beside me complained about every perceived offense against her, both large and small.

In retrospect, I think of my two travel companions as practiced in two distinct ways of living. Perhaps not consciously, each had habitual responses to their surroundings, one in striving to see the good in things, the other in always looking for, and generally finding, the worst.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as cultivating seeds within us.

Our mind is like a garden that contains all kinds of seeds: seeds of understanding, forgiveness, and mindfulness, and also seeds of anger, fear, and resentment. When the seeds of anger and resentment are watered in us several times a day, they grow stronger. Then we are unable to be happy, unable to accept and forgive ourselves; we suffer and we make those around us suffer. Yet when we know how to cultivate the seeds of love, forgiveness, and understanding, those seeds become stronger, and we nourish peace and acceptance within and around us. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 2.)

Which seeds we cultivate is our daily choice and practice.

Jesus speaks today of practicing forgiveness, which should come as no surprise. Forgiveness was his primary message. He taught forgiveness in parables, most notably that of the Prodigal Son and the one we heard today of the ungrateful servant.

When Peter asked him how many times he was expected to forgive, Jesus’ reply was, in essence, if you’re keeping track, you’ve missed the point. He himself forgave others, lavishly and often. Remember how he once stopped a crowd about to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery by saying, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Or when at dinner with a Pharisee who mocked a prostitute who had come to anoint Jesus’ head with oil, Jesus said, “They who are forgiven much, love much; they who are forgiven little, love little.”

Most dramatically, from the cross Jesus prayed for those who put him here, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said to his disciples the night before he died. He could just as easily have said, “Forgive one another as I have forgiven you.” It is one of the hardest things Jesus asks of us, and perhaps the most important.

Forgiveness is a mystery.

When I was a parish priest I used to ask couples in conversation prior to their marriage what they thought they would need to keep their relationship healthy over a lifetime. Rarely did  they say forgiveness, which was understandable if they hadn’t yet hurt each other very deeply. Yet without forgiveness, no relationship can survive what we do to one another. Psychologists point out that one of the characteristics that distinguishes us from other species is that we knowingly–and often without legitimate reason–cause one another to suffer. Even more peculiar, we do these hurtful things not only to our enemies, but to the people closest to us.” (Beverly Flanigan, Forgiving the Unforgivable: Uncovering the Bitter Legacy of Intimate Wounds)

But how do we forgive, exactly? What does it feel like? What if we can’t forgive, or be forgiven? What happens then?

I am certainly no expert at forgiveness. I struggle with it as much as anyone, not merely how to go about it, but also understanding what forgiveness means. So in preparation for today, I picked out nearly a dozen books from my shelves this week, each one having something to say on the topic.

Most begin by clarifying what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not, according to C.S. Lewis, the same as excusing. “There is all the difference in the world,” he writes, “between asking for forgiveness, which acknowledges responsibility, and asking to be excused, which absolves one from blame. What we call ‘asking for forgiveness’ often really consists of asking God or another person to accept our excuses.”

Lewis also has some helpful counsel in the practice of forgiveness, suggesting that we start with the smaller grievances and work our way up from there. “When striving to forgive,” he wrote, in the midst of World War II, “it’s best not to begin with the Gestapo.” (C.S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness” in A Year with C.S. Lewis: Daily Readings From His Classic Works (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 263. ) When we strive to forgive, we best not start with the most horrific grievances, particularly if the wounds are still fresh.

Nor is forgiveness the same as forgetting, acting as if the offense never occurred or has no lasting consequence. We know it doesn’t work that way. If we have been badly hurt by someone, the scars remain even if we forgive. And if we have hurt someone, we may be forgiven, but still the effects of what we have done linger on. Forgiving, whatever it means, is not some kind of erasure, nor would we want it to be. Think of all the hard won learning we would lose if we forgot what we needed to forgive.

Forgiveness, in general, doesn’t come easily. It happens slowly, over time, and it can never be forced. “True forgiveness,” writes the Buddhist Jack Kornfield, “does not paper over what has happened in a superficial way. It is not a misguided effort to suppress or ignore our pain. It cannot be hurried.” (Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2001), 28.)

Forgiveness is not, therefore, for the faint-hearted. It requires courage, clarity, and sufficient internal strength to rebalance the scales of power within one’s soul. Forgiveness doesn’t require that we stay in relationship with those who have done us harm, but it does involve letting go of anger and resentment. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation, which involves both parties in a mutual process of setting a relationship right after damage has been done to it. You can’t be reconciled with someone until both sides are willing; you can, however, forgive on your own. It isn’t easy. It takes practice.

So what is forgiveness? As the word itself implies, forgiveness feels more like a gift we receive, than something we do. Indeed, the harder we try to forgive, the more resentment we may feel. For what forgiveness requires is not effort, but openness. It feels like letting go, relinquishing control, and allowing the grace of God in. In 12-step groups, if a wounded person speaks of resentment and an inability to forgive another, the advice typically offered is, “Pray for the S.O.B. that hurt you.”

What happens in prayer is that we are reminded of the full humanity of the other person, and not just the part of him or her that hurt us. It takes a lot to do this, and sometimes we’re not ready to make the effort. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Staying angry with you is how I protect myself from you. Refusing to forgive you is not only how I punish you; it is also how I keep you from getting close enough to hurt me again, and nine times out of ten it works.” But there’s a cost to our refusal to forgive. “There is a serious side effect,” Taylor warns. “It’s called bitterness and it can do terrible things to the human body and soul.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Arthritis of the Spirit,” in Gospel Medicine (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 9.)

Forgiveness releases the burden of pain and resentment that we carry. It accepts the past for what it is and people for who they are. In Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words, “Real forgiveness is something that changes things, and so gives hope. The occasions when we feel genuinely forgiven are the moments when we feel, not that someone doesn’t care what we do, but that someone does care because he or she loves us and that love is strong enough to cope with and survive the hurt we have done.” (Williams, Rowan, “The Forgiveness of Sins,” in Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 50.)

Forgiveness brings, in time, serenity and acceptance, a renewed sense of humility and personal responsibility. And as Jesus said so pointedly in the parable of the ungrateful servant, our capacity to forgive is linked to the experience of receiving forgiveness ourselves.

For all his teachings on forgiveness, that’s the only thing Jesus says about how to go about it. It starts within you, he says, and the gift of forgiveness you are given every day by the God who loves you. When you know what it’s like to be forgiven, your heart will break open and expand, and you will receive the capacity to forgive another.

When we lose touch with our need for forgiveness, we’re in real trouble. Rowan Williams writes, “The man who forgets how much and in what way he has been loved and forgiven, how much hurt he has inflicted, but instead nurses his own unforgiven injuries, that one is in mortal danger.” (Ibid., 53. ) To be blunt, forgiveness is not an option for Christians; it’s a core value of our faith. But our capacity to practice forgiveness depends on our willingness to receive it ourselves, and before that, to acknowledge that we need it. Practice Only the Forgiveness You Need.

Now I heard as well as you the harsh, punitive language in the parable of the unforgiving servant—lots of reference to torture, and that finger-pointing warning at the end, “So my heavenly father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” I’d like to say something about this. Jesus was notorious for exaggerating in his stories in order to get his point across. So focus less on the exaggeration and more on the point, which in this case is a tale of a person who had been forgiven a lifetime of debt and yet was unwilling to forgive another who owed him less than a day’s wages.

When Jesus instructs us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” he isn’t setting up a contractual arrangement between us and God, but merely describing how forgiveness works. “It’s a mystery of mutuality,” write the authors of a book with a marvelous title, The Spirituality of Imperfection. “We are forgiven only if we are open to forgiving, but we are able to forgive only in being forgiven.” (The Spirituality of Imperfection, 222.)

If forgiveness of any kind, in any way, is a struggle for you, then you’re in the right place. We’re all struggling here. Just because it’s the core value of our faith doesn’t mean that it’s easy for us. But this is a place we come to practice letting go, and being open to the gift of forgiveness.

One thing about Christian community: it affords lots of opportunity to practice forgiveness, as does every other relationship of our lives. That’s a good thing: practicing forgiveness is what makes us Christians. How often shall we forgive? Will seven times take care of it? “Not seven times,” Jesus said, “but seventy-seven times.” Forgiveness, you see, is a way of life; it is a seed God has planted within us that we cultivate through practice.

Remember: we don’t have to start with our equivalent of the Gestapo; we can start small. As we get better at it, we lose count and we stop keeping score.

Without question, forgiveness makes us much better travel companions on a delayed airplane. It also makes us much better fellow travelers in life. Which person on the plane do you want to be? Then, go, and practice the forgiveness you need.