Practice the Forgiveness You Need

by | Nov 10, 2019

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.” And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honoured in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Genesis 45:1-15

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 
Matthew 28:21-22 

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 seen, although my favorite remains the one I once saw in a 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, 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 be an equivalent sign to hang on the walls of a church? Maybe 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?” Jesus’ reply was, in essence, if you’re keeping track, you’ve missed the point. Forgiveness isn’t an event; it’s a practice. Practice the forgiveness you need. 

A few years ago, I found myself stuck on an airplane going nowhere. It was a connecting flight for most of us, the last stretch of a long journey home. But due to technical 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. He engaged in pleasant conversation with everyone around him (except me because he thought I was sleeping). This man 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. 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.)

Through our daily practices we choose which seeds to cultivate. 

Jesus spoke of forgiveness and he himself forgave, often and lavishly, because forgiveness is at the heart of God’s love for us. Do you remember what he said to a group of men about to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery? “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,” he 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, for it is God’s way. 

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 marriage, no relationship of any kind can survive what we do to one another. It’s the most puzzling and disturbing aspect of human nature: we knowingly 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)

I struggle with forgiveness as much as anyone. But this I have learned: it is easier for me to forgive other people when I am aware of my own need for forgiveness. The most important reason to practice confession each Sunday in church, honestly taking stock of all that we regret and asking God to forgive us, is so that we might cultivate compassion for those sitting next to us in their struggles. We’re in this together; we are all sinners, and we must practice the forgiveness we need. 

A few things to keep in mind: forgiveness is not the same as excusing. “There is all the difference in the world,” writes C.S. Lewis, “between asking for forgiveness, which acknowledges responsibility, and asking to be excused, which absolves us from blame. What we call ‘asking for forgiveness’ often consists of asking God or other people to accept our excuses.” 

Lewis also suggests a way of going about practicing forgiveness: Start with the smaller offenses and work 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.)We best not start with the worst things that others have done to us, particularly if the wounds are still fresh. 

Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, acting as if the offense never occurred or has no lasting consequence. If we’ve been hurt by someone, the scars remain even if we forgive. And if we’ve hurt someone, we may be forgiven, but the effects of what we have done may linger. There is a growing conversation in this country about what it might look like to make reparations for slavery, and it may be helpful to think of our response in the context of forgiveness. What does forgiveness for the sin of slavery look like? Whatever it means, forgiveness is not some kind of erasure, nor would we want it to be. Think of all the hard won wisdom we would lose if we forgot what we needed to forgive.  Forgiveness of the deeper wounds doesn’t come easily, but slowly, over time. It requires courage and sufficient internal strength to rebalance the scales of power within ourselves. 

Rebalancing the scales of power. We often overlook the power dynamic involved in forgiveness, and how we must rebuild a foundation of inner strength in order to forgive. That, I suggest, is what happened with the biblical character, Joseph, in relation to his older brothers, whose story we read a portion of this morning from the book of Genesis. 

You may recall that Joseph was the favorite youngest son of his father, Jacob, and he knew it. In his arrogance, he frequently reminded his older brothers that their father loved him best. One day they had had enough, and they surrounded Joseph and beat him up, leaving him for dead. Only he didn’t die–he was carried off by bandits and sold into slavery in Egypt, the neighboring country. Through a series of remarkable events over the next several years, Joseph wound up in an influential position in the king’s court. When drought and famine spread throughout the land, his brothers traveled to Egypt to beg for food. Unbeknownst to them, they plead their case before Joseph, the brother they thought he had killed. They had no idea who he was, although Joseph immediately recognized them. For awhile he pretended to be harsh and without mercy. Then, as you heard, love overwhelms him and he bursts out crying–”Is our father still alive?” He then tells his terrified, guilt-stricken brothers that although they meant him harm, God brought about good. Joseph was no longer in their power. He was free, and in that freedom, he could forgive and reconcile with his brothers.

In a much different context, I had a similar experience with my father. He wasn’t a bad man, but for all sorts of reasons, he wasn’t good at loving his children. He hurt us; he hurt me, badly, and for many years, I could barely be in his presence. As time went on, however, and I became an adult, I realized that I didn’t need anything from my father anymore. I was okay, and, in fact, many of the blessings of my life were the result of what happened to me as a child. Like Joseph, I could say that God worked with the raw material of my life for good. From that new realization of inner strength and freedom, the question for me became, “Was I willing to love my father as he was and forgive?” It didn’t happen all at once and I’m not sure that I ever forgave him perfectly, but we reconciled. I’m so glad that we did, and that I was with him when he died.  

Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. I once was at the bedside of an elderly woman who had been physically attacked and robbed by one of her neighbors, a young man that she had befriended. She prayed for him, sincerely, but then said to me, “I never want to see him again.” She was 90 years old, and she had the right to put that boundary up. Yet I didn’t have the sense that she wanted to waste a minute of her life being angry.

So what is forgiveness? And how do we go about it? 

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. If you’ve ever attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, when a wounded person speaks of resentment and an inability to forgive someone else, the advice typically offered is, “Pray for the person that hurt you.” 

We can all pray for those we struggle to forgive. What often happens in prayer is that God reminds us of the whole person and not just the part of him or her that hurt us. Sometimes we’re not ready to make the effort; sometimes we want, perhaps even need to stay angry. 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. The former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan William, puts it this way: “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.)

For all Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, he only has one thing to say 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.  

Forgiveness is not an option for Christians. Yet our capacity to practice forgiveness depends on our willingness to receive it ourselves, and before that, to acknowledge that we need it. We practice the forgiveness we need.  

If forgiveness of any kind, in any way, is a struggle for you, 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 in our lives. That’s a good thing: practicing forgiveness is what makes us Christians. How often should 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.