Easter is Coming

Easter Sunday is less than two weeks away, and the topic of forgiveness hangs heavy in the air. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Jesus said from the cross where he was crucified at Calvary (see Luke 23:34). And still even today, we often don’t know.

In my last blog post published on March 27, 2022, titled, Mere Christianity,” I mentioned a conference titled, Celebrating 70 Years of Mere Christianity,” that I attended the previous week. During one of the two “break out” sessions at the conference, I attended a session titled, “Forgiveness Beyond Platitudes,” as the titled piqued my interest. So many times in the movies that have come out over the past several decades, the themes of revenge and justice take center stage when someone has wronged the main character, but the subject of forgiveness is nowhere to be found.

The professor who presented that session titled, “Forgiveness Beyond Platitudes,” mentioned that she had undergone a very serious personal violation of sorts that had occurred in her life a dozen years ago, and how she struggled for a very long time regarding the issue of forgiveness towards those involved in the severe breach (she didn’t mention any details). She mentioned a book titled, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve,” by Lewis B. Smedes, Ph.D., (1921-2002), professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Seminary, and a pioneer in forgiveness research; and she stated that it was instrumental to her understanding of extending forgiveness, and she highly recommended it. The book was originally published in 1984, and it is available for purchase at Amazon.com, Christianbook.com, Thriftbooks.com, and at other book sellers.

Before I get to that book which I ended up purchasing after the conference was over, see if you can relate to the opening paragraph of an article published on April 5, 2015, titled, Forgiveness and Platitudes,” by Rachel (no last name mentioned). She states:

Have you ever wrestled with the area of forgiveness? I have. I know it’s not always the most popular word. There have been two situations in my life where forgiveness was particularly challenging for me. Neither of those are stories that I intend to publish on the World Wide Web! Suffice to say that on both occasions, no apology had been offered, and the situations had enormous repercussions and caused me emotional turmoil that was long-lasting and not easy to let go of. I wrestled with the desire to forgive, and the attempt to do so while trying to process the anger and hurt… (Quote source and the entire article is available at this link.)

We’ve all been there… or at least I know I have been there. And also like Rachel, the details of my situation are not something I would publish on the Internet. But the struggle to find complete forgiveness has taken more then a decade, mostly because what happened back then changed the entire direction of my life in a way I never expected and that I didn’t want (and that’s putting it mildly).

When I received the book, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve,” in the mail this past week, I read a brief opening section before the chapters in the book start that is titled, “An Invitation,” written by the author, Lewis Smedes. It is found on pp. xv-xvi and it states:

Somebody hurt you, maybe yesterday, maybe a lifetime ago, and you cannot forget it. You did not deserve the hurt. It went deep, deep enough to lodge itself in your memory. And it keeps on hurting you now.

You are not alone. We all muddle our way through a world where even well-meaning people hurt each other. When we invest ourselves in deep personal relationships, we open our souls to the wounds of another’s disloyalty or even betrayal.

There are some hurts that we can all ignore. Not every slight sticks with us, thank God. But some old pains do not wash out so easily; they remain like stubborn stains in the fabric of our own memory.

Deep hurts we never deserved flow from a dead past into our living present. A friend betrays us; a parent abuses us; a spouse leaves us in the cold–these hurts do not heal with the coming of the sun.

We’ve all wished at one time or other that we could reach back to a painful moment and cut it out of our lives. Some people are lucky; they seem to have gracious glands that secrete the juices of forgetfulness. They never hold a grudge; they do not remember old hurts. Their painful yesterdays die with the coming of tomorrow. But most of us find that the pains of our past keep rolling through our memories, and there’s nothing we can do to stop the flow.

Nothing?

The great Jewish philosopher Hanna Arendt, toward the end of her epochal study on “The Human Condition,” shared her discovery of the only power that can stop the inexorable stream of painful memories: the “faculty of forgiveness.” It is as simple as that.

Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which, despite their best intentions, people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.

Virtually every newspaper in the Western world told the story of how, one January dawn in 1984, Pope John Paul walked into a dank cell of Rebibbia prison in Rome to meet Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who had tried to kill him. The Pope took the hand of the man who had fired a bullet at this heart, and forgave him.

But the Pope is a professional forgiver; and it may be easy for such a highly placed professional to forgive when he knows ahead of time that the whole world will be watching.

It is ten times harder for an ordinary person, whom nobody is watching, to forgive and forget.

Forgiving is love’s toughest work, and love’s biggest risk. If you twist it into something it was never meant to be, it can make you a doormat or an insufferable manipulator.

Forgiving seems almost unnatural. Our sense of fairness tells us people should pay for the wrong they do. But forgiving is love’s power to break nature’s rule.

Ask yourself these questions: What do I do when I forgive someone who has done me wrong?

Who is forgivable? Have some people gone beyond the forgiveness zone?

How do I do it?

Why should I even try? Is there a pay-off? Is it fair?

I invite you to come with me in search of the answers I have found along my own journey. (Quote source: “Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve,” 1984, 1996, HarperCollins, pp xv-xvi.)

This book is written in four parts. Part 1 is titled, “The Four Stages of Forgiving”; Part 2 is titled, “Forgiving People Who Are Hard to Forgive”; Part 3 is titled, “How People Forgive”; and Part 4 is titled, “Why Forgive?” It is a valuable resource for those who are struggling with forgiveness.

In an article published on April 14, 2014, titled, The Wardrobe of Easter–Forgiveness,” by Dale Cooper, Resource Specialist for Liturgical Spirituality at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and chaplain emeritus and adjunct faculty in the department of Congregational and Ministry Studies at Calvin University, he writes:

Forgiving: it’s a challenging practice—perhaps no other command of Jesus is more difficult to obey. And it’s so counter-intuitive. Why give anyone a fresh start after he’s hurt you deeply? Why not just retaliate by knocking his block off?….

The act of forgiving involves letting the other person go free when she or he doesn’t deserve it.  Note that the Gospel of Jesus never calls one to do an end-run around justice when forgiving another. The Christian ethic calls for forgiveness to pass through justice and to go beyond it. That same Gospel does require Jesus’ followers to set their hearts toward not holding a grudge against another, not harboring ill-will, not desiring anything other—or less—than God’s best for the other.

So let’s be clear unequivocally clear: Jesus does require his followers to forgive their wrongdoers. When one of his disciples, Peter, asked Jesus about the proper limits of forgiving in the new kingdom—should we perhaps forgive up to more than twice as often as the standard three times recommended by the Jewish rabbis?—Jesus was adamantly and outrageously generous.

His reply: “I tell you, not seven times, but 77 times.” (Matthew 18:22). In other words: Don’t even think about how often to forgive. Forgive others always, and without limit.

No exceptions

Nor does Jesus allow any wiggle room about who’s worth forgiving and who’s not. He doesn’t wade into the murkiness of when and under what circumstances it’s warranted to forgive or not forgive.

He didn’t say, for example: “Usually it’s your moral duty—and prudent, too—to forgive. But not always. Some wrongs are so great and the hurts they cause so grievous that forgiveness isn’t called for. So weigh carefully when to forgive and when to revenge.” 

Jesus simply said in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Heavenly Father will not forgive your sins.”

Period.

No exceptions allowed. No extenuating circumstances considered.

Three reasons to forgive

Why would Jesus call us to do something as preposterous as to forgive another, the very opposite of what we feel like doing when we’ve been wronged and hurt badly? Why does he ask us—no, commands us—to let go of tightly held grudges, to, in mercy, turn toward others rather than away from them? The Gospel suggests at least three reasons. She who forgives:

1.  Imitates God.

Find a person—or even a community of persons—who has flushed away the last, foul-smelling trace of animosity and ill-will from their heart, and you’ll see one who looks a lot like Jesus. For Jesus, while enduring at the hands of enemies a brutality and aggression he didn’t deserve, prayed: “Father, forgive them.” (Luke 23:34) That person looks a lot like the Father of Jesus Christ, too, who, when humanity rebelled against him, resolutely chose still to call them his children, to show them his mercy, to continue to lavish his goodness upon them. (cf. Ephesians 1:7)

2. Shows Christ-like care for others.

When the act of forgiving takes place in human relationships, remembered hurts, though perhaps not forgotten, are treated as not counting any more. Thus, when a follower of Jesus, as the Lord himself did, determines to forgive another who has done him wrong, that act creates space for fellowship between the two to sprout and blossom again. It gives the wrongdoer a gift he doesn’t justly deserve.

3. Frees herself [or himself].

Three options—three only—are open to us when another has hurt us:

a. To hurt back, but harder. It’ll be our contribution to escalating the tension and lengthening the distance between us.

b. To give the other the dreaded “silent treatment.” It’ll become like a beachball shoved under the waters of our own heart. Eventually it’ll pop to the surface again and always with disastrous consequences.

c. To forgive the other. It’s the only route open to ridding ourselves of the ravenous anger and hate that otherwise keeps gnawing us from within and eventually devours us.

Rehearsing in the sanctuary

Our heart’s natural inclination being otherwise, again and again we need to hear our Lord’s call to forgive and then to set our heart’s intention toward doing so. Our Lord rehearses us in this life-giving pattern and drill every Sunday morning “in the sanctuary.” There we plead for him to forgive us, and there, in turn, we make our pledge to forgive others.

There, too, amid the thronging worshippers, we sing:

“Breathe on me, Breath of God. Fill me with life anew,
That I may love the way you love, and do what you would do.”

To obey Christ’s call to forgive is not easy. It’s nothing short of a miracle when a follower of Jesus does, in fact, forgive a fellow human being. But, with God’s Spirit to empower us and the Christian community to encourage us, we can forgive.

And when the miracle does happen, it’s a wonder to behold.

Theological Reflection

“Let us go to Calvary to learn how we may be forgiven. Let us linger there to learn how to forgive.” (Charles Spurgeon) (Quote source here.)

So, how do we recognize when we have extended forgiveness to those who have hurt us? That answer is found on page 29 in the book, Forgive and Forget,” and I will end this post with that quote: You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall…

Those who hurt you . . .

And feel the power . . .

To wish them well . . . .

YouTube Video: “Forgiveness” by Matthew West:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here