A Meditation on Forgiveness

Today’s theme is forgiveness.  We will talk and hear a lot about forgiveness from talks in preparation for the weekend.  Forgiveness is a central theme woven throughout Scripture, and it’s so important we talk about it, because society won’t.

Society tells us we have the right to be angry, to get even.  When we are wronged it is our right, even our duty to make sure the other person gets what’s coming to them.  It’s about getting even.  Sometimes we even trick ourselves into thinking this is the right thing to do.  When someone harms us and we return blow for blow, we don’t call it “payback,” we tell ourselves “justice has been served.”

This is the story the world tells us, which is why it is so important for us to proclaim and live God’s story of forgiveness.

We have a deep need for forgiveness—to forgive and to be forgiven.  When I was a chaplain intern at a hospital, the resident chaplains taught me that when a person is dying there are usually 4 things we need to say to that person and maybe that person to us: I love you; Good bye; I forgive you; please forgive me.  Forgiveness is as essential as water.

We need forgiveness because we make mistakes.  We make little mistakes, like leaving the toilet lid up or not putting a trash bag back in the can once we’ve done the heroic deed of taking out the garbage…these are little mistakes that need forgiveness.  (Do you hear the voice of experience?)  Our days are checkered with little mistakes like this.

But we also make some big ones too, don’t we?  I don’t mean borrowing someone’s truck and returning it with an empty gas tank, though that is a egregious offense.  I mean the big mistakes, those we’d rather not talk about.  Ones we hope to keep hidden so we don’t get caught.  I mean mistakes like destructive habits of addiction, lying, cheating, and making bad choices when our anger and impatience get the best of us.

We need forgiveness in order to be set free from the chains of guilt and the past.  Mistakes can pile up on us.  Sometimes we cover up one bad choice with another.  The mountain can get piled higher and higher.  In Psalm 32, the psalmist describes what it’s like to carry around that burden: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away, through my groaning all day long; for day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Ps. 32:3-4).  That guilt can be crushing.

So we go to God asking for forgiveness for the things we’ve done wrong, for release from the captivity of our mistakes.  And we’re so thankful God is always more ready to forgive than we are to ask.  God is poised on the edge of the seat—waiting, hoping, desperate for us to ask.  God’s forgiveness reminds us that who we are is not who we have been.  Our past mistakes DO NOT determine our identity.  And they certainly do not determine who we will be.

We need forgiveness because that is the first step toward reconciliation.  Those mistakes we make get in between God and us.  They get between us and the people we’ve wronged.  The mistakes that separate us are like the big, ugly elephant in the room nobody wants to name, but we all have to walk around.  When we’re finally honest enough to name the elephant, with God’s help we can tame it and help it back outside where it belongs and we can finally see one another face to face.

The Bible says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgression from us” (Ps. 103:12).  That’s how God forgives when we ask for it.  That’s how God removes our past mistakes that we let get between him and us.

We desperately need forgiveness, and we desperately need to forgive others.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Being forgiven and forgiving others are part of the same breath.  And we can’t live the life God intends for us without breathing: “Forgive us…as we forgive…”

When we approach our brother or sister, to ask or give forgiveness, we are walking off the map and entering into uncharted territory.  Forgiving someone is like entering the wilderness.

Forgiveness is uncharted territory and it’s hard work.  We have simple little phrases we say when someone asks for forgiveness: “Oh, it’s ok;” “It doesn’t matter;” or “Forgive and forget.”  But the thing is, it’s not that easy.  Things aren’t ok, and they do matter.  The sense of betrayal we feel when we’re lied to is real.  Rebuilding trust takes a lot of work.  The implications of stealing and cheating take a long time to untangle.  And no matter how hard we try, we just can’t forget the pain of abuse or injury.  There’s no simple instruction manual for the down and dirty work of mending a broken relationship, but the light of Christ does help show us a way.

Forgiveness is hard work, but we need to do it so that we can be rejoined to the people our mistakes have separated us from.  This is the way God intended it because, Scripture says, “God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself [forgave us] and gave us the ministry of reconciliation [forgiving others]” (2 Cor. 5:16).

We need to forgive others because “I forgive you,” may be one of the most powerful phrases you can ever say.  It has the power to subvert even the most hostile enemy.  Just like being forgiven breaks some chains, forgiving someone else also sets us free from anger and resentment.  We don’t forgive other people in order to change them.  They may not be sorry, or even care that we forgive them.  But that’s not the point.  The point is giving up the anger that enslaves us, and letting go of the bitterness that can eat away at who we are.

It is a long, slow road, and it starts here: I forgive you.  Will you forgive me?

The Lord’s Prayer is about forgiveness: “forgive us…as we forgive.”  As we close, let’s pray together that prayer that Jesus taught us:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.