Forgiving Iniquity


Douglas Taylor

Over the years I have said that forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity.  Over time, every relationship is strained with imperfections.  How could it be otherwise?  How many times have it been mentioned that the epistemology of the word religion is ligare from which we also get the word ‘ligament.’  Ligare means to bind together; re-ligare means to bind together again, to reconnect.  Religion is about relationships: relationships among people, and between people and God.  Every relationship is strained; Love, Justice, and Forgiveness are the larger elements that ease the strain and keep a relationship alive and healthy.  Forgiveness is arguably the least understood of these three elements.   Both Love and Justice have been picked up by secular culture.  Through music, art, public education, periodicals, the legal system, Oprah, and Dr. Phil, all manner of venues: Love and Justice are explained to people.  Forgiveness has little of this kind of support outside of religion.  Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity and few other disciplines care to address it.  As a critical, though difficult to explain, element of both Love and Justice, Forgiveness is referred to, but rarely is it the staple topic week after week.  Forgiveness lacks mass market appeal, probably because it is not easy.

Last year I mentioned in a sermon on forgiveness that there has been scientific research done on the effects of forgiveness.  One researcher concluded: “Learn to forgive because it is good for your health.” (Dr. Worthington)  Richard Fitzgibbons, who is one of the forgiveness researchers, compiled a list of benefits for people who forgive.  People who forgive have decreased levels of anger and hostility, and increased feelings of love; improved ability to control anger, and enhanced capacity to trust; People who forgive find freedom from the hold of events of the past, and they are better equipped to no longer repeat negative behaviors.  People who forgive demonstrate improved physical health and significant improvement in psychiatric disorders.  And I would add to the list, the person who forgives becomes a more loving and empathetic friend, spouse, parent, colleague, child, and overall person!

But all that is in the sermon I preached last year, which is on the web and maybe even still in print on the book cart.  Indeed, I have preached about forgiveness every year around the time of Yom Kippur.  When I was serving my internship during seminary my supervisor told me “Preach on Forgiveness at least once a year, it is always needed.”  But after three years in a row, with an especially well put together sermon last year, I thought it might be a good idea to give it a rest.  Then back in the spring during the Question Box sermon I received several questions that asked about Forgiveness.  This caused me to reconsider dropping the topic, and instead you now will experience with me our annual sermon on Forgiveness.

There were two questions from that Question Box service that were particularly cogent.  The first was from someone asking how to be forgiven: “How do you begin to atone for deeply hurting someone you love?” Repentance is the offenders work; forgiveness is the work of the one offended.  And then from the other side of the equation: “How do you close your mind to hurt, pain, or injustice and open your heart to forgiveness?”  Both of these questions forgo the questions ‘Why’ and ‘When,’ and go right for the ‘How.’  How do I do this, I understand that it is a good thing to do, but how do I do it.

The book, Wounds Not Healed by Time: the power of repentance and forgiveness by Solomon Schimmel, from which I found this mornings reading, has a chapter entitled “How to Forgive.” The book explores the concept of Forgiveness from the perspectives of the three major monotheistic traditions.  He writes primarily from within his own Jewish perspective, and the book is heavily weighted with examples from Jewish writings and traditions.  From there the author gives a fair rendering of the Christian perspectives as well, comparing and contrasting them with the Jewish perspectives with insight and proficiency.  I was less impressed with the presentation of the Islamic perspective; not because it was unfair, rather for the meagerness of the examples and evidenced research.

One exception to my complaint is in Schimmel’s comparison of repentance among the three traditions.  Most of the book compares Christianity with Judaism to explore the different aspects of the topic, but now and then Islam was lifted up for comparison as well.  For example, in the book I read that all three religious traditions say that your sin is not simply a sin against the victim, but also a sin against the heirs of the victim and against God.  Judaism goes further saying that your sin is also a sin against the community and against yourself!  If I steal something from you, you as the victim are not the only one to suffer.  Your children will also suffer that loss.  It also creates a rift between me and God, – even with my sometimes odd theology that does not a personal concept of God with whom I can have a relationship – there is still, arguably, a rift caused between my actions and my deepest principles.  And additionally, my theft contributes to the decline and break down of society because now I have become one more person working against the good of the whole.

To repent from my transgression is not simply to seek forgiveness from God, but to seek out the person or persons against whom I have committed my offence, and make amends or restitution.  Judaism, Islam, and most Christian traditions agree that this at least must be done, if not more, to atone for your transgression.  There are, Schimmel points out, certain Protestant denominations that are more focused on getting the sinner to confess the sin to Christ and trusting in Christ’s saving forgiveness without demanding the sinner to go through the work of making restitution, maligning such a requirement as “legalistic.”  “With this approach, God’s love can offer a detour around reparation and justice, enabling the sinner to avoid facing up to their difficult demands.”

A few months ago I wandered into the big Arrowhead Christian bookstore over by Airport road.  I do this every now and then, occasionally I’ll buy a book, but usually I’m just looking through to see what is occupying the attention of evangelicals at the moment.  Well, a few months ago I bought a small silver smooth stone inscribed with the word “forgiven.”  I had an odd feeling as I drove home from the store.  I was thinking about this stone resting in my pocket.  It said “forgiven.  Am I?  Forgiven of what?  Everything?  Even … I tried to imagine the various inequities and iniquities that I owned by myself, not even counting yet the cultural, national, and global sins in which I participate, just my own personal crop – and to have that little stone resting in my pocket with that word, “forgiven.”  What if it were true?  I dare you to try it.  It was a very powerful feeling.

There is that little saying that whenever you sin or make a transgression it is like you reach out with a pair of scissors and cut the string that binds you to God.  Then, with forgiveness, the string is retied, with the string being a little bit shorter because of the knot.  Re-ligare, to bind together again: each time we break faith with ourselves and with God we cut the string.  And each time we commit to the reconnection we are brought closer to God.  Here’s the thing though, I know God’s love encompasses everyone.  I’m a Universalist all the way to my toes and know that just because God loves me does not mean that anyone else does.  Likewise, just because God forgives me does not mean anyone else does.  While it can be powerfully healing to seek God’s forgiveness for my transgressions, to feel forgiven for even some terrible thing I have done, God’s forgiveness is but one step among several steps for me to take.  God’s love is not a detour around proper justice and reparation.

Schimmel writes

It is easier to preach glibly the virtues and pragmatic value of forgiveness and reconciliation than it is truly to understand why, when, whom, and how to forgive.  Forgiveness is a complex phenomenon.  It is affected, among other factors, by the nature and extent of the injury we have suffered, our relationship with the person who has hurt us, our sense of self, and whether or not the person whom we contemplate forgiving has expressed remorse for his [or her] deed or sought to repair the emotional, physical, or material damage wrought upon us.  Mature forgiveness entails difficult emotional and intellectual work.  (p42)

There a story of a boy who had a hard time controlling his anger. He would often lash out when he was angry.  Finally his father told him that every time he lashed out in anger he should go out to the back yard and pound a nail into the fence.  During the first few days, the boy was out in the back yard pounding nails several times a day.  Over time, the boy went to the fence less often. Then the boy went an entire day with out going out to the fence to pound in a nail.  The boy said this to his father who replied, “Now every time you control your anger and do not lash out I want you to go out and remove one of your nails from then fence.”  And this the boy did.  Sometimes he would still pound a nail in, but more often he removed nails.  Eventually there came a day when the boy had not pounded a new nail into the fence in weeks, and he had removed all the nails from his earlier visits.  His father then took him out to the fence and said, “I am proud of you, you have learned to control your anger.  I want you to remember, however, that although you have removed the nails you had pounded into the fence, the holes from those nails are still there.  You cannot take those away.  You can always remove a nail that you have pounded into the fence but you can never remove the hole that you make with the nail.  So it is when you lash out with your anger.  You can apologize and be forgiven, but the damage you cause will always remain in at least some fashion.  It is good to apologize, better to not need to.”

And, of course my first reaction to that ending is, “it is good to apologize and better to not need to, but you will need to.  No one can move through this life without creating a few nail holes.

In the reading this morning it said, “forgiveness is a social action that happens between people.  It is a step toward returning the relationship between them to the condition it had before the transgression.”  This, however, is not possible because the damage done in the past will never not be a part of the past.  But as Jack Kornfield once wrote:  “Forgiving means giving up all hope of a better past.”  Forgiveness is a way of getting unstuck, of loosening the bond that held you to the person or event.

So, you have been lied to, or robbed, betrayed, slandered, denied, devalued, hurt, beaten, violated or vandalized, or – God forbid (at least I wish He could) – something worse!  How do you move to a place of forgiveness?  How do you close your mind to hurt, pain, or injustice and open your heart to forgiveness?  That was the original question: “How do you close your mind to hurt, pain, or injustice and open your heart to forgiveness?”  Well, for starters, don’t close your mind to the hurt, pain, or injustice.  Forgiveness may very well mean giving up your anger, but it doesn’t mean you just accept pain and hurt and injustice!

Schimmel, in the beginning of his chapter “How to forgive,” acknowledges a whole host of benefits found in forgiving when the offender is repentant and then writes this:

Although forgiveness in the absence of the offender’s repentance might have some of [these] benefits as well, its emotional and moral costs may outweigh its benefits.

In the same way that some Protestant denominations will focus on securing Christ’s forgiveness without requiring the sinner to do the hard work of repentance, the companion assumption that to be a good Christian you must follow a commandment of radical forgiveness.  This vicarious repentance and required forgiveness at all costs is a grave injustice with significant moral consequences for all involved!  If someone is hurting you don’t forgive them while they are still hurting you.  If they stop hurting you but promise to come back and hurt you again later, don’t rush to forgive them!  Instead, rush to remove yourself from that situation!

I sometimes wonder when people say to me, “How can I forgive this or that?” if it really is time to forgive.  If the offender hasn’t offered apology or even acknowledged the offence, then you probably have no business forgiving this person.  What makes you think you must rush to forgiveness when there has been no repentance?  That just furthers the injustice!  There is likely other work you need to do at this point; perhaps to help bring the offender into a better understanding of the nature and extent of your injury.  But I think forgiveness is not yet a part of that work.  [At least for the ‘social’ side of forgiveness.  If you are plagued by this injury or offence to the point that it is really hindering your life, then we can talk about the ‘internal’ side of forgiveness as a way of letting go and moving on within yourself.

But let’s assume that in your life there is an opening where the offender has shown remorse, has apologized, has perhaps even offered to make amends.  Yet you still can not see your way to offer forgiveness to this person.  Your anger and your pain are too great.  How do you move from there?  One of the first phases is to develop an understanding of your offender’s context.  Have you ever heard anyone say, “I understand how someone could do that terrible thing; I don’t condone it, but I understand it”?  This is an exercise in walking in another person’s shoes, it broadens your perspective.  It doesn’t mean you give up your perspective, or agree with or condone that perspective.  It doesn’t mean your saying, that if the roles were reversed you would have done the same.  All it means is that you begin to understand the point of view of the one who hurt you.  But think on this, by withholding forgiveness, you continue to hold judgment of your offender.  If you are to serve as judge you’d best learn to see the full context of the one you would judge.  If you focus exclusively on the injury they have caused you cannot ever see your way through it to the other side of forgiveness.  The abusive parent, the disloyal spouse, the drunk driver, manipulative ex-friend, all have full lives beyond the offenses they have committed.  All of them have an inherent worth and dignity that can be uncovered if you are willing to see it.

From there, you can perhaps begin to empathize with the one who caused you pain.  You can begin to see their pain, fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, repression, trauma, abuse, stress, or any number of mitigating factors leading to the transgression.  As you stand in judgment, whether you acknowledge that this is what you are doing or not, – as you stand in judgment, taking into account the full context of the other person, you can empathize with their side of the situation.

And then you have a choice.  You can choose to accept your pain, hurt and injustice – not to close your mind to it, but to accept it.  To accept it rather than passing it back to the offender.  Rather than choosing to exact due justice, rather than choosing to pass it back to the offender with punitive words and actions, you can choose to forgive.  “Forgiving means giving up all hope of a better past;” forgiveness is a way of getting unstuck, of loosening the bond that held you to the person or event.  Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.

Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity.  Religion is about relationships, and every relationship is imperfect and is strained; Love, Justice, and Forgiveness are the larger elements that ease the strain and keep a relationship alive and healthy.  Forgiveness is arguably the least understood and most critical of these three for restoring harmony to the fractures in our relationships.