Intention over Impact
Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 15, 2013
You know how a new car depreciates in value the minute you drive it off the lot? And it’s not even a fair depreciation! If you try to turn around a sell the car and month later, it is not as if it is only a month’s-worth less in cost – it is simply not a new car anymore. It is a used car and so its value is measured by used car standards. It is assumed there are a few dings, some wear, some user-error that has taken place since it left the sales lot.
Collectors of rare books or trading cards or things like that will talk about how much more valuable an item is if it is in the original packaging from the store or from the factory. As soon as you take the item out of the box, it is assumed that handling the item will have an impact on its condition. Thus the value drops.
Relationships are like this as well. I don’t mean the value drops. How we value relationships actually tends to increase with use – so that part of the analogy doesn’t follow. But the part where as soon as we step off the starting block, we can assume our relationships will have a few dings, some wear, some user-error taking place… that part is the same. Over time, every relationship is strained with imperfections.
Or to think of an organic analogy rather than a mechanical one, our relationships are dynamic and ever changing. If they were static it would be a problem. Instead they are always moving always growing and becoming something new. With either the mechanical analogy or the organic one, the point is that static perfection cannot exist in a relationship because it is the nature of relationships to have bumps and changes, growth and rough patches.
So for things like cars, we have repair shops to fix them up when they have problems beyond simple wear. Similarly, we also do what we can to maintain the health of our friendships and family relationships. Forgiveness is one of the primary tools at our disposal. Compassion, kindness, gratitude, respect, and mutual trust are also important values to cultivate. But Forgiveness is particularly valuable when we consider the wear and tear that occurs by the everyday (and not-so-everyday) use of our relationships.
Religious scriptures the world over advocate for a forgiving heart. Every religion has something to say about the value of forgiveness in the face of others’ mistakes and even offenses or injuries. In the Qur’an it is written, “If you efface and overlook and forgive, then lo! God is forgiving, merciful.” (Qur’an 64.14) Jainism has a text that reads, “Subvert anger by forgiveness.” (Samanasuttam 136) Taoism teaches, “Show endurance in humiliation and bear no grudge.” (Treatise on Response and Retribution) A Jewish text puts it like this: “Who takes vengeance or bears a grudge acts like one who, having cut one hand while handling a knife, avenges himself by stabbing the other hand.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9.4)
The most recognized Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer or the ‘Our Father’ has the line “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” It is one of those well-known and recognized phrases in the culture around us; most people – not just Christians – know the line.
Scriptural lessons the world over speak of how holding a grudge and seeking revenge are perspectives that poison the spirit. These behaviors and attitudes injure us as much as the one we call our enemy. As the Chinese Proverb has it: “Before you start on the road to revenge, dig two graves.” A message that comes out clearly is that forgiveness is good not only for the forgiven person but also for the one who does the forgiving. Both people are involved, both are tangled, both can gain through the repair and release.
For some it is simply a trick of recognizing when the ‘check engine’ light has come on for a particular relationship and having the resources to deal with it. Not always easy since we don’t have an actual “check relationship” light the flashes at us like our car will offer. And most people actually have great skill at avoiding and not seeing problems when they arise.
Consider a simple example. My friend and I get into a fight, we both say things we later regret – but of course he doesn’t understand that I only said those things in response to his words. Or the things I said are not nearly as cruel as the things she said. Or I didn’t mean it the way he took it. I want my intention to count more than my actions. This is true for simple things and even more so for big rifts in our relationships. And it is made all the harder to really look at it clearly because feelings of shame and guilt are often involved as well.
Guilt is not so terrible. Not really. Guilt is our psyche’s way of letting us know something is wrong, that we’ve done something we feel bad about doing. It’s information. Shame on the other had is not all that helpful. Shame is more overpowering and doesn’t dissipate as easily even if we do acknowledge we’ve done something wrong and make amends. Guilt can be dealt with, but when it lingers it can turn into shame. And shame is one of the poisons of the soul.
Unfortunately shame and guilt get lumped together as if they are the same thing. So we are often hesitant to acknowledge guilt lest it lead us to shame. But in truth guilt is a natural and healthy response to a situation in which we have offended or hurt or frightened another person even unintentionally. Shame is not a healthy response, shame is a deadening experience. But because we lump guilt in with shame we avoid both and focus instead on our excuses and our justification and our intentions rather than our actions.
Do not we all wish to be judged by our intentions rather than our actions? I must admit that I want you all to take into account my intentions and motives when you consider any actions of mine that have caused hurt – unintentional hurt as they say. It is fairly common when we have an argument with another person to attribute more credence to our own good intentions than to the supposed good intentions of the other party. As the reading from Kettering and Hazard put it, “Sure I’ve done things wrong. I’ve sinned. But not like that.” Not like the other person did.
Recently I was part of a group,( not a group involving anyone here in the church, I mention that so you know I’m not telling stories on you or someone sitting next to you.) In this group, one person felt his concerns were dismissed by the leader of the group. Later he brought it up during a processing meeting near the end of our time together. The leader listened and tried to explain saying she had not been dismissive, she had been keeping the conversation on track; because in that earlier meeting he was referring to there had been a prescribed end time with no flexibility. He persisted that while he understood she had not intended to be dismissive, he nevertheless felt dismissed by her.
The people involved in this example are all good people and we all like and respect each other. So it was easy for us to stay at the table when this came up at the end of our process meeting. But after circling around the experiences and explanations for some time without a comfortable resolution I reflected to the group that one of the lessons we had been working on in the Anti-Racism work the group was doing offered an insight for this incident: both the intention and impact are true. Roadblocks arise when we deny one or the other.
In the reading from this morning, (Kettering and Hazard) the authors talk about our impulse to defend or justify ourselves. My image of myself is as one who does not harm other people. Or at least the harm I cause is not that bad, it’s unintentional, it is small. Do you think of yourself so differently? Most people see themselves as basically good people who make a few small mistakes here and there but over all we are not the type to cause great hurt to others.
I’m not suggesting that we’re really all much more horrible people than we let on. I’m not saying that. We are basically good people who make mistakes, but we do make mistakes. Most people are not out to hurt others. Yes, there are examples, lots of them, of people purposely and cruelly hurting other people. And forgiveness is a complex interaction involving the severity of the injury, the relationship between the people, as well as the spiritual maturity of those people involved. But this morning I am mostly interested in you and me and the majority of humanity who regularly make mistakes with each other.
It is difficult for most people, when there is a break in a relationship, to acknowledge the felt impact of our actions. Yes, what I did hurt you (we might admit) but you need to know that I was trying to do something good. My purpose wasn’t to hurt you, my purpose was to help. How hard it is to offer your intent without minimizing the impact the other party experienced.
And herein lies the graceful elegance of forgiveness: Forgiveness is not about keeping an account of who was right and who was wrong. It is not about an even exchange and accounting so the tally marks add up and everyone is even. Instead forgiveness is about never putting another person out of your heart. Forgiveness is about healing and repairing the relationships worth saving.
And forgiveness at its finest is the salve for any relationship. Oh, it is also good for your spirit, but mostly it is for relationships. There is certainly a time and place for one-way forgiveness, for a person to do their private personal work to forgive someone without that someone’s participation. It can work. There are situations when that is healing and good – when the other person is deceased, when the other person is still able and willing to abuse you if you but offer the chance, when the other person is physically removed and not available to enter back into relationship. There are situations in which one-way forgiveness can be healing and good. But most of the time, forgiveness is for both parties to do together.
Consider again that phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” Or forgive us our debts or our sins if you prefer. I enjoy the moment in an ecumenical gathering of Christians when the Lord’s Prayer is recited and this phrase is the one where there is some cacophony. “Forgive us our mumble, mumble as we forgive those who mumble, mumble against us.” Because some people are sinners, others are debtors, and a few are transgressors. Different communities use different phrases and when they are all together for an ecumenical meeting, they each use the term they are comfortable with.
Usually when there is a significant discrepancy in English translation of a biblical verse or a word in a verse it means the Greek or even the Aramaic words are referring to a concept that doesn’t correspond exactly with our English concepts.
Neil Douglas Klotz is a biblical scholar who focuses on language. In his book Prayers of the Cosmos he rendered this line from the Lord’s Prayer several different ways. Klotz poetically offers a sense of the concepts Jesus might have actually said in Aramaic.
“Loose the cords of mistakes binding us, as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.”
“Erase the inner marks our failures make, just as we scrub our hearts of others’ faults.”
“Untangle the knots within so that we can mend our hearts’ simple ties to others.”
The Aramaic word for ‘forgive’ is literally: to untie, to disentangle, to let loose. Forgiveness is a way of getting unstuck, of loosening the knot. You have perhaps stumbled across that great aphorism, “Forgiving means giving up all hope of a better past.” Forgiveness is the art of loosening and untangling the relationship. Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.
Forgiveness is about relationships, and every relationship is imperfect and is strained; every relationship has its share of dings and wear and user-error. When we remain open to the truth of both our intention and our impact, we also hold open the possibility of forgiveness and keep the integrity of the relationship at heart. The good news of forgiveness is that when we let go of our battle to be right and our need to be seen as having good intentions, we release ourselves from the rigid and legalistic mindset and so open ourselves up for forgiveness and for growth and life.
In a world without end
May it be so.