Be Happy. Foster Forgiveness!

I.
Forgiveness, one possible response to careless and callous treatment of us by those to whom we relate in personal, professional, and political contexts; generally, we should be able to forgive those who hurt us in ways that don’t maim or incapacitate us physically and/or emotionally. We still have to make peace with those encounters that do, in fact, leave us permanently scarred, but I don’t think “forgiveness” is the right word for the appropriate  response here.    

Let me give you an example. While I was a pastor in Baltimore, I was in DC one afternoon for a conference, and I met a young man from Richmond, Virginia, who was considering a call to ministry and in attendance at the same conference. Like many or most people entering the ministry these days, he was already in his first career–contemplating a change. We had been seated together at a dinner, and we connected well conversationally. We stayed in touch after the conference ended, and he visited my sons and me in Baltimore on a few occasions.

    As I got to know him, he began to share the dark story about events in his early years that had nearly crippled him emotionally for life. His father had sexually abused him from the time he was about four or five years old until he was an early teen and could physically force his father to stop the molestation. His mother knew what was going on but never uttered a word or, in any sense, came to his rescue.      

He had found a psychiatrist in Richmond who specialized in helping adult victims of incestuous child abuse. The psychiatrist got him into a residential treatment program on the west coast known to have tremendous success in helping people who had suffered this kind of unspeakable abuse find wholeness again. The requirements of the treatment program were extreme, but–obviously–necessary. His therapists and advisors in the program required him to cut off all ties with his parents–presumably, for life. They told him his parents had not acted, by any means, like parents and that he shouldn’t and couldn’t treat them as such. They had kept him around for abuse, not for love. There was no advice or expectation from program leaders that he should forgive them and start afresh. By the time I knew this young man, he was several years into living his life as someone who had never had parents.  
     
Now, you may or may not agree with this principle, but I’m using it to say that making peace with a horrible event like a rape or murder of a significant other is necessary for moving on healthily. Forgiving the perpetrator isn’t typically the proper healthy emotional response for such an extreme attack.    

This is not to say that the kinds of offenses we can and should forgive are piddley and inconsequential and that we should treat them like water off a duck’s back. I’m absolutely not saying that we should practice forgiveness only when it’s easy for us.
Forgiving those who intentionally hurt us and our loved ones emotionally and practically can take every bit of energy and resolve we have. Yet, if we don’t find a way to forgive, then what we’re left to deal with eats us up. So, in addition to being a Jesus-like thing to do, forgiving prevents ongoing, unresolved anger and grudges from stealing life from us. If we can practice forgiveness, then the person who hurt us doesn’t have power over us to keep on making us angry or fearful or embarrassed or whatever it was we initially felt when we were hurt.    

In what has been termed “the Lord’s Prayer” and/or “the Model Prayer,” which was supposedly a demo-prayer Jesus prayed in the presence of some of his disciples who had asked him, “Sir, how do we pray?”, we hear–and many of us have prayed: “…forgive us our debts or trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”    

As those of you who have the energy to try to keep up with my theology know, I have many problems with this prayer as it has been typically translated and used. One of my issues is precisely with how this segment of the prayer is understood by most people, it seems, who hear an English translation or who pray the prayer themselves. The usual take on what Jesus meant here is that God is refusing to forgive us UNTIL or UNLESS we forgive others; said another way, God holds our offenses against us unless or until we forgive all of those who have offended us in any kind of way.  
 
What I think Jesus meant here–or was it the early church who may have put these words in his mouth?–is not that God is as petty as to play such a silly game with struggling, conflicted human beings. Instead, it’s a very practical reminder that until we break down the inner barriers called grudges we have built, not only will we close ourselves off emotionally from a means to let go of the residual negativity, but also that same barriers block us from basking in God’s love; this is not because of anything that God does or withholds–no not at all! This happens because when we build those kinds of barriers, they block not just one thing, but several things. We simply aren’t made up emotionally in such a way that we can keep on hating another human being and, at the same time, feel the uninterrupted flow of God’s love.    

What I’m about to say would certainly be tossed as misguided or just flat wrong by some who would hear it, but I will say it anyway. Forgiving someone who has wronged us isn’t just a matter of doing something morally commendable or civilized; forgiving someone who has wronged us is something we do also because we love ourselves and know that proper emotional care requires us to let go of all the negative energy we possibly can. In other words, no one who cares about her or his own emotional health is willing to carry around the unresolved anger and frustration and resentment–or whatever it is we hold onto when we have been wronged. Therefore, it is legitimate to think in terms of forgiving that someone, at least in part, for our well-being.    

To further our pragmatism in this regard, take just a minute to reflect on how pointless it is NOT to forgive someone who said something hurtful to or about us, who offended us, who lied to us, who left us standing in the lurch, etc. etc. Why pointless? Well, they’re going right along with their lives–maybe just as they were all along. If we don’t forgive them, many times they won’t care. But if we don’t take the high road, we leave ourselves saddled with what bogs us down and prevents us from enjoying life the way we deserve to!

II.      
Some reflections on forgiveness from the Apostle Paul to the faith community in Ephesus: 

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for evil….Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another…(Eph 4:25-26,31-32a NRSV).

Paul had a way of dealing with multiple subjects at once–not always, but often. And one of the fascinating things about reading Paul for me is to notice what he’s stringing together in what often are collections of his pet peeves.     

In this case, I find it ironic, on the one hand, but all too painfully true on the other, that he starts off by reminding the fine Christians of Ephesus that they needed to stop lying to each other. Another thing that’s very important to remember when reading and interpreting Paul is that he wrote to real life situations, problems, and concerns. He would not have just pulled this out of the hat as a random point for discussion or consideration. 

    What an intro to a column on religious advice! From there, Paul moves to the subject of anger, and he’s very pastorally insightful here, as he generally seems to have been. His suggestion is, “Be angry, but do not sin.” That is to say, it is possible to be angry–and, in fact, it’s very healthy to be angry without crossing the line. We have no idea what he thought “the line” was, but this much we can read and understand clearly–that Paul affirmed the notion that pious people can be healthily and ethically angry.     
 
The truth is, almost everyone is angry at some point, in some kind of way. The thing is that having realized and admitted we are angry, we’re supposed to handle our anger in an appropriate way. I’d say often that means being honest with the person who made us angry, but doing so in a way and perhaps at a time not to further complicate relational or practical tensions. 

    Sometimes, I think it’s good to let someone know right on the spot that she or he has made us angry. At other times, it’s better to wait, calm down, think a bit, and then tell the truth in love. Anger and conflict management are absolutely necessary to healthy personal relationships–marriages, partnerships, friendships. The same is true in community too. In church (but don’t let this get out to the general public!!!), fine Christian folk get angry at other fine Christian folk just as spouses and partners get angry with each other and just as parents and their children get any with one another. That’s no surprise. That’s life. That’s being a human being.     
 
The question is, will we handle our anger healthily and responsibly in our homes and at church? All too many people will have to answer that question, “No.” Pride, pettiness, immaturity, lack of interpersonal skills–did I mention stubbornness?–keep us from handling productively something as natural as anger. And I have to be quick to say that not everyone with whom we are angry cares that we are angry or why we were angry and, thus, isn’t receptive to our admission of anger and our offer to forgive and clear the air and work things out; unresolved anger can do all kinds of awful things to our insides and to our behavior patterns.   
   
Therefore, put away, he told the Ephesian Christians and their Christian neighbors, bitterness, wrath, anger…oops! Didn’t he JUST tell his readers to go ahead and be angry, but not to let it get out of hand? Yes, so this anger reference must be to the kind that got out of hand; the kind that began to eat up someone’s insides and have her or him acting out in destructive and crazy ways. Get rid of that nonsense, Paul insists!     
 
There’s more from Paul to that warm, Christian fellowship about what to put away that surprises us because none of us has ever been in a church situation in which people became angry with one another and behaved badly toward each other! Thank goodness, we’ve all been delivered from that. But the people at Ephesus didn’t have a record the way we do! Paul had to tell them to stop lying to each other and to get rid of wrangling, slander, and malice. Paul had to tell these people who had pledged to live like Jesus to be kind to each other. Should church folk need to be reminded to be nice to each other?  
   
Paul said we church folk should also be tender-hearted with each other. Remember that this Pauline advice isn’t about how Christians should act beyond the church–although we might hope the same principles apply! Let’s be tender-hearted with each other in the fellowship. Kind and caring.     

One of the scandals at Carson-Newman College during my years there, other than the streaking incident that landed us a spot a national morning news show, was a philosophy professor who wore a badge on his jacket that read: “Give a Damn!” Wow! On a campus that didn’t allow dancing since Southern Baptists knew any true Christian wouldn’t commit the sin of dancing, Dr. Patteson’s badge was something to be noticed and discussed.     

Paul was telling the congregations at Ephesus and nearby to care about each other, to give a damn. Is this something followers of Jesus should need to be reminded to do?    
  
Finally, he said, be forgiving of one another. Evidently, even people of faith in their faith communities have to be reminded to be forgiving of one another. The absence of forgiveness among people in a faith community can create so much negative energy that healthy and sane people will sense it when they visit and run as far away, as fast as they can. One of the major reasons some congregations don’t grow is because the infighting and absence of forgiveness are so strong and so evident there that emotionally stable people will have nothing to do with such a group.

III.

      Soon-to-Be-Saint John Paul II amazed me and inspired me when he went to Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate him, and forgave him for trying to take his life. That would not be an act I would encourage those who sought my pastoral counsel to forgive; I’d put it in the category of “be angry without crossing the line” and then move on.     

Another scene that stirs me is the one described by those nearest the cross of Jesus as he was dying, breath by failing breath, at the hands of Roman executioners. Someone or someones reported that Jesus, near the end of his earthly life, prayed this little prayer, saying, “God, forgive my executioners since they don’t understand what they’re doing.” I certainly don’t think Jesus was saying that violence and unjust punishment of innocent citizens of any nation were OK, but I’m guessing he recognized that the executioners were just doing a day’s work. They were only doing what they did regularly with those sentenced to death in Roman courts. There were people who DID understand why Jesus was there and who were responsible for it; they were Romans by the way! But there was no need to hate the executioners. Even so, that’s magnanimous beyond my capacity to understand. I can describe to you how the story goes, but I can’t tell how Jesus could have maintained such an attitude as he suffered physically beyond words. That prayer might have been something added to a more bare bones account of Jesus’ crucifixion in order for a Gospel writer to portray for all to remember what kind of man Jesus had been.     We now come, in any case, to some other famous words attributed to Jesus. These words come in response to a question Peter asks him.  What Matthew tells his readers is that Peter comes/is coming up to Jesus (and Matthew is using present tense here giving the sense that something is in process) and asking Jesus this odd question. “Sir [a translation I prefer over the typically chosen “Lord”], how many times can my brother [or sister] sin against me and I forgive [her or] him? As many as seven times?”      

Peter is absolutely NOT asking a generic question here. The word “brother” that he has intentionally chosen (I added sister to my translation for inclusive language) meant just that. He was referring to his blood brother or to someone who was close to him in the Jesus movement. This is NOT a “some one” kind of word. Peter is asking Jesus how many times he has to forgive someone close to him, by blood or by community affiliation, who keeps on offending him.      

I don’t think the “seven times” framework was a random thing either. We do know that in some strands of Jewish thought, the number “seven” symbolized completeness. Perhaps, Peter thought if he managed to be forgiving seven times he would have tried to be as forgiving as any human being could have been.     

My take on the question is that Peter was asking a real-life question about a real-life concern he had. Someone close to him was offending him repeatedly. He wanted to be a good guy, and he wanted to please his mentor, Jesus, with how he behaved; but he knew himself well enough to know that he wasn’t going to keep on giving his brother all these opportunities to stop offending him!     

Jesus’ response is literally unforgettable. My translation of this brief segment from the Gospel of Matthew: “Jesus is saying to him, `I am telling you, “Not as many as seven times, but as many as seventy times seven!”’”     

Seventy times seven! In other words, stop counting! This is your brother; this is your sister. Sit down and work it out or strengthen and lengthen your patience, Peter, but stop counting up the wrongs of someone you’re supposed to love–your own flesh and blood or your brother or sister in our faith community. Peter was kind of thick-skulled, though, you know?     

Now, we don’t have the benefit of knowing what offense or offenses got Peter so stirred up. And Jesus certainly wasn’t telling Peter that he had to keep putting up with nonsense or taking abuse right on and on. Jesus himself let more than a few people know that how they were behaving was getting on his last nerve! Surely, Peter should have been free to do the same.

    Thus, I think we have to say again that Jesus’ seventy-times seven directive here isn’t literal. It means, we shouldn’t keep count of the wrongs of those we love. Another part of what I’m guessing Jesus had in mind was a challenge to Peter to try to work things out with his brother or sister. If the person kept intentionally trying to offend Peter, he certainly had the right to call foul and say, “This needs to stop.” But he did have the responsibility to do his very best to let the bad feelings go, to stop keeping track of all the ways someone he supposedly loved offended him, and to do all he could to restore that relationship to health.     

Not everyone will permit a relationship to heal. So you may try and be rebuffed. But we never have to give up, in any case, you know?      

I’ve seen people hate themselves to such a degree that they couldn’t forgive themselves for something they did, in their recent or distant past, something they regard as morally unacceptable. Not being able to forgive themselves makes it nearly impossible, or maybe out and out impossible, even to entertain the notion of forgiving others.    

…..They can’t forgive themselves for what they regard as some moral offence, some ethical misjudgement, or a really bad choice. That is very painful! It can be tragic.      

Think about this. If the monotheistic religions–Christianity included, and maybe at the top of the list–continue to present to constituents a god who is hateful, reluctant to forgive those who stray from that god’s strict pathway for humans, and who ultimately forgives only a few humans who benefit from their own or someone else’s act of pure appeasement, then we’re a part of a vicious cycle demonstrating to the world–and more significantly to the communities right around us–the rarity of forgiveness rather than the abundance of God’s love for all human beings regardless of how or how often we may fail others and ourselves. 

    Amen.

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