One evening when I was serving as a chaplain on a cruise ship, I sat down to dinner with a party of eight. During the table conversation, one woman announced in bold but hurt tones that she had recently disinherited all of her children. She looked around at us and said, “That will certainly teach them a lesson don’t you think?” She didn’t wait for an answer from the rest of us, but it was clear that she wanted our approval for her resentment. I felt sad for this aggrieved matriarch who, when it came to her adult children, had decided to live by the culture’s maxim, “Don’t get mad, get even!” In fact, I felt sad for the whole family; the more this lady talked, the more it seemed likely that everyone involved would take their bitter feelings about each other to the grave.
Recently I asked an acquaintance if she had any plans for the upcoming holidays. “It will be quiet,” she said, “I won’t see any of my family.” Then she explained: “We’ve all decided that we don’t have anything more to say to each other. So, we don’t get together anymore.” What is it about our families that make us so good at holding grudges and so clueless when it comes to forgiving and getting on with loving and caring for each other? There’s hardly an extended family I know that doesn’t have a history of some ongoing feud or long-standing estrangement. One side of life’s great irony is that those who are closest to us often are the ones who hurt us the most. And the other side is that our hearts will never heal, will never really be free from the hurt and pain unless we find a way to forgive.
So where do we begin when it comes to forgiveness? With ourselves: before we try to forgive others, we must know that we ourselves are forgiven. That’s where Jesus would have us start: “Forgive us our trespasses,” he encourages us to pray. His teachings, his life and his death all proclaim the message that God aches to forgive us, no matter what we’ve done, no matter whom we’ve hurt, no matter how much of a mess we’ve made of things. Sometimes it’s so hard for us to believe this. “I just can’t let go of what’s happened to me in the past,” we say to ourselves. And perhaps it’s true — maybe our hearts aren’t big enough for us to forgive ourselves all our mistakes. But God’s heart is big enough. That’s why we have a God who gave himself so completely in love for us and who wants you to accept that freeing gift for yourself. “Forgiveness is a God who will not leave us after all we’ve done,” George Roemisch beautifully put it. Believe it. Believe that God’s eager forgiveness is meant for you. And once you let God help you to forgive yourself, once you accept that you are truly forgiven, then you’re free, free to offer others forgiveness.
Jesus wants us to pray for forgiveness because he knows that our forgiven selves empower our forgiving selves. For him, it’s all part of the same thing. We can sense this best in this translation of the text that is closest to the Greek and Aramaic: “Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who does wrong to us.” Here Jesus invites us into an endless circle of pardon where God’s forgiving us gives us the freedom and the courage to forgive others and set them free.
But what if you long to forgive someone and they will have none of it? How do you forgive those who continue to want to hurt and blame you, or, even worse, will have nothing to do with you at all? What should you do? Forgive them anyway! If they accept your forgiveness, you’ve set them free. But, even if they don’t, you still “free yourself from the burden of being the ‘offended one,’” as Henri Nouwen put it. “As long as we don’t forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us or, worse, pull them as a heavy load. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them.” But, “the only people we can really change are ourselves. Forgiving others is first and foremost healing our own hearts.” (Bread For the Journey, HarperSanFrancisco 1997, Reflection for January 26 & 27)
You’ve heard the slogan, ‘Forgive and forget.’ Don’t believe in it. Instead, “forgive, and remember it differently!” The memory of the wound may last a long time, as Nouwen pointed out, “even our whole lives. When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for forgetting about us, our friends for their lack of faithfulness we no longer have to experience ourselves as victims of events we couldn’t control Forgiveness allows us to claim our own power and not let these events destroy us.” (Bread For the Journey, HarperSanFrancisco 1997, Reflection for January 29).
Unfortunately, forgiveness doesn’t seem to come naturally to us. Instead, a defensive, self-justifying, stance seems to be our instinctive approach to life. And yet, we can’t have deep and lasting relationships without forgiveness. So we need to practice forgiveness. In marriage, for example, there’s a simple formula for happiness: take one part, love, add a second part, forgiveness and give them as gifts to each other in equal doses every day for the rest of your lives!
What a blessing it can be when we find forgiveness! What freedom we give when we forgive someone who needs that reprieve, whether they know it or not! Yes, it’s hard to break through the anger and the pain and freely forgive those who have hurt us so much. It’s even more difficult, sometimes, to accept forgiveness, from God, from others and from ourselves! But there’s nothing more freeing or affirming or restoring than living the connection between being forgiven and being forgiving. Commit to this forgiveness-centered life, and you’ll never, ever regret it.
© Edward R. Dufresne 2015