What have you learned by heart in your life? I’m not referring to things like your Social Security number, or the lyrics of a ‘Beatles’ tune, or that poem in sixth grade you had to recite in front of the class. I’m talking about more important things, like still knowing by heart the sound of your mother’s voice singing you to sleep when you were young, or the way the one you loved so much said a final goodbye, or the look on the doctor’s face when she told you what you had, or, perhaps, what you didn’t have to worry about anymore. There are some things we take to heart that stay with us all our lives. We carry them with us wherever we go. They have a continuing hold over us; they’re more than just memories, they’re intimate companions that influence us all along our way
That’s the role Jesus wants forgiveness to play in our intimate relations: not something to be counted out and calculated, but something to be constantly cultivated, to be learned by heart. Peter asked him about forgiving someone close to us, an adelphos, which, in Greek, can mean either a brother or a fellow church member! And Jesus answered: “forgive your brother or sister, [or that fellow member of your church], from your heart, [your kárdia].” Forgiveness, for Jesus, is a cardiac event, a matter of the heart!
Who doesn’t need to hear this? Is there any family who doesn’t have a long-standing feud that drags on and on, where family life is soured by bitterness, resentment, and long-standing stubbornness? We all have had once, or perhaps have now a problem relationship in our lives that leaves us feeling like there’s a hole in our heart. A college student once complained to me that he hated to go home for a holiday because every time he does, he gets into a fight with his mother and inevitably, he said, she gets historical. “You mean ‘hysterical,’ don’t you?” I asked. No, he answered with a wry grin, I mean ‘historical.’ Whenever we argue, she winds up telling me everything I’ve done wrong in my life. She definitely gets historical!”
It’s so easy to keep an account book in our hearts, totaling up the number of times someone has hurt us. It’s so easy, and so unhealthy. It’s like having a dangerous heart condition: a heart consumed by anger, resentment and bitterness. As Archbishop Tutu reminds us, you “think an eye for an eye is going to satisfy you. But in the end you discover that an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind! (Dalaï-lama and Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy, p. 236)
When we can’t find it in our hearts to forgive, resentment will consume us and control our lives. Emotionally, we can feel justified in thinking: ‘that person who hurt me so much doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.’ But what about you? You deserve to be free! Henri Nouwen put it well: “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.” (Bread For the Journey, Harper, San Francisco, 1997, Reflection for January 26).
How do we make our way from resentment to forgiveness? We start, as Jesus instructs us, by throwing out the accounts book, by refusing to keep a ledger of forever-resentable offenses. Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, was once asked by a friend if she remembered when a colleague said something offensive to her. Clara replied, “I don’t believe I do.” “Oh, you must,” the friend persisted, “it was a particularly cruel remark.” “No,” Clara replied, “I distinctly remember forgetting that!” I recently had a conversation with a wonderful Christian lady who had married into one of the historic founding families of Hong Kong. She told me, “Soon after my marriage, I could see I had stepped into an atmosphere of maneuvering and intrigue on every side in the family. Early on I decided that forgiveness was the only way to cope. So, I made up my mind to make a habit of forgiving!” Such are the people who have trained their hearts, not to be victims of resentment, but to be fortresses of forgiveness.
Cultivating a forgiving heart takes humility. Not that false humility some people get stuck in, when they see themselves as a worthless doormat. But a true humility, the kind where you acknowledge that you are part of the the human race, where you admit that you, like everyone else, stand in need of forgiveness. True humility is that virtuous reality check reminding me that I do screw up a lot of the time — a lot more often than I’d like to admit, even. As a boy, I always liked hearing my uncle claim, “I make five mistakes before breakfast!”
If you don’t think you need to be forgiven anything in your life, then, you really do have a problem. The most pitiable of all creatures, Martin Luther wrote, is the person who has nothing to be sorry for. They could never know the joy of being forgiven, restored, renewed, set free. And, just as bad, if you can’t admit to your own need for forgiveness, you’ll have a difficult time finding it in your heart to forgive anyone else. That was the problem with the ungrateful slave in Jesus’s story. Here, he had been forgiven a tremendous debt. A huge burden has been lifted from his shoulders. But did he really appreciate what that meant for him, to be set free like that, to be given such a new chance in life? He showed how little he valued his own liberation in the way he treated his subordinate who came to him pleading for mercy over a much smaller debt. Shown mercy, he was merciless.
We’ve all seen that type operating in a hierarchal organization, the person who kisses up to his superiors and kicks down his subordinates. There must be a special place in hell reserved for them! But that is who you and I are when we refuse to forgive, generously forgive someone else: we take for granted all the mercy, kindness and love given to us, and then turn around and ask how much longer we have to tolerate the unforgivable idiots in our lives! That’s a heart-sick, heart-less way to live. What was so wicked about the unforgiving servant was that he really didn’t value what he’d been given. Unable to take his own forgiveness to heart. he couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive someone else who had begged him for mercy.
God pardons us lovingly, lavishly, continuously. Despite all the jokes and cartoons to the contrary, God, doesn’t keep a book of accounts on your life at the pearly gates of heaven. God yearns to forgive you, whenever you admit to your need for mercy. And once you gratefully accept that you are truly forgiven, you will be free to offer others forgiveness, as well. In the end, all Jesus asks of you is to treat your brothers and your sisters in the same way that God has dealt with you: with a heart flowing with non-stop forgiveness. Forgiven, you’re set free to forgive. There’s nothing better for your heart.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2017