Practicing Forgiveness

So, it seems like the posting from last week that pointed out that forgiveness is a practice we undertake instead of a feeling we have for our enemies was helpful to some of you.  So, I was thinking that maybe pushing a little deeper into our struggle to forgive and reconcile might be helpful for all of us who try to follow this Jesus we call Lord.

The first habit I have that makes the practice of forgiveness hard is that I work above my pay grade.  I look around the world and I see all kinds of people who are just wrong: The neighbor who does not act like a neighbor, in my (not so) humble opinion (IMHO); the member who is not faithful enough, IMHO; the person “living in sin” and on the list goes.  Now, these folks are not hurting me directly, I just know they are sinners.  Am I to forgive them so easily?  Should we not condemn all those who, IMHO, are dishonoring God?  Probably not, that is God’s job.  They have not wronged you.  They have wronged God – IMHO. You?  Me?  We are to remove the log from our own eye, drop the rock we were about to cast and concentrate on our own sins.  You see forgiving the whole world for all the things that we choose to allow to annoy us, to get under our skin, is what God does.  And I know that it is annoying in and of itself.  Counting the sins of others is very often what enables us to focus on someone else’s problems other than our own.  Stop judging everyone and the load presented by practicing forgiveness gets much lighter.

The second habit I have is something that keeps me from answering the call to reconcile at all.  How often have you felt wronged by someone – spouse, child, friend, and co-worker – and, with arms folded and a look of righteous indignation on your face have waited for an apology?  After all, they should know what they did wrong.  After all, you deserve the apology.  And if they have not figured out what they did wrong, I’m not going to tell them!  Some obvious pouting and a little silent treatment will motivate some humble attrition, right?  Notice what Jesus says in Matthew 18:15:  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”   

Now, wait a minute Jesus – I am supposed to go to the one who wronged me?  Yep.  I’m supposed to talk to the offender and not share my hurt with others?  Now, you are getting it.  I’m supposed to take the initiative and speak one to one?  I’m afraid so.  And worse than all that I am supposed to go with the purpose of “regaining that one.”  Yes, as I did for you.

This teaching follows the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus leaves the 99 healthy sheep behind to look for one errant problem sheep, bringing it back to the fold.  In other words, we go not to get an apology; not to extract what is due; but to forgive and restore a relationship.  The burden here is all on the wronged party.  That just seems, well…. so unconventional; so difficult; so wrong, Jesus! 

Matthew 18 continues by telling us if we can’t regain the one by our own effort, we involve elders. If that does not work, we bring the matter to the church.  If that does not work, we are to treat the offender as “a Gentile or tax collector” – precisely the people that Jesus endlessly welcomed. As Paul says, we – the followers of Jesus – have been given the ministry of reconciliation.  To us falls the duty of peacemaker and bearer of forgiveness. (2 Cor. 5:18)

So, how do we do this?  How do we deal with all the hurts and sins committed against us? 

  1. Take an honest look at what offends you.  Just because your feelings got hurt does not mean you were sinned against.  Our hurt, anger, and resentments are all too often the product of our own making.  We choose anger way too much – when we are tired, anxious, stressed.  If we took everything said and done to us, as Luther counsels, “in the best possible light,” we would be happier people with a drastically shortened list of enemies.  So, before you run off to accost the one who hurt you, sleep on it for a while.  Pray about it for a long while. Ask yourself if the hurt was intended, if it is meaningful enough to destroy the relationship.  Be a grown up and put away the childish things like wanting to get even or hit back with words.  You’ll grow in understanding yourself.  And you may find that there was no breech to repair in the first place.
  2. Confess your own role – My mother always said of any conflict, “It takes two to tango.”  There is always a second side to every coin.  When a rift develops in a relationship, before we confront anyone with forgiveness, we need to be honest about our part in the problem.  Almost always, we will find that we are to blame as much as the other.  Celebrate your forgiveness in Christ – and now maybe you need to ask for forgiveness from another, instead of the other way round.
  3. Discard the emotions – Figure out how you go to another person and tell them, rationally and without anger that they have offended.
  4. Bring forgiveness, not a request for an apology – Your forgiveness must be genuine, not a ploy to point fingers or to evoke an apology. Forgiveness is granted whether accepted or not; and is the doorway to a renewed relationship. Truly, forgive and then forget.

What is hard about forgiveness for you?  Add your insights to the conversation.  Leave a comment, or just an Amen!

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim

Practice Makes Perfect?

So, I was thinking about all the wonderful conversations I get to have with people about faith and other spiritual matters.  I was thinking that there are two concerns that are persistently present.  The first is a concern of global proportion.  In the face of violence and brokenness we see every day –  a shooting here, a a terror attack there; a murder on a local city street or a casualty in Afghanistan; another child dead of abuse or just starving to death – people wonder, “Why?”  Why do people take life? Why do people do such unspeakable things to others?  Why can’t we get along, be more civil, stop shouting at each other? Why can;t we even discuss our faith or politics without getting ugly?

The second concern flows from the first.  “Pastor, how can we forgive?”  Sometimes this question is applied to those aforementioned terrorists and gunmen .  Sometimes it is applied to those people, much closer, who have so deeply hurt us we cannot imagine forgiving them – ever.  The questions implied in our struggle are: Doesn’t God have a means of overcoming the evil of the world?  Isn’t love and forgiveness wasted upon those who so violently or unrepentantly do harm and wreak havoc?

The gospel of Christ does not offer an easy solution. First, we are commanded to love and pray for our enemies. (Matt. 5:44)  Second, we are commanded to forgive as we have been forgiven (The Lord’s Prayer).  The unconditional love of God shown in the death of Christ for our sin, becomes the model for how we treat others. We might long for a better way; a way that allows for a pound of flesh; we might rail at God with the shear impossibility of forgiving people who seek to damage and destroy us, but as Richard Lischer says in his book The End of Words, “We preach God’s love to those who are staggering through loveless relationships.  We preach forgiveness to injured parties who possess a moral right to say ‘Never again.’  Worst of all we preach reconciliation to those who, either consciously or unconsciously, seize upon our words for permission of continued sin.  Of them the Scripture says, ‘They crucify the Son of God afresh.’  Nowhere do you see the vulnerability of the church more clearly than when it gathers up its authority and announces the forgiveness of sins.”

The truth is that the very means by which God overcomes evil and our enemies is through the cross.  Jesus dies out of love for even the enemies who nail him to the tree of death.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says “Father, forgive them, they know not what the do.”  The very way that God looses us from our pain and restores the brokenness of the world is through the power of forgiveness.  Forgiveness frees us from being eaten alive by the hate.  But even more than that, it compels us to move toward those who are against us, with open hearts and hands.  It compels us to risk hurt to take the path of peace.

I must confess, and it is indeed a confession, that there are a handful of people for whom the thought of reconciliation seems impossible for me. In some way, I may carry the hurt and hate to my grave, where God will indeed heal the pain, and refine the hate out of me. Until that day, however, I will be called each day by Christ to forgive as I have been forgiven.  I will be challenged to practice forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a practice – I will try to pray for my enemies and with stuttering words utter words of forgiveness.

One strategy for helping all of us deal with the brokenness of our world and the hard time we have with forgiving others is through our prayers. So maybe we should be praying for our enemies each week as we gather.  I’m not sure this is a popular solution, or an easy pill to swallow. In fact, as I have tried this in other places, I have actually had people stop coming to church.  But, think with me….  What if each week, as the congregation prays during worship, we add a petition dedicated to one thing: praying for our enemies.  I know it doesn’t make sense, and it is going to bug me as much as it does you.  But, it seems to me that if we are going to trust God to change us and the world; if the cross truly has power to make a difference, we need to take the command to pray for enemies and forgive seriously. It is perhaps the only way the gospel addresses our world and our pain; our brokenness and our sin.  Besides, it is a command from the Lord.  Who knows, God might just use those prayers to transform our enemies and the world. Maybe God will transform us.

What do you think about forgiving enemies, letting go of hurts and hates?  What about praying each week for enemies?  Can we do that?  What will happen?

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim