June 1, 2008
“Forgiveness Doesn’t Come With A Debt”*
“I sat alone in the dark one night, tuning in by remote. I found a preacher who spoke of the light but there was brimstone in his throat,” sings Mary Chapin Carpenter in her song I Take My Chances. “He’d show me the way according to him in return for my personal check. I flipped my channel back to CNN and I lit another cigarette. I take my chances. Forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.”
Forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt- that may be the best line from a song that I have ever heard. A couple of weeks ago Dee and I attended a clergy book group with some of our Disciples colleagues from the east area and we discussed a book we had each read, we talked about what a difficult, tricky and extremely important concept forgiveness is. Forgiveness is a topic that affects all of us, whether you are the person giving forgiveness, or receiving it from someone else.
On October 2, 2006 in Lancaster Pennsylvania, a thirty two year old milk truck diver entered an Amish school house and started shooting. He killed five girls and injured five others. In the face of this tragedy- the community rallied together. They were grief-stricken, heart broken and stunned. However, instead of turning to vengeance as would be the automatic response of many of us, the community gathered together to adhere to the tenants of their faith. Soon after the shooting, the community paid a visit to the young man’s family to make it clear that they were forgiven. The community did not turn to violence, or cry out for justice- no, their priority was forgiveness. A simple but shocking act that made the world take note.
Commentators on the event talked about a “yieldedness to God,” that the Amish community values, and how important the support of an entire community is in the process of forgiveness. One woman name Marrianne Williams commented that the Amish community had the, “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to believe in good.”
The question I’d like to address with you this morning is a deeply theological one. Why should we forgive one another? Why on earth would a community struck by such horror as what they experienced in Pennsylvania- give the gift of forgiveness to the offender? Why should I personally, or we as a community practice the fine and delicate art of forgiveness.
First of all we know that God forgives, and God asks us to forgive others. The fact that God asks and expects us to forgive others should be reason enough, I could stop the sermon here- but you shall not be that lucky this morning because I do have a few other reasons for you. Frankly, I think forgiving each other is one of the harder things God ever asked us to do. By our very nature- we are so good as human hurting each other, and feeling hurt by others. If you’re anything like me- you also might be really good at remembering for a long time exactly what someone did to hurt your feelings.
Our scripture this morning reminds us of just how crucial forgiveness is. In the sixth chapter of Matthew, Jesus is teaching his followers how to pray. He gives us this model of prayer that we find in the Lord’s Prayer. This is a prayer with which we are intimately familiar- most of us have been saying it at least once a week throughout our lives. I wonder if you noticed that I added a couple of extra verses after the prayer to our reading this morning. These two verses are a crucial part of our understanding about forgiveness. My study bible translates verses 14 and 15 this way, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
I hope you hear these words a stern reminder about how important forgiveness is, instead of hearing them referring to God withholding forgiveness if we are unwilling to forgive. It seems inevitable that all of us will be in a position to grant forgiveness to someone else at some point. Jesus reminds us that it is absolutely crucial that we offer forgiveness to others. In fact, it might be the least we can do in return to a God who so graciously bestows undeserved forgiveness on us.
So why should we forgive- besides the fact that God urges us to? I hope that we will consider forgiving each other because in forgiving we are able to be more fully who God created us to be. God created us to be highly moral beings. Many people see the fall of Adam and Eve as the story of when humanity messed up, but you can also see the story as the beginning of our incredibly complex moral development. In eating from the tree of the knowledge and good and evil, we have inherited from Adam and Eve the ability to understand what is right and wrong. Now, I also believe that we need to be taught about right and wrong- we need to be taught by our parents, and by our church family, and by our schools. But the fact is that God has created us to be highly moral beings, and if we can learn to forgive, we can more easily live into who God created us to be.
The ability to forgive can help us get to the next level in our moral development. One man spoke of people who forgive as those who, “vibrate at a higher frequency.” I truly believe that the more we challenge ourselves to be fully who God created us to be, that we will see the kingdom of God in and among us. Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God, and that kingdom started with him. Jesus forgave all kinds of people, and showed us that forgiveness is something we should strive toward. If we practice forgiveness- we will vibrate at a higher frequency, we will move up to the next level of moral development that not many humans achieve, and we will be more fully who God created us to be.
If none of those reasons motivate you than consider this, people who forgive more easily are healthier than those who do not forgive as easily. Research has shown that people who forgive have lower blood pressure and are in better overall shape. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself, to let go of anger and transform your own life. If forgiving someone makes them feel better as well, then you have benefited two lives and I do think God would be pleased with that.
“Ok, great preacher, I get that forgiveness is important- now how in the world do I go about forgiving someone?” I think the most compelling reason for forgiving someone is that it is simply the right thing to do. However, it may be one of the harder things you will ever undertake in this life- is to forgive someone who has hurt you. So I offer you just a few thoughts this morning on how you might go about forgiving someone.
One step in the forgiveness process is to feel empathy for the other person. If you can think about the feelings of the person who has wronged you, instead of only about your own feelings of hurt and pain, perhaps you can begin to imagine forgiveness. The Amish community that forgave the shooter’s family probably would not have been able to offer forgiveness if they had only thought about how hurt they were and how much pain they were in. Instead, they were able to set those feelings aside for just awhile to focus on the pain that the young man’s family must have felt. Forgiveness came after they were able to consider the feelings of others.
If you are going to give you must allow yourself to feel compassion toward someone who has wronged you. This might be someone who no one else in the world feels compassion toward. You must allow yourself to feel compassion for another human if you ever expect to be able to forgive. You must see the person as a vulnerable human being instead of a villain or an enemy.
Of course, time helps in the process of forgiveness too. Time can help lesson hurts, or help our feelings of anger feel less intense. Researchers have often found that the older a person is, the more forgiving they tend to be- so time and age can also be a factor in our willingness to forgive.
But the most important reality I can tell you as that you will have to work at forgiveness everyday. Like most things worth doing, granting forgiveness is not easy. And forgiving someone is not a one-time event. As you continue to feel hurt, you must continue to forgive. Forgiveness is something we must work at each day. Forgiveness does not come easily, but can be quite rewarding both for the person giving and the person receiving.
“Is there every a time or an instance when I shouldn’t forgive?” This is a very important question. Often times the passage of scripture we read today has been quoted to women who have been abused to justify them going back to the person who abused them for the sake of protecting a marriage. Let me say this, God does not intend for us to stay in relationship that cause us to be less than who God created us to be. God values you as a person- and wants your safety and health above anything else. This passage of scripture should never be used to justify further abuse of any man, woman or child.
I think it helps to understand what exactly forgiveness is when it comes to dangerous situations like domestic violence or abuse. Rev. Al Miles writes a helpful definition of forgiveness in his book, “Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know.” Miles says, “Forgiveness is the decision on the part of the person who has been abused, betrayed, or wronged to let go of, or put aside, the justifiable anger, bitterness, and hurt that arises from being victimized.” Miles also says that forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation. Restoring a relationship takes two people. Forgiveness is a gift that one person can give the other. Forgiveness is not permission for further abuse. Instead it is the letting go of hurt when one has every right to be hurt.
Forgiveness is a gift, freely given from one person toward another- it does not have to be done face to face. Forgiveness can be a gift granted within your heart. It might even be yourself whom you need to forgive. Forgiving yourself might be a powerful place to start before you start forgiving others who have wronged you. Forgiveness is something given to us by a loving God, whenever we ask for it. God asks that we forgive each other, and while this is not always easy, it is a powerful gift that we can give one another. The more we as humans are able to forgive each other, the closer we will come to experiencing the kingdom of God. I pray for each of us this day the courage and the power to forgive ourselves and each other. I pray Christ’s strength for each of us who walk the path of forgiveness. Amen.
* I'd like to give a shout out to songwriter Don Schlitz who wrote this song and is a member of the church in Nashville where I did my seminary internship!