Forgiveness is at the centre of what it means to be in Christian community: acknowledging our need of forgiveness by God and others; needing to forgive others; and growing in our capacity to actually live as an on-goingly forgiving people. (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 19 Matthew 18:21-35.)Yet despite knowing how important forgiveness is most of us struggle to truly forgive and to feel forgiven.
You may wish to read what I wrote in response to these readings in 2020.
Having explored a little last week about what it means to be a truth telling and listening community we now logically have to grapple with how often and how to forgive what we see, hear and experience. Peter asks: “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus responds: “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times (or some translations read seventy times seven times).” We get that these are big and specially holy numbers – seven being the number of days in creation, the number of years in a cycle of cropping and then lying fallow to let the earth recover, and seven times seven being the number of years in the cycle of jubilee and freeing one of their debt to you so they can start over with a clean slate. These numbers also most likely reference two related stories in Genesis. After Cain murdered his brother God placed a mark upon him and declared that anyone who killed him would suffer a sevenfold vengeance. And five generations late Lamech killed a young man for wounding him and he claimed a seventy seven fold protection. (Genesis 4:8-24) Jesus is taking the numbers related to the ancient mercy of God expressed in protecting Cain and Lamech from the worst of consequences for their wrong doing, and magnifies the way mercy is expressed in forgiveness and belonging and extends that responsibility to the community of God.
The parable that Jesus then tells demonstrates this magnifying of the need and impact of forgiveness. And also warns of the harm when forgiveness is not sought for the other. Interestingly, when the servant does not forgive the other servant it is he who suffers most suggesting that, as we know psychologically, forgiving is for us and as well as for the one who has something to repent from. And of course underpinning all this is the reminder that what we need to forgive is small compared to what we are being forgiven for and who is forgiving us!
Now none of this is new to us as Christians, as followers on the Way of the Christ. But most of us struggle mightily with how to forgive – at least some of the time and some of the people – and how to feel forgiven. To this end I want to share in brief some of the wisdom to be found in a beautiful and simple book written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu: “The Book of Forgiving – The fourfold path for healing ourselves and our world.”
One of the basic premises of the book is that forgiveness is essential to our individual and community healing and thriving and that it is a process not a single event! Interestingly granting forgiveness is the third step and the process begins well before the decision to forgive. And there are decisions to be made as an outcome of forgiving.
The process, they say, begins with telling the story of what has been done wrong to us. There is a need to acknowledge what has happened – both the facts and the impacts. Related to this is a question about who we tell. From our teaching last week clearly it is desirable to tell the one who has done wrong but there are all sorts of reasons why that may not be possible or wise or not-yet. We may need to tell the story to others including police, counsellors, family members. But whoever we tell we need to be heard and helped to make meaning out of what we have experienced.
Flowing on from this the second step is to name the hurt or the feelings that we have had or do still have. This is most especially important where the injury – physical and psychological – has been significant and created difficulties with living with joy and confidence. We cannot let go of feelings that we do not first have and acknowledge!
The third stage is granting forgiveness. I am struck by the recognition that the harmed one gets to choose to grant forgiveness, even when they may have little other power they have the power and the right to choose to forgive (or not yet). Being forgiven maybe very important to the one who has done wrong (if they are still alive and acknowledge they have done wrong) but it is very important for the one who has something to forgive! Deciding to forgive, and this too is a process within a process, can be very powerful and freeing.
And the fourth step is to decide whether to renew the relationship or to release it. This is vitally important where there has been systemic and repetitive wrong doing. For too long the church has told children not to say bad things about people (who turned out to be abusing them) and women to go back to spouses (who turned out to be beating them to death). Forgiving someone does not mean enabling them to continue to harm you or someone else. A decision is there as to whether the relationship is to be renewed, which will require the acknowledgment and repentance of the other party (and depending on the harm done the justice system may need to be part of the process), or to release that relationship and not continue contact which is likely to continue to be damaging. Of course sometimes there is limited choice because someone has died, or moved, or denied their part but even then in imagination a relationship decision can be made.
Desmond and Mpho Tutu also write a chapter on when we are the ones who need to be forgiven and describe a mirror image of this process.
This is a process for within the family and the community of faith, it is also a process tested in the national court of truth and justice in the aftermath of the horrors of apartheid. It is a process that may have something powerful to teach us about why and how we need to hear the stories, the truth telling, of those who have been harmed by the historical sins of colonisation and dispossession, of enslavement and oppression, of exclusion based on gender and sexual orientation, and of the “isms” of our age. Speaking our truth when we are the harmed and of encouraging others to tell their truth, even when it makes us uncomfortable, is essential in establishing of community of forgiveness and growth.
If we in the church can grow in courage and compassion in our truth telling and listening, in our forgiving and repenting, then we will have a much needed gift and skill set for a world that lacking forgiveness is doomed to endlessly repeat the failures of the past. The goodnews of forgiveness offered and sought out and the renewal that grow out of that is desperately needed by the world we live in.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come forgive and heal us so that we can forgive those you also love. Amen.
I am indebted to the wisdom and compassion of Desmond and Mpho Tuto in their book: “The Book of Forgiving – The Fourfold path for healing ourselves and our world.”William Collins, London, 2014.