II Corinthians 2:1-10
After the Sept 11th attack, a journalist was interviewing a couple who lost a son in the World Trade Center bombing and the journalist said, “I know you are Christians. Will you be attending church this week to seek consolation to help you cope with this tragedy?”
The couple said, “No, we won’t be going. You see, our faith preaches forgiveness and we aren’t ready yet to forgive. Maybe someday but not yet.”
Their answer was refreshingly honest. They knew that forgiveness is an expectation for all who claim the name of Christ but they were also able to admit that the teachings of Jesus which we preach so easily in easy times can be excruciatingly difficult to enact in difficult times. Those teachings may require some struggle of the soul before we can embody them.
Well, we are living in difficult times. For the past six months, we have come to church in the hope of receiving comfort for our sorrows, calm for our fears, courage to fight for social justice, wisdom for our confusion, and hope for our troubled future, but are we ready to talk about forgiveness? Do you really want to hear me talk today about that part of the gospel that calls us to forgive our enemies, to forgive those who have angered us and hurt us, to forgive the ones we blame for the crisis we are in (whichever side of the issues you are on?) In the midst of this division and strife, there are probably few of us who want to hear about forgiveness this morning.
It may make you feel good to know that you are not alone in your reluctance to think about forgiveness. The apostle Paul grappled with Christ’s command to forgive and though he tells the Corinthians that he will accept Christ’s dictates, he also implies that if it were up to him alone, he wouldn’t be inclined to such forgiveness. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians was written following a painful period in which he and the Corinthian churches apparently exchanged some angry letters which we no longer have. There is a gap in the historical record between the good will recorded in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and his disturbed words in the second letter. Paul gives few details about the argument so we can only speculate on what caused the strife between them, but Paul was clearly disturbed by it and had strong feelings about their disagreement.
“Nevertheless,” he tells the Corinthians, “I know as a Christian I’m supposed to forgive, and so I will but “that I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.” Flip Wilson famously said that he sinned because the devil made him do it; Paul confesses that he forgives the Corinthians only because Jesus is making him do it.
Paul’s admission should not only make us feel better about our own struggle to forgive but it also teaches us something about what forgiveness is and what it is not. If forgiveness is something that Paul can choose to do just because Jesus tells him to do it, then a lot of what we have assumed about forgiveness must be wrong. Let’s start with the biggest mistake we make:
1. Forgiveness is not a feeling. This is where most of us immediately get stuck when it comes to forgiveness. Someone hurts us or hurts someone we love and our hearts are filled with feelings of anger and pain.
“How can I forgive that person” we cry out, “when the very sight of them turns my stomach?” Day after day we pray that God will erase our feelings of distress so that we will be able to forgive that person but our feelings return like a bad penny. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make ourselves feel warm and loving toward the person who hurt us.
Forgiveness, though, is not a feeling. Feelings are very visceral and usually beyond our mental control so if Jesus were telling us that we have to learn to feel warm and fuzzy toward those who have hurt us, he might as well tell someone with a snake phobia that they need to learn to be delighted at the sight of a snake. We simply can’t control how we feel; we can only control how we act. Forgiveness is not a feeling.
Secondly, forgiveness doesn’t erase the past or excuse the behavior that caused the hurt. Forgiveness is not saying, “What you did doesn’t matter,” or “No harm done.” There may have been a lot of harm done and you can’t just pretend, nor should you pretend, that a person’s hurtful behavior had no real effect on you or the world. When Jesus stood before the disciples after his resurrection and forgave them for abandoning him at the cross, he still bore on his hands the scars of the nails. Even the resurrection didn’t remove the wounds of the cross, so we should not expect forgiveness to erase our wounds either.
Anthony de Mello tells of a man who said to his wife, “Why do you keep talking about my past mistakes? I thought you had forgiven and forgotten.”
“I have, indeed, forgiven and forgotten,” said the wife, “but I want to make sure that you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.” When we forgive a person for something that hurt us deeply or has hurt others, we are not saying to them, “It doesn’t matter if you are cruel; you can go ahead and be mean and spiteful and lying and deceitful but it’s ok because I forgive you.” Forgiveness does not require that we pretend the past didn’t happen and it doesn’t require that we continue to excuse the behavior that is causing us and others pain.
Which leads to a third thing that forgiveness is not: forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. When we forgive someone who has hurt us, our forgiveness may heal the rifts between us and allow us to forge a new healthier relationship with that person… or it may not. If we forgive someone who has brutalized us, that person may continue to be brutal; a person who constantly lied to us may continue in their dishonesty in spite of our forgiveness. Forgiveness opens the door to reconciliation but if the other person refuses to walk through that door and is unwilling to relate to us in a new way, then reconciliation cannot happen and we may have to walk away from further engagements with that person.
Forgiveness is not a feeling, it doesn’t erase the past or excuse harmful behavior, and it doesn’t always end in reconciliation. When we understand those things — when we understand that forgiveness doesn’t require warm and fuzzy feelings or a denial of our hurt or imply that we have to stay in an abusive relationship — forgiveness becomes much more possible to do, so possible that we, like Paul, can forgive just because Christ tells us to forgive.
Because forgiveness, when we clear away all of our misunderstanding about it, is actually very simple. To forgive someone is to say to them, “I relinquish my right to hurt you as you have hurt me.” Forgiveness is the deliberate choice to break the cycle of pain and vengeance. In biblical times, it was common for an injury to another to trigger a blood feud. People repaid their hurt seven fold and visited their vengeance not only upon their enemy but also upon the children and grandchildren of their enemy. When Moses declared that in Israelite society there would be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, he was actually trying to temper the cycle of violence by only allowing restitution equal to the injury. Jesus took it one step further and said, “Forgive the one who has hurt you,” Jesus said, “by refusing to inflict any suffering on them in retaliation, even if you are justified in demanding it.”
Forgiveness is standing before a person who has hurt you and saying, “I choose not to hurt you back. No matter how badly you have treated me, and no matter how justified I might be in wishing you could suffer as I have suffered, I refuse to be the perpetrator of pain. I forgive you because this cycle of hurt stops with me.”
It is that simple and yet even in its simplicity, forgiveness is something which remains hard for most of us to do. We want others to suffer as we have suffered; we want people to know the pain that has been caused by their brutality, their abuse, their neglect, or their stupidity. We want there to be dire consequences for their ill behavior. Jesus, however, knew that every time we desire hurt for another person, no matter how justified we may think ourselves to be, our anger and our thirst for their pain will only diminish ourselves. Our hearts will shrink and our souls wither when we give into the desire to see others hurt as we have hurt. To heal, someone has to say, “This cycle of hurt stops with me.”
And so Jesus commands us to forgive. “Let go of your right to demand payment from those who have wronged you. Let go of your desires to see your enemies suffer as you have suffered. Let go of this continuing dehumanizing cycle of pain. Let go. Forgive their debts as we have been forgiven.”
I invite you to Christ’s Table where we stand before God who offers us the same forgiveness, so that we may be restored, strengthened, and healed.