The word forgiveness is a difficult word. It’s a word we come across in novels and in biographies – it’s a word we will hear others using – it’s a word we ourselves will use from time to time. But it’s a slippery word. The meaning of the word often changes from one situation to the next. The meaning of the word often changes from one person to the next. Two different people may use exactly the same phrase: “I forgive her.” But they might each mean something quite different when they use those words.
Of course it’s possible through discussion and study to get some clarity about what the word forgiveness means. We don’t have to remain forever in a fog of misunderstanding. But even when we arrive at some point of clarity about the meaning of forgiveness, we run into quite a different challenge. As I mentioned last week, the idea of forgiveness is not only a slippery idea, but it is a contested idea. There is disagreement in our society about what forgive should look like – there is disagreement about what forgiveness is.
And this morning I want to focus on one particular disagreement about forgiveness – a disagreement about what forgiveness is. But in order to explore this particular disagreement, we aren’t going to start with the disagreement itself. In fact, we are going to leave aside the whole question of forgiveness for the moment.
I want to start out with a question that might seem like it’s coming out of left field. I want to start out by asking how people in our culture would typically respond if they heard one person saying any of the following things to another person. How would people in our culture typically respond if they heard someone saying things like this
You know, if you are going to get married, you really should have children.
Or: You know, if you are still able to work, it’s not right to retire.
Or: You know, you shouldn’t get a tattoo – tattoos betray the natural beauty of the body.
And one more: You know, it’s wrong to use alternative medicine – it’s wrong to waste money on unproven theories about health.
So what would be the typical response to these kinds of statements? Well it seems to me that the response would be something like this: “It’s none of your business to tell someone else how to live. You have no right to tell another person what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their life.
Whether they have children is up to them.
If she wants to retire, she’s free to retire.
If he wants to get a tattoo, who are you to say it betrays the natural beauty of the body?
And if someone wants to explore alternative medicine, what business is it of yours to say they shouldn’t.
We live in a culture that assumed everyone has their own ideas about what it means to live a good life. Everyone has their own ideas about what is right and true. And we live in a culture that is highly suspicious of the idea that there is any one source of authority about what makes for a good human life. So the mantra of our culture is: “If you think that’s what a fulfilled life looks like – then you should go for it.”
If there is one moral imperative that is shared in western culture, it is this rather minimal one: that you can’t do harm to anyone else. So in our culture, as the old expression goes: You are free to extend your arm as far as you want, until just before it makes contact with someone else’s nose.
Now we could have a long discussion about this – in some ways the story is more complicated than that. But we want to press on and eventually get back to the question of forgiveness. But before that we take a moment to acknowledge the hurt and pain we cause each other in our relationships. In our human relationships there are so many ways that people hurt and betray each other.
With parents, sometimes a mother or father can pit their children against each other in a competition for affection or affirmation, doing real damage to the relationship between siblings.
In a friendship, it can turn out that one of the friends is gossiping and lying about their friend – it’s a betrayal that can wound and hurt, and make it difficult to trust others.
In an intimate relationship where promises of faithfulness have been made, one person can cheat on the other – it can lead to pain and anger, feelings of insecurity and a sense of shame.
It happens so often in life. We cause each other pain – we hurt each other – we lead each other into shame – we cause each other to be mistrustful. In so many ways, relationships can be broken.
Going back to where we started this morning, let me ask a similar question. How would people in our culture generally respond, if you were to say to the person who was hurt: “You know, the right thing to do is to try and reconcile with that person. You know, you really should work toward forgiveness and see if there’s some way that the relationships can be healed.”
Well I suspect that the response would be much like it was with those other statements we considered. The response would probably be something like this: “It’s none of your business to tell someone else how to live. You can’t tell other people what they should be doing with their life and relationships. It’s up to each person to decide whether reconciliation is important to them or not.”
The assumption of our culture is that there is no one right way to live or relate to others. There is no one source of wisdom or authority to define human well-being. We each decide for ourselves what matters to us. And that means that in our culture the question of whether reconciliation matters is left up to each person. “If she wants to seek reconciliation, that’s fine for her. If she doesn’t want to seek reconciliation, that’s fine for her.“
But here’s the question. What happens to forgiveness in this kind of world? What does forgiveness mean in a world where there is no shared expectation that seeking reconciliation is the right thing to do.
Gregory Jones is a professor of theology at Duke Divinity School and he explores this question in his book Embodying Forgiveness. And he points out that what has happened in our culture is that forgiveness has moved inward. More and more, forgiveness isn’t about what happens out there in our relationship with one another – rather, forgiveness is about what happens for our own healing.
The point of view is nicely summed in a statement I heard in a documentary this past week. “Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. It isn’t something you do for someone else.” That statement will probably resonate with many in our culture. . “Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. It isn’t something you do for someone else.”
From this point of view, to forgive is to let go of hatred that is eating you up – it’s being healed of our own hatred. In this framework, to forgive is to let go of bitterness so that bitterness doesn’t shape our whole lives. In this framework, to forgive is to go of our preoccupation with the hurtful action done to us, so that it doesn’t forever define us.
Within our culture the idea of forgiveness remains complex – but in many ways forgiveness has come to be understood in terms of our personal healing. Once we find healing, we can get on with living out whichever vision of the good life we happen to hold.
Well I’ve said a lot this morning without any mention of the gospel. I’ve said a lot already without any mention of the way Jesus may be leading us. As we turn to consider our faith in the risen Jesus, perhaps the first thing to say is this: That this personal side of forgiveness – this healing aspect of forgiveness – is very much a part of forgiveness in the context of faith.
In Jesus, God comes to our world in order to bring renewal, to bring life, to bring hope, to bring healing.
In his ministry, Jesus touches the man with leprosy, heals a woman with a flow of blood, sits at table with a tax collector. And as he does so he brings healing to their lives. Jesus sets them free from their pain and their suffering and their guilt so that they may be renewed in life and in relationships and in service.
And we remember that the Holy Spirit Jesus sends is a Spirit of peace – a Spirit that releases us from fear – a Spirit that fills us with joy – a Spirit that leads us into deeper faith – a Spirit that leads us into a new confidence in relationships and service to Christ.
In the kingdom of God – as we seek the presence of the Spirit – and as we live prayerfully in relation to the risen Jesus – it is God’s desire to extend healing and renewal to us – including in those relationships where we have been hurt. Our letting go of anger – our letting go of bitterness – our letting go of the hurt – is indeed a healing that Christ brings to us; and as we let go of anger and judgment and bitterness and hurt, we are set free to live joyfully and fully. When we forgive and let go of resentment against the other, we find ourselves healed.
But here is the challenge, perhaps. Within the grand sweep of the gospel – within the grand sweep of what God is doing in our lives and in our world – we can’t reduce forgiveness to our own personal healing. From the point of view of the gospel, we can’t say: “Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. It isn’t something you do for someone else.”
At the heart of the gospel is the transformation of enemies into friends. We remember the experience of Peter, who denied Jesus three times – who betrayed his friend Jesus at the great moment of crisis – who walked away from his friend when it was most important that he stay. And we remember that in the resurrection Jesus comes to Peter in order to restore their friendship. The betrayal is acknowledged – named for what it is – and then there is a new movement forward in love and service. Reconciliation between Jesus and Peter – Jesus’ embrace of Peter – is representative of the forgiveness God extends to all of us. Those who were enemies of God become friends of God. Those who were alienated from God are drawn close.
As we dwell in the reconciling love of God, we are to be defined by it – we are to imagine, and work toward, and pray for the enemies may become friends. So in the context of faith, forgiveness isn’t only about finding healing from our own bitterness and anger. That is certainly an important part of forgiveness, but the trajectory of forgiveness is toward a restoration of relationships. The trajectory of forgiveness is toward restoration of relationships that have been broken by betrayal and alienation and harm.
This is costly forgiveness. This is difficult forgiveness. Forgiveness that does not necessarily come naturally to us. Forgiveness in a form that doesn’t necessarily make sense to us. But this is forgiveness as it is embodied in Jesus – whose kingdom is portrayed and imagined as a great feast in which we all one day gather, in service and worship before God our creator and redeemer.
A few words of qualification as we come to a conclusion this morning. This trajectory of forgiveness – a trajectory toward reconciliation – does not mean a simple return to a broken relationship. It does not mean returning naively to a relationship, thinking everything will work out when there is every evidence to the contrary. It does not mean putting ourselves back in harms way. It does not mean forgoing the need for repentance and acknowledgement of the harm done.
But accepting that the trajectory of forgiveness is toward reconciliation does mean seeking grace from the risen Jesus and his Spirit – grace that so that we might be able to imagine and pray for and work toward the reconciliation that belongs to his kingdom.
Perhaps we may give the final word this morning to Gregory Jones and Célestin Musekura, who have written a book together about forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda. Musekura’s himself lost his father, a stepbrother, and a number of friends in the Rwandan genocide. Here are words from Jones and Musekura:
Sometimes a situation is so painful that reconciliation may seem impossible. At such times, prayer and struggle may be the only imaginable options. But continuing to maintain reconciliation as the goal – even if its “hoping against hope” for reconciliation in this life – is important because it reminds us that God promises to make all things new.
Thanks be to God for this promise. Amen.