Over the past weeks we have been explored the possibility and reality of forgiveness. Among other things, we talked about the unconditional forgiveness of God – this forgiveness that undergirds our whole spiritual life – that God persists in loving us and seeking us and walking with us even when we continually fail. We talked about forgiveness as letting – forgiveness as the sometimes-difficult work of our letting go of anger and judgment and bitterness – as God forgives us, so we must forgive others. We also pointed out that within the Christian tradition forgiveness isn’t simply about our own personal healing – rather the trajectory of forgiveness is toward reconciliation.
This morning, before we move into the season of Lent next week, we are going to conclude this brief series. And as we do so I want to pick up just a few themes around the question of forgiveness. More specifically, I want pick up a few themes by thinking prayer and forgiveness together. How does our life of prayer relate to the possibility and reality of forgiveness in our lives.
And as we do so, perhaps the first and most basic thing we want to say is that through prayer we draw near to the God who forgives. Of course there are many practices by which we may draw near to God. Through practices of fasting, through practices of scripture reading and meditation, through practices of worship and singing – through all of these and more we draw near to God. But it remains that one of the decisive ways by which we do so is through practices of prayer – both our individual prayers and our prayers as a community of God’s people.
Now we often think about prayer, and function in prayer, as if it’s really about asking God for what we need – or as if prayer was essentially about asking God to his will in our lives and our world. But in a deeper sense, to pray is simply to seek the presence of God. To pray is simply to trust that God is near, to trust that God listens, to trust that by his Spirit God is as close to us as our own breath. Through prayer we simply seek the presence of God and dwell in the presence of God because we believe trust that this is where we will discover our truest selves.
God has given the gift of our humanity. In Jesus, God has renewed and restored our humanity. And in prayer we not only find God, but we find our truest selves. And here is the key – that as we dwell in the presence of God, as we speak with the God who has shown his face in Jesus, we find our identity in his love, his compassion, his justice, and his forgiveness.
In our functionally atheistic culture, when we think about our relationships to other people, it is so easy to think of those relationships, and the challenges of those relationships, as if it’s just me and that other person. As if it’s just me standing here trying to figure out how I should respond or react to the other. As if it’s just me standing here trying to figure out how to move forward in relation to this other person.
But the practice of prayer within the Christian tradition offers another possibility. It offers the possibility that through prayer we may find ourselves in deep and holy communion with Jesus, by his Spirit – in deep and holy communion with the God of creation and redemption. So that it’s never just me and the other person. It’s never just me trying to figure out how to respond and react. It’s never just me trying to sort out how to move forward in relation to this other person. Rather through prayer I am being shaped and renewed and transformed and strengthened by the God of love and forgiveness. I have my life and I have my self and have my relationships with others only as I dwell deeply with the God of Jesus Christ, in his love and forgiveness.
This leads us quite naturally to a second aspect of forgiveness this morning. Because as we reach out to God and dwell with God in prayer, we come to the realization that the God who loves us and forgives us – the God in whose love and forgiveness we abide, also loves and forgives the one to whom we are related.
As we think about this we come to one of the great challenges of forgiveness. This challenge: that over time it becomes very easy to see another person only in the light of the wrong that they have done. When we relate to the other, or speak with the other, or see the other, or speak about the other, it is so easy to do so only in terms of the pain they have caused. We see them only in terms of their responsibility – only in terms of their failure – only in terms of the harm they have done.
But when we approach the God in prayer – as we dwell intimately with the God who loves us and forgiveness – we approach and dwell with a God who loves the other to whom we are related.
I am not alone in relating to the other, for I dwell with God in Christ.
The other, also, is not alone – for God in Christ draws near to him, or her.
I am not alone in this relationship; nor is he alone; nor is she alone.. The God of creation and redemption draws near and would draw all to himself.
And this is to say that as I draw near to God in prayer, I begin also to see the other as one that God forgives – and as one whom God would draw to himself in Christ. In this way, our practice of prayer become a faith-filled, imaginative exercises in which we begin to see the other in new ways.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk who lives at what is called the Plum Village Monastery, in France. And though he comes from a different religious tradition, we can perhaps learn from an exercise he invites visitors to the monastery to participate in. He speaks of the fact that some of the people he meets with have had difficult relationships with their parents – with their fathers, to take an example. They may have been hurt by their fathers. And he leads them in a breathing exercise in which they imagine their father as a young boy – as someone young and vulnerable – and they smile at their father as a young boy – as someone young and vulnerable.
The point of the exercise is not to pretend that harm was not done – the point of the exercise is not to pretend that pain can be quickly or easily forgotten. But the point of the exercise is to begin to see the other person, in this case a father, from a different perspective – to the see that the other is not only defined by the harm they have caused – he cannot be reduced to this and his responsibility for this.
This re-imagining of the other may also happen through our dwelling prayerfully with God – the God who in Christ who loves us and forgives us from our childhood to our adulthood – the God who in Christ loves the others in her or his life from childhood to adulthood. This God who comes to us in Christ Jesus – this God who is alive in the world by his Spirit – is a God who knows us deeply and intimately – and this God also knows the heart and mind and experiences and challenges and brokenness of the one to whom we relate.
Again, this prayerful, and faithful, and imaginative understanding of the other doesn’t mean that we paper over mistakes made, or pain caused. But this prayerful understanding of the other does open us to a wider and deeper truth than we might have been prepared to accept – that the other is beloved of God – that God would draw the other to himself in forgiveness – and that through God’s reconciling love the other might find healing and renewal.
Perhaps we are led thirdly and finally this morning to this possibility: that we might pray for the wellbeing, the healing, and the renewal of the one who has been a source of pain. Not only is it sometimes difficult to see another person in any other light than the light of what they have done wrong, but it is also often difficult to wish the other well – to wish him love, to wish her joy, to wish him or her the best in life and love. It may even be difficult to pray for the wellbeing of the other.
And maybe in such a situation it is important to remember that we also are those who need of forgiveness. When we remember that we are those who have done wrong – when we remember that we are those who have caused pain to others – it is perhaps easier to consider the importance of praying for the other’s wellbeing.
When we seek forgiveness for what we have done, what we want more than anything is for the other to release us from our pain and shame. When we seek forgiveness for what we have done to someone else, what we want more than anything is for them to wish us well, to wish us love, to wish us renewal and joy. This is what we seek from God, and it is what we seek from others to whom we relate – when we have done harm or betrayed trust or caused grief – we seek the love and compassion from the other. When we realize this it perhaps becomes easier to imagine ourselves praying for the good of the other.
Throughout this series we have acknowledged that in some relationships the harm has been so great – and the distance between us has become so significant – that we can’t imagine what it would look like to reach out to the other, or to wish them well. And in these cases perhaps it is precisely in prayer that we may take first steps toward such a possibility.
In prayer, to commit the other to God’s compassion.
In prayer, to commit the other to the goodness of Christ.
In prayer, to invite God’s spirit of love to visit the other.
In prayer, to imagine the well-being and renewal of the other.
In such a moment of prayer – in this moment of dwelling with God and for the other – in a sense we remain at a distance from the one who has caused pain. And yet in this moment of prayer, if we can arrive at this moment of prayer, we have also taken a small but decisive step on the path of forgiveness – setting our life and our relationships deeply within the love and presence of God. Where that path might take us we cannot fully anticipate, or plan, or map out ahead of time – we are all different. But to take this first step in prayer is to be on the path of forgiveness, by the grace of God
As we walk with the risen Jesus, as we live in his forgiveness and grace, may we find ourselves on that path with him. Thanks be to God. Amen.