Sermon: The Problem with Forgiveness


David was an impressive young man. In his mid-thirties, he was already a successful architect. I first met David when I was a student pastor during my last year of seminary.

David invited me to go out for coffee one day to get better acquainted. After sharing a bit about myself, I asked David to tell me a little more about him. He started off his response by saying, “I’m an adult survivor.” And then he told me his story. I could tell it was a very difficult story for him to share.

It was the story about growing up in a family with an alcoholic and extremely abusive father. He told me about the pain and suffering his father had caused him, his two older brothers, and his mother. He told me about hiding under the stairs of the front porch with his brothers, waiting for their father to come home; waiting to see what kind of condition he was in. It was about the screams he heard when his father was beating his mother or one of his brothers – or himself.  David told me about the times he or one of his brothers had run away from home, only to be brought back by the authorities; back into that terrifying environment. He told me about the time in high school when he got old enough – and big enough – to stand up to his father, knocking him to the floor.

Then David informed me that his father was currently serving a life-sentence for killing his mother in one of his fits of rage.

All I could think of to say was, “How in the world do you deal with all that?”

He told me that, of his two older brothers, one was also now an alcoholic and abusive toward his wife; the other would have absolutely nothing to do with any of the rest of the family.

He said, “I dealt with my own rage for years, but then I gave my life to Jesus Christ and found the only peace I’ve ever known. The problem is, now I believe that God is calling me to forgive my father. And so I’m trying to find a way to do that. Every month I go to visit him in prison. I bring him magazines and stuff. And I just try to talk to him; get past the barriers between us.”

“And how’s that going?” I asked him.

“It’s hard,” said David, tears of anguish welling up. “It’s really, really hard.”

That’s the problem with forgiveness, isn’t it? It is so very hard sometimes.

The whole idea of forgiveness seems not only counterintuitive – not what we think should happen after we’ve been sorely wronged – it’s also counter-cultural as well.

A man kills his wife: “Lock him up,” we say. A corporate CEO swindles stock holders out of millions of dollars? “Throw the book at him!” Someone blows up a train and the whole world cries out for justice. “Three strikes and you’re out!” That’s our first instinct.

This forgiveness thing is so very, very hard.

And especially, perhaps, for those who are expected to be forgiving by nature.

Peter asks the perennial question which has plagued Christians of all times and places: When can we stop forgiving those who offend us over and over again? And – whether translated “seventy-seven” or “seven times seven” – Jesus’ answer is all too clear: never. (Kathryn D. Blanchard, Theological Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Sept. 15, 2017)

Forgiveness is not something that can be quantified. It’s not something that’s done once and forgotten about. The old adage to “Forgive and forget” is a total misnomer. Because to truly forgive another one must remember: remember the hurt that was caused, and the pain that still remains.

Not only that, but the one who has caused that pain must be held to accountability; even if he or she refuses to hold themselves accountable. We have to hold them accountable in our own heart and mind.

My friend David was able to begin forgiving his father only as he confronted the depths of the suffering he and his family had endured at his father’s hand. Only as he acknowledged the reality of his own pain – and rage and hatred and bitterness – was he able to then find within himself the capacity to forgive.

And then – only then – was he able to begin breaking the cycle of violence and vengeance and victimization in his own life.

The late Henri Nouwen wrote, “The great challenge is to acknowledge our hurts and claim our true selves as being more than the result of what other people do to us. Only when we claim our God-made selves as the true source of our being will we be free to forgive those who have wounded us.”

Moreover, we must acknowledge the essential humanity of the one who hurt us as well.

As Nouwen put it, “In my heart I know his yearning for love, and down to my entrails I can feel his cruelty. In [his] eyes, I see my plea for forgiveness and in [his] hardened frown, I see my refusal. When he murders, I know that I too could have done that, and when [he] gives birth, I know that I am capable of that as well.” (With Open Hands, p. 104)

In other words, forgiveness is possible  only when we are able to stop objectifying that one who wounded us as somehow being as less that human; only when we are able to apprehend  the truth that the same fallen, imperfect humanity that is in them, is also in us.

For the Christian, then, forgiveness has to become a way of living one’s life. A constant act of acknowledging our own need for God’s grace even as we offer that grace to others.

When we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we must understand that the meaning of those words is actually inversed. We forgive the wrongdoing of others even as – and because – God has forgiven us our own wrongdoing.

For the Christian, therefore, forgiveness becomes a life-long process of letting go – or of ‘loosing’ in the words of Jesus. `Loosing’ the pain and the anger and the resentment that we seem, at times, to take such delight in harboring.

But forgiveness is not about forgetting – or denying or dismissing or even disavowing – the person who wounded us. Forgiveness is about being reconciled to them in a way that affirms the humanity of us both.

Fred Craddock beautifully expresses this contrast in the simple story of a six-year-old boy whose mother asked him to stop running through the house because he might stumble and fall and hurt himself or break something. So, of course, the little boy kept running and ultimately stumbled and broke a vase. His father saw it all happen, picked him up, dusted him off, and said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a vase.” His mother, however, knelt down and gathered up the shattered pieces and said softly, “It wasn’t just a vase. It was my favorite vase. My mother gave it to me, her mother gave it to her, and I looked forward to giving it to my children.” And she wept, and the little boy wept, and the mother took him in her arms and hugged him and he hugged her back. Fred Craddock then asks: “Who forgave here, the father or the mother?” (Why Is Forgiveness So Difficult?)

Forgiveness confronts the reality of what has happened, but makes a decision to break the cycle of violence and vengeance; decides to be free of it. (The Hardest Thing of All, John Buchanan, March 25, 2007)

“To forgive another person from the heart,” Henri Nouwen suggested, “is an act of liberation. We set that person free from the negative bonds that exist between us. We say, “I no longer hold your offense against you.” But there is more. We also free ourselves from the burden of being the “offended one.” As long as we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us or, worse, pull them as a heavy load. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves. (Bread for the Journey, January 26).

“When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness in crisis, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experience ourselves as the victims of events we had no control over. Forgiveness allows us to claim our own power and not let those events destroy us; it enables them to become events that deepen the wisdom of our hearts. Forgiveness indeed heals memories. (ibid. January 29).

As Presbyterian minister and retreat leader Rev. Marjorie Thompson puts it, “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem . . . The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effect as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner recalls an incident in his own ministry which illustrates this. A woman in his congregation came to see him. She was a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She tells Rabbi Kushner, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”

Rabbi Kushner answers her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.” (ibid.)

This past Monday I was asked to offer the Invocation at the 9/11 Memorial at Memorial Park across the street. And my prayer was as follows:

None of us will ever forget, Most Merciful God, where we were on this day 16 years ago.

We will never forget the horror we felt when we saw the jetliners pierce the heart of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and that serene field in Somerset Country, Pennsylvania.

We will never forget the nearly 3,000 precious lives that were taken from us on that terrible day, and the gaping wound it left in the heart of every American.

We will never forget all those who continue to suffer in its aftermath each and every day since then.

And yet, in the ensuing years, Gracious God, we have found a measure of healing,We’ve found healing in the comfort of each other’s embrace.

We’ve found healing in the courage and compassion of fellow Americans.

We’ve found healing in the refusal to give into hate, as our attackers hated; and in the    resilience of our faith.

We’ve found healing in remembering – that despite this country having to endure human           tragedy in the past, present and future – we are still the greatest nation the world has ever           known; and, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “the last, best hope of earth.”

Now, I was going to add – had written down – the words “We have found healing through forgiving our attackers.” But I left it out . . . I just couldn’t bring myself to say it. And today I’m wondering why that was.

That’s the problem with forgiveness: It’s really, really hard.

In fact, I’m convinced that, without God’s help through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, none of us would be able to forgive at all.

But it will only be by the power of such forgiveness that we will be able to break the cycle of violence and vengeance in this world, reconciling all humankind to one another and finding, at last, peace for this world.