During this past Lenten season, our congregation journeyed together around the theme of forgiveness — God’s forgiveness of us, as well as our forgiveness of ourselves and others. Here are some takeaways.
1. Believe it or not, a lack of forgiveness has its roots in idolatry. When I refuse to believe God has forgiven me, I make that guilt bigger than God (idolatry). When I refuse to forgive someone, I assign that grudge a larger place in my life than the space occupied by God’s grace (again, idolatry).
2. Forgiveness is for me, not the other person. I once listened to a man who was ready to forgive his father for a deep betrayal, even though the father had been dead for many years. The wronged son took me by the hand and spoke to me as if I were his dad. He looked me in the eyes and said the words, “I forgive you, Dad.” To carry a grudge against someone who has wronged us is to be enslaved by that person. Here is a sad reality: When we finally forgive someone a grudge, we often find out that person didn’t even know about the supposed offense. They were not the one carrying around the 150-pound sack of bitterness; we were.
3. Forgiveness is costly. You have to give up something in order to forgive (think about the structure of the word — to forgive is to “give forth,” to let go). If we let go of that hurt, we will be foregoing self-pity and the right to revenge. Or perhaps most costly of all, we will be forfeiting the power of having someone in our debt.
4. Forgiving others is hard work. One lady, whose granddaughter had been brutally assaulted, told me that the anger and bitterness come in waves. Just when she thinks she is making progress in some linear, logical pattern, some trigger will ignite fresh pain, and she is back to square one. Perhaps when Jesus told Peter that we are to forgive 70 times seven, he wasn’t talking about 490 new offenses. Maybe he was talking about needing to forgive the same person for the same wrong 490 times, until it’s finally washed out of our hearts.
5. Forgiveness is not for cowards. It requires enormous strength. Meekness rhymes with weakness, but the similarity ends there. Letting go of hurts requires courage, creativity and a sense of humor.
6. God’s grace is capable of doing what we cannot do on our own. A teen once told me that since she had experienced a personal relationship with Jesus, she was able to forgive her mother. Many years before, the mom had abandoned the family. The young lady told me, “Since Christ has happened to me, I can’t hate my mother anymore. And believe me, I’ve tried!”
When our congregation started down this path of forgiveness, I asked them to write me about the topic — their questions, victories and struggles. I wasn’t surprised by their responses. My surprise was more personal, about the stuff I hadn’t dealt with in my own life. I remember remarking to my wife, “This is very inconvenient, trying to hold on to this hurt while I’m preparing sermons about forgiveness!” It’s so easy for us church folk to pretend we have let go of something, when all along, we have merely buried it under some cheesy smiles and pious platitudes.
When it comes to learning the Jesus way of forgiving, we’re always in kindergarten. We never graduate.