I don’t always use the “F” word, but when I do, it frequently happens to be Lent. What I like most about using the “F” word is that it has so many different meanings, connotations and contexts to it. It can be used when we suffer heartbreak, betray another or belittle ourselves, or it can be used in any circumstance that we feel victimized by. It can be applied to people we love and people we don’t like very much.
The “F” word I’m talking about is forgiveness (wait, what were you thinking?): God’s forgiveness of us, others’ forgiveness of us, our forgiveness of others and our forgiveness of ourselves. (And isn’t it often the use of the “F” word as it applies to that last one that is hardest to accept?).
Forgiveness any way we mean it defies generous pragmatism. Perhaps this is why forgiveness rightly understood is not a one-time pronouncement but rather a continual process. This may likely be true because of how utterly impractical and impossible it is to practice personal forgiveness with any measure of integrity and regularity.
Forgiveness falls into that gutsy gospel category of Christ seemingly always asking us to do things we cannot do. In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter is left to ponder the mathematics of forgiveness. He asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus says to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Whether or not we are good with numbers, when it comes to forgiveness, it’s hard to count that high. Peter tries to calculate the cost of forgiveness, and his whole premise is that he is the one in the position to forgive — not the one in need of forgiveness. And not unlike us, he wants to know just how far he has to go with this forgiveness business before it’s going too far.
Perhaps this is the reason Jesus does not ask Peter about the nature of the offense he is talking about and does not ask him who he is talking about. Exactly how many times Jesus wants us to forgive someone may have less to do with the one who needs forgiving and more to do with the one offering forgiveness. Jesus may not have been a psychiatrist, but his wisdom transcended Peter’s scenario: Ingrained in the human psyche in the first century and the 21st is that when it comes to holding grudges and sinking our teeth into resentment and anger, our minds can become steel traps about what has been done unto us.
That is to say, details haunt our memories, and our minds become a movie reel of all that we wish to forget but can’t about how we have been wronged. Of course there is a cost to this. A Benedictine monk and professor of mine once said, “Over time, holding on to resentment becomes something like drinking down a bottle of poison and expecting your enemy to die.”
Psychologists and spiritual mystics tell us “hurt people hurt people.” This is shorthand to say that when pain is not transformed, it is transmitted. Forgiveness is the spiritual and psychological medicine that reverses this destructive cycle. Forgiveness is the antidote to the insanity of the “you hurt me, so I’m going to hurt you” game.
When it comes to practicing forgiveness, fortunately we do not have to start with ourselves. We begin with God who has already set the whole process in motion by the supreme act of forgiveness through the lived example of Jesus’ compassion and the sort of love that isn’t afraid of the cross as an outcome. Such a cross-centered life shows that the pains we take to forgive are the gains we make for love, and the “F” word is fundamental to that ultimate four-letter word: love.
To this end, every Sunday morning our congregation is invited to celebrate a 20-minute service of contemplation and Communion. Often we draw from the liturgy of the Iona community in Scotland, which relates the full force of the meaning and redemptive intent of the “F” word. In the confessional prayer, we say aloud:
Leader: We confess to our brokenness; to the ways we wound our lives, the lives of others, and the life of the world.
People: May God forgive us, Christ renew us, and the Spirit enable us to grow in love.
No matter how much like Humpty Dumpty we feel when our lives become scattered and shattered into pieces, confessing our brokenness around Christ’s Table is a way of affirming that the broken body of Christ is still the body of Christ.
And in a beautiful spiritual symmetry, immediately following celebrating Holy Communion, we affirm our faith adapted from the same Iona liturgy:
All: We affirm God’s goodness at the heart of humanity, planted more deeply than all that is wrong.
If Christ comes to us for no other reason, maybe it is to reveal to us that our deepest beauty remains no matter how covered up it is by things we have done or left undone or by the things that have been done unto us. Deeper than the failings and wounds and heartbreaks of our lives, what is deeper still is the beauty of the image of God at the core of our being, planted more deeply than all that is wrong. (And whenever it is that we might have trouble accepting this good news, perhaps “that other ‘F’ word” would be employable).
In the meantime, this Lent, let’s try using the original “F” word more: forgiveness. In fact, by God’s grace, we can do more than just say it; we can practice it. And as we do, when it comes to forgiveness, practice doesn’t make us perfect; it makes us whole. To err is human, to forgive…?