The Gift of Forgiveness

March 11th, 2018              Lent IV

Today I wanted to talk about forgiveness. This brings us right to the core of our Lenten theme of reconciliation. Forgiveness is where reconciliation becomes most personal – and for that reason, it is where it is most difficult.

We need forgiveness, every one of us. All of us are carrying around with us memories of how we have been hurt in the past, ways in which we have felt disrespected by others, ways in which we have been made to feel small. Often it doesn’t look like a big thing, a word that was spoken thoughtlessly, even unintentionally, but to us it feels like a big thing, because it has hit at our self-esteem. We burn with resentment, with the need to get even, to let that person feel what we feel, to wipe that smug smile off their face.

For some of us, the hurt goes much deeper than a bruised ego. We may have been injured by others in profound ways. We may have experienced violence, or abuse, or betrayal, from strangers or from someone we thought we could trust. Such experiences can harm us for decades: they leave a fundamental tear in our way of being in the world, robbing us of the ability to trust others, or to believe in ourselves. Perhaps it is difficult even to imagine what forgiveness could look like.

And of course all of us need forgiveness because we have all hurt others. We have all messed up from time to time, let others down, been a disappointment to ourselves and to those we love, sometimes in serious ways. We need forgiveness.

Our need of forgiveness lies at the heart of our Christian faith. Both sides, the need to give forgiveness and the need to receive it, find expression in that daily prayer that Jesus taught us:
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Such familiar words. They are saying two things in particular. First of all, these words remind us of how important forgiveness is. “As we forgive those . . .” – this is the only obligation that is mentioned in the Our Father, the only thing we have to do. And the second point is: this prayer shows us how closely bound together both aspects of forgiveness are. The need we have to be forgiven is connected with the need to forgive others.

But how are they connected? I have often heard it said that this is about the condition for being forgiven. Only when we are willing to forgive others, can we expect God’s forgiveness. The implication being, if we are unable or unwilling to forgive others, then we shouldn’t expect God to forgive us.

Have you heard that sermon before? I know I have, many times. It makes a certain kind of logical sense, doesn’t it, and I suppose for that reason I have always accepted it. But thinking about it now, I’m going to call BS on this. Because this idea goes against everything else we know about the grace of God. This idea makes God’s forgiveness conditional on us doing something first. And that is always wrong. The grace of God is always unconditional, given freely and without strings attached. It comes from the fact that God knows us, with everything that is broken in us, and loves us with an infinite, compassionate, accepting and healing love.

The problem with saying that we have to forgive others in order to receive God’s forgiveness is that it moralizes the act of forgiveness. As though forgiving someone who has deeply hurt us were easy, just a question of exercising a little willpower; as though you are a bad person if you can’t forgive someone who has wounded you deeply. And that is just wrong. The problem with a lot of Christian talk about forgiveness is that it ends up blaming the victim.

A couple of weeks ago at the Wednesday service I told the story of an unlikely friendship between a woman by the name of Margot van Sluytman, and Glen Flett, the man who murdered her father some forty years ago when Margot was sixteen. It was a stupid murder, like most murders, a robbery gone wrong, a young man with a gun who panicked. Margot’s life was torn apart by what happened, sending her into a spiral of unhealthy behaviour, leading to a suicide attempt, before she finally found her way back to balance through therapeutic writing. And Glen, who went to prison a “creepy, defiant bastard” (those are his words), gradually found his way to faith, and to true remorse for what he had done.

A couple of years ago, a chance online encounter between Margot and Glen’s wife led to them corresponding, and Glen was able to speak the apology that they both had longed for. They met in person, and there sprang up between them something they both refer to as an unexpected gift, a friendship rooted in them understanding and caring for one another. Now they give lectures together on the theme of restorative justice.

It is an inspiring story. But first, a caution. The danger with a story like that, is it can become a standard we all have to live up to. As though there were something easy or self-evident about forgiving the person who destroyed your life when you were sixteen. I don’t know whether I would have been able to do this; can any of us say we would? For Margot van Sluytman, this reconciliation was a gift, not something she could have envisioned and brought about by herself. Yes, she made all kinds of courageous and generous decisions along the way; and she also needed to be cautious, to be certain that the murderer’s contrition was genuine, that he was not continuing to abuse her emotionally by manipulating her forgiveness. Forgiveness is not something we can do by ourselves; and it is not something we have the right to demand of anyone who has been so badly hurt.

There is another stage in forgiveness, a more modest goal, but also very difficult. A couple of days after the murder, a reporter asked Margot’s mother whether she could ever forgive the killer. Her response was: “I have already forgiven him. I have to – I don’t have the strength to get on with my life if I am carrying that hatred and resentment around with me.” There is a bitter truth to these words. When we have been so badly hurt, the pain and resentment and anger we carry around with us continues to hurt us. It allows the person who hurt us to keep on hurting us over the years. Sometimes forgiveness is something we need to do for ourselves.

But it is still not easy. I don’t know how one could do this without faith. Because simply to forgive feels like injustice; it feels like just letting the offender off as though it didn’t really matter, when what that person did matters so very much to us. If we have faith, I think it is easier, because we can entrust it all to God’s hands. To believe that I don’t need to fight for justice, to balance justice and forgiveness, to even know what healing might look like, is a huge relief: I can hand it over to God’s justice and mercy, because it takes a bigger heart and wiser head than mine to sort it out.

Forgiveness is not a precondition for receiving God’s forgiveness; it is not something that anyone can demand of us, especially not the person who has hurt us; it is not a moral obligation, except when our anger and resentment is out of all proportion to the offense. When we have been deeply hurt, no one has the right to blame us because we can’t manage to forgive, maybe even can’t imagine what that might look like.

And yet forgive we must, in the end. Not because forgiveness is our moral duty to anyone but ourselves, but because, in the end, only through forgiveness can we find true healing. Only when we can let go of our hurts will they let go of us. And sometimes that is not something we can just decide to do. What we can do, is to enter into the path of forgiveness, entrusting our pain, our anger, and the person who has hurt us to God’s judgment and mercy, slowly learning not to bear the whole burden ourselves. When we enter this path, we find it the place where gifts of healing and peace become possilbe.

The story of Margot van Sluytman and her unlikely friendship with Glen Flett is inspiring. But it is inspiring not as an example of something we can just go out and do. It is, rather, a vision of the kingdom of God, of a place we can get to only when our own best efforts are supported by God’s healing power at work in our midst.

We need forgiveness, because only forgiveness gives us hope for what ails our world. Desmond Tutu, who through his work with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission knows as much about forgiveness as anyone, writes: “Forgiveness is nothing less than the way we heal the world. We heal the world by healing each and every one of our hearts.”