15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
I generally enjoy accusing Paul of putting hard edges on Jesus’ otherwise grace-filled teachings (See this post for proof). But on the issue of forgiveness, it may actually be Paul who is the softee. In the passage in Corinthians cited above, Paul says that we are to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us. That sounds like a mighty tall order but, frankly, it’s not nearly as scary as Jesus makes it sound in the Gospels. Jesus, when speaking of our obligation to forgive, is far more blunt:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Woah. That’s heavy. It’s one thing to say, as Paul does, that we are to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us. It’s a whole other thing to say, as Jesus does, that if we do not forgive as our Father has forgiven us, our Father will not forgive us. That’s strong stuff. And I don’t think it’s a misspeak. Or a typo. I think Jesus probably meant what he said, because it’s repeated over and over in the Gospels. And, for that matter, we pray that very language every Sunday at my church when reciting the Lord’s prayer:
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
The truth is, that’s not really what I want. I don’t really want God to forgive my debts the way I have forgiven the debts of others. I want God to forgive my debts way beyond that. But that’s not what I pray for and that’s not what God has promised me. And I find that a bit scary.
Forgiveness is hard to define, much less practice. I suppose on some level, forgiveness is a choice. But sometimes it feels like anything but a choice. In fact, sometimes it feels like an almost impossible path to choose.
I suppose on another level, forgiveness is an act. But generally, if seems more like a process or, at the very least, a whole bunch of acts.
But some times I think forgiveness is neither an act nor a process but rather an emotion or a feeling. I mean, it’s easy to say you’ve forgiven someone but much harder to know whether you really have. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, it’s hard to describe forgiveness, but you know it when you feel it (actually, that’s not exactly what Justice Stewart said about pornography, but you get the picture). Whether or not we are able to pinpoint our specific act of forgiveness, we are often able to identify the feelings associated with forgiveness.
What I do know is that beyond the unmistakable biblical mandate to forgive, there’s lots of other good reasons to practice forgiveness. In fact, one could argue that forgiveness is a health issues as much as it is a theological or moral issue. And precisely because it is a health issue, forgiveness and its benefits have been studied by a number of health care institutions, including the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School. Both those studies, and many others, have shown that those who work through a process of forgiveness (much like a process of grief), enjoy healthier relationships, lower blood pressure, less anxiety, fewer symptoms of depression and lower risks of alcohol and drug abuse.
So why don’t we do more of it? Forgiveness is difficult and, in those times when I’ve needed to practice it most, I’ve given myself lots of reasons not to. And those reasons are varied: the offender doesn’t deserve it, revenge is more appropriate and feels so much better, I can’t just act like it didn’t happen, I don’t want to reconcile with the person and I have no interest in being their friend, I’ll look weak or, my personal favorite, it’ll seem like I’m condoning their behavior and I don’t want to be an enabler.
But forgiveness is required. Our need for forgiveness is deep rooted and, when given, is beautifully redemptive. I discovered one of the most beautiful stories of the redemptive power of forgiveness just a few days ago. I was sent an email about a program sponsored by an organization called Restorative Justice. The email was announcing a speaking engagement of two women bound together by tragedy: the death of one lady’s child at the hands of the other lady. I leave you with a letter that the perpetrator’s mother wrote some years ago — a letter that beautifully illustrates the redemptive power of forgiveness:
Two mothers, that’s what we were… two mothers, alone with our pain. Not to say we didn’t have people around us, we did. When the jury went into deliberation we could hear the quiet chatter of the reporters, police officers, family and friends echoing in a void we could not touch.
And then, one by one the people disappeared up the hall, looking for coffee and a bite to eat. In the awkward silence the victim’s mother and I found ourselves standing alone on opposite sides of the corridor. I went over to her; the one whose son my own had killed.
They were only sixteen … the thoughts in my mind went round and round, searching for some understanding, some reason why life had taken our two sons so young. Holding out my arms I approached the fragile woman with caution.
“We’re in this together.”, I whispered.
The grieving mother hugged me back and then quickly released my embrace. “I must go.”, she whispered. “My family will be coming back soon and they won’t understand.”
Within the hour we were called back into the courtroom and the judge announced the verdict. “Guilty”, he said. “Ten to life.”
That night I cried myself to sleep. Brutal scenes from prison movies and stories of rape and violence flashed through my mind as the relent less sobs racked my body with grief. Towards morning I had a dream. The victim’s mother was leaning over my bed compassionately holding out her arms to give me a hug. “We’re in this together.” she said, and I awoke with my arms reaching high in the air.
It was almost twenty years later before I saw the woman again. She had come for my son’s parole hearing and was waiting for the proceed ings to begin. Over the past several months, a mediator from the Restorative Opportunities Program had been helping my son communicate with her and her daughter through a series of letters. When the daughter agreed to meet with my son, two ladies from the program filmed their healing exchange and then brought it to my house for a private viewing. They also showed it to the victim’s mother who lived across the country, near her daughter.
After watching the video, the victim’s mother was so touched by the changes she saw in my son that she offered to speak on his behalf at his parole hearing. She also asked to meet privately with us after the hearing. It was during this time that the two Restorative Opportunities mediators helped the victim’s mother and my son speak openly about the horrible night he killed her son. After so many years of keeping it all inside, my son was finally given the opportunity to express how sorry he was and offered to answer any and all questions the woman needed to ask.
After a couple hours of frank discussion she turned to face me. “And I want to apologize to you.” she said. “Apologize to me?” I asked, rather shocked by her offer.
“Yes” she said. “I was so angry and hurt that I think I treated you poorly during the trial.
She looked relieved when I told her my only memory of her was our short exchange in the hallway outside the courtroom while waiting for the verdict to come in. I shared with her that, “I cried myself to sleep that night and towards morning I dreamed you were leaning over my bed to comfort me. ‘We’re in this together,’ you said kindly, and when I awoke I was reaching up to hug you. I have no memory of your treating me poorly. In fact, I’ve been praying for you all these years; that someday you might find forgiveness in your heart so you won’t have to hurt so much anymore.”
Just then, the victim’s mother pulled out a plastic bag she’d been holding on her lap.
“I brought you a gift,·she said, passing it to my son across the large oval table.
“A gift?” he replied, his wide-eyed surprise impossible to conceal.
“Yes, it’s a dog,” she said, as he pulled the small stuffed animal out of the bag.
“A dog! Just what you always wanted!” I said, recalling our prison visit conversations over the years.
“And when you get out I’m going to buy you your first real dog.” the woman promised. Then, quite unexpectedly, she pushed back her chair and went around the table to embrace my son. Without a moment’s hesitation he stood up to accept her hug. Before going back to sit down, the woman whispered something in my son’s ear.
As the meeting came to a close the woman asked if she could continue to contact us, to which of course, we both heartily agreed. Once everyone was gone I asked my son what the woman said to him while they were hugging.
Turning the little dog over and over in his hands he replied quietly, “She said, ‘I forgive you’.”
Forgiveness. May we give it and get it today. Peace, friends.