I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles. In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
I am continuing this morning to reflect on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. In the last few posts I discussed various approaches to the idea of sin: missing the mark, trespass of boundaries, and actions that produce a debt to the world, others, and God. In each I shared some thoughts about what receiving grace and forgiveness from God might look like with each approach to sin, as well as why extending such grace and forgiveness might be important.
Forgiveness, though, is tricky. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful practices lifted up by Jesus in the Gospels (and, to be fair, other spiritual teachers in other faiths) but when it is needed, can be painful, heart-wrenching, and frustrating. There is even debate about whether forgiveness is always appropriate or possible. Some find in facing into experiences of horrific abuse, of torture, of rape, of child molestation, of crimes against humanity in war or genocide, forgiveness hard to conceive. How can we forgive without opening ourselves up to more pain? I cannot forgive, some say, for I can never forget the pain these have caused. Or, a question I asked about some circumstances in my life, how is it my right to forgive since what I am angry over is not what was done to me but one I loved?
Instead of puzzling through these difficult questions I want to do two things.
First, I want to acknowledge there is not one right answer to these questions. Often times we treat the Bible (or for non-Christians, the spiritual teachings of those paths) as a black and white rule book with language of forgiveness as yet another law to obey. Forgiveness does not work like that. We cannot flip a switch and be done with heartache and anger. It is a journey to freeing ourselves and, at times, others. What counts is not one’s path to inner and outer freedom, the freedom forgiveness brings, but instead going on the journey. At times one must live into the tension, struggle through the uncertainty, and find their own path to healing. Your path to letting go of the hold the pains of the past have on you might be very different than my own. Your way toward letting your future be defined not by what others have done to you or those you love but by who you are at heart, which to me is the fruit of the forgiveness journey, might not make any sense to anyone else. It will certainly include spots in which you are exasperated and say it is too much. And that is alright. You alone have borne this pain, for even two people going through the same events experience them differently. Only you and the Holy Spirit within you who feels your every pain, heartache, joy, and sorrow, know what you bear. No one else has any right to dictate your path. But, also, no matter what you have been through, you deserve the peace, freedom, and joy which this journey of inner healing can bring even if the path to healing may not fit anyone’s picture of how healing comes but your own.
Secondly, since there is not one answer for all people but rather a journey we go on with the help of God (by which I mean that energy for life, for wholeness, for meaning at the heart of existence which folks of other traditions may call by other names), instead of giving you one answer, I’d like to share some perspectives of people of faith in different traditions sharing what forgiveness means to them.
Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says of forgiveness that “The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.”
In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies”, this is how the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King speaks of forgiveness:
“First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, “I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.”
Writing of forgiveness, Gandhi says: “”I do not know a single instance where forgiveness has been found so wanting as to be impolitic … What is true of individuals is true of nations. One cannot forgive too much. The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger. However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.”
“Forgiving is not forgetting; its actually remembering–remembering and not using your right to hit back. Its a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you dont want to repeat what happened. . . Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
Psychcentral says the following about forgiveness at http://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-forgiveness/ :
“Forgiveness is letting go of the need for revenge and releasing negative thoughts of bitterness and resentment. . . Forgiveness can be a gift that we give to ourselves. Here are some easy steps towards forgiveness:
Acknowledge your own inner pain.
Express those emotions in non-hurtful ways without yelling or attacking.
Protect yourself from further victimization.
Try to understand the point of view and motivations of the person to be forgiven; replace anger with compassion.
Forgive yourself for your role in the relationship.
Decide whether to remain in the relationship.
Perform the overt act of forgiveness verbally or in writing. If the person is dead or unreachable, you can still write down your feelings in letter form.
What Forgiveness Is Not…
Forgiveness is not forgetting or pretending it didn’t happen. It did happen, and we need to retain the lesson learned without holding onto the pain.
Forgiveness is not excusing. We excuse a person who is not to blame. We forgive because a wrong was committed.
Forgiveness is not giving permission to continue hurtful behaviors; nor is it condoning the behavior in the past or in the future.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. We have to make a separate decision about whether to reconcile with the person we are forgiving or whether to maintain our distance.”
Not all of these perspectives are the same, but all are struggling through the question of “what does forgiveness and inner healing look like? How does it flow out into my relationships?”
Ultimately what counts is not having the exact same answer as these spiritual teachers, as me, or as others in your life, but finding the path to healing in your own heart and in relationship to others.
This is a journey we are each on and must embark on in new ways every day. Let’s help each other get to that destination together.
Your progressive redneck preacher,