For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. – Matthew 6:14-15
I’m sure we can all agree that there are many reasons to be grateful that Lyle Lovett is not God. The lack of forgiveness expressed in the song “God Will” is just one of them.
Tonight, we continue our 7-week series on The Apostles’ Creed. This week, we ask what we mean when we say, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Again, we are talking about more than believing that something exists. We know that forgiveness exists. We have seen extraordinary examples of forgiveness in the news just recently, when the families of some of the victims of the Charleston shooting extended tearful pardons to the shooter, Dylann Roof. We have each experienced forgiveness in our own lives. We know that forgiveness exists.
But do we know how to trust in forgiveness? Do we really have faith in the act of forgiving and being forgiven? Both are incredibly vulnerable actions—to ask for forgiveness is to admit you have done wrong; to extend forgiveness is to risk your heart being trampled anew; and to receive forgiveness is to take the chance that you might have to change. If when we say “I believe in forgiveness” we are really saying “I trust in forgiveness,” then we are making a profound statement indeed.
Each week during the prayer time here at Roots Revival, we pause for a moment of silent confession. Each week, I ask us to offer to God the places in our lives where we may need to ask for, extend, or receive forgiveness. I’m going to linger on each of those verbs one at a time tonight as we ask what it means to say, “I believe in forgiveness.”
First: Ask for. To ask for forgiveness is to confess, to own up to what you’ve done wrong, to air your dirty laundry and to put it all out there. We don’t get to do this anonymously. When we need forgiveness, we can’t just say, “Hey, would you forgive me?” We have to say what it is we need forgiveness for. Asking for forgiveness is embarrassing at best and agonizingly painful and revealing at worst.
But this first step of asking for forgiveness isn’t just about the confession piece. It tells us something very important about the nature of forgiveness—namely that forgiveness is free. If we ask for it, we will receive it—maybe not from Lyle Lovett or from our mother or our ex or our angry teenager, but certainly from God. God’s forgiveness requires nothing more from us than that we ask for it.
But just because forgiveness is free doesn’t mean it’s easy. In my dad’s book, he says that forgiveness does not mean that it doesn’t matter. Forgiveness means, “This matters so much we’re going to do something about it.” Forgiveness does not make past wrongs disappear or give a pass to unacceptable behavior. Forgiveness involves facing something squarely and doing something about it.
After apartheid was abolished in South Africa, the question arose as to what to do about all the unspeakable crimes that had been committed. There were several decades’ worth of murders and cases of torture and rape of black South Africans by white South Africans to be dealt with.
Rather than prosecute each of the perpetrators in traditional court cases, a different approach was taken. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to investigate human rights abuses with the mindset of restorative justice. Our legal system today is one of retributive justice, where people are punished for crimes and usually have no contact with victims. Restorative justice involves bringing victims or their families together with perpetrators and their families so that stories can be told, forgiveness can be offered, and relationships, in one way or another, can be restored.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered amnesty to perpetrators who confessed their crimes—not as a slap on the wrist, but in an effort to restore dignity to victims whose stories might otherwise have gone unheard. Although many criticized the commission for being too lax, chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that it bore witness to the important but difficult truth that God does not give up on anyone and that we cannot do anything to make God love us less. In his book No Future without Forgiveness, Tutu writes, “Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law.”
Forgiveness does not say, “this does not matter,” or “that isn’t a big deal,” or “don’t worry about it.” Forgiveness says, “this matters deeply, and we are going to face it together.” Forgiveness is free if only we ask for it—but often the asking is the hard part, because it requires enormous humility and vulnerability.
Second, we are called to extend forgiveness. We might hope along with Lyle Lovett that we don’t have to forgive everyone because God’s going to do that for us, but not so fast. Tonight’s passage from Matthew 6 tells us that if we want forgiveness, we not only have to ask for it, we also have to offer it to others. This is not a tit-for-tat kind of thing; rather, God’s command that we forgive one another is out of concern for our own wellbeing.
I’m sure we can all attest to the pain we endure when we hold a grudge. Clinging to a wrong done to you instead of asking for forgiveness is corrosive. Anne Lamott put it this way: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” When we refuse to forgive someone, we may do so thinking that will get them back for whatever they have done to us, but instead we are really hurting ourselves.
Frederick Buechner offers another visceral image for the damage holding a grudge can do to the one holding it: he writes, “To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways, it is a feast fit for a kind. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the end of the feast is you.”
We are called to extend forgiveness, not just because it is the right thing to do but because to refuse to do so is to destroy ourselves. And we are called to do this over and over again. You can imagine what’s going on with Peter when he comes to Jesus with the question of how many times he has to forgive someone. I bet someone in the church has ticked him off 6 times and he’s wondering if he can be off the hook if he forgives them just one more time.
Unfortunately, Jesus sets the bar much higher—“Not seven…but…seventy-seven times.” Some translations say “seventy times seven”—so 490 times. Inquiring minds want to know, how many is it, 77 or 490?! But that’s not the point. Jesus isn’t giving us a number to count to. Often in the Bible, numbers are used symbolically. Large numbers often just mean “a lot.” And in Scripture, the number 7 represents wholeness. So Jesus is telling us to forgive others, not a specific number of times, but a lot—perhaps until we reach wholeness.
Because that is what forgiveness is about, after all—restoring a broken relationship to the wholeness God intended. Of course, we know from experience that not all brokenness can be mended in this life. There may be times when we are called to extend forgiveness but a restored relationship is not possible here on earth. There are people I have forgiven yet wish never to see again, and although I might wonder if there might be deeper healing in the life to come, I know that is as far as it can go here and now.
Some of you may have wondered why I always say that we both ask for and receive forgiveness. Aren’t they the same thing? Actually, I don’t think so. Here’s where I think the distinction lies.
As we said, to ask for forgiveness is to confess. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I confess, when I admit what I’ve done wrong, I get stuck there. Sometimes when I confess, I think that perhaps I don’t deserve forgiveness. And, of course, I’m right—none of us deserves forgiveness for anything. Forgiveness is not something you can earn (although it should be noted that trust is something you can earn and usually has to be built back as forgiveness is offered).
When we confess, if we do so truthfully, we should not be surprised if we come to the conclusion that we do not deserve forgiveness. But we need to remember that although confession is about what we have done, forgiveness ultimately is about something much deeper. Forgiveness has to do with wrongdoing, of course, but more importantly, forgiveness has to do with our irrevocable identities as children of God. God forgives us not because we confess correctly or make appropriate amends or become good enough to earn forgiveness; God forgives us because God is love and we are God’s children. Period.
So yes, asking for forgiveness and receiving forgiveness are different things, and I know for me the question of which is harder just depends on the day. Sometimes the idea of admitting we’ve done wrong is so painful we don’t even want to think about it; and sometimes we get past that first step and just stop, thinking we’d rather wallow in self-deprecation and self-pity than believe the impossible truth that we might actually be forgiven already.
In all this asking and extending and receiving, it is important to remember that forgiveness isn’t a one-and-done thing but rather a way of life. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” In fact, the only way any forgiveness is possible is to have a constant attitude of forgiveness—toward others and toward yourself.
Otis Moss III said after the Charleston shootings that those who were puzzled by the victims’ families response of forgiveness have clearly never been to a black church. Those families did not offer forgiveness in a vacuum; they did so as part of a way of life that has been forged in the fires of oppression. We should not take their words lightly or romanticize them too much, because that forgiveness was born out of pain that, frankly, white folks will never understand. We should pay close attention to the miracle of forgiveness that comes out of a thoroughly traumatized community that holds on not to grudges but to a promise of reconciliation.
How often should we forgive? Not 7 times, or 77 times, or even 490 times, but continually, until we are whole. Until we are whole, we should ask for, and extend, and receive forgiveness, for when understanding fails us, when we are filled with rage, when we are not sure that love will survive, God gets down to the heart of the matter and says: Ask. Extend. Receive. It’s hard, oh yes, it’s hard—but it’s free.
Sarah S. Howell