Now before you start worrying – I’m not confessing to a violent murder (or pig theft) with this week’s title, but I am confessing to a flaw in my character: a stubborn unwillingness to let go of past wrongs. While I come by the stubbornness honestly (I think my folks could easily point out stubborn streaks in the family tree), I’m pretty much alone in my ability to hold a grudge – at least among my closest family members.
My struggle to forgive is not something I’m sure I want to air publicly, but Easter has convicted me to write about it anyway. Easter is that wonderful, joyous holy day of the year when we celebrate Christ’s victory over the grave and the sacrifice he made to save us all.
His death on that wooden cross wiped the slate clean for all of us. His resurrection gives us hope of our own salvation. We are a forgiven people of God.
We are forgiven. And we are to forgive.
Just as we are forgiven, we are to go out and forgive those who hurt us. For a biblical reminder of this, check out the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6 and Luke 11: “And forgive us our sins, For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4).
In recent months, my struggle to forgive some deep hurts has been difficult, especially because the hurt came from within my own church family, a family I have been part of my whole life. Hence my reluctance to even discuss it.
Aren’t Christians all supposed to love each other and greet each other joyfully every time they see each other? And aren’t we all supposed to join hands and sing Kumbaya? And in general put on a “Pollyanna” front to the world?
Fortunately not! However, for some reason, the world has created that stereotype of us, and so when the Church (big C, institution of Christian faith) fails in some very public way, non-Christians point to those examples to show that Christianity must not really work and churches must be filled with fake people and hypocrites. My argument to that is that being Christians doesn’t make us perfect, but it should make us want to be better human beings.
So back to that whole forgiveness difficulty. I know I’m not alone in this difficulty: I have friends who have others they struggle to forgive, and I have friends who struggle to forgive themselves for past mistakes.
I also know this isn’t a new problem in the world, because I only have to flip to Ephesians to read Paul’s admonishment to the congregation there about forgiveness within its own community:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander
be put away from you, along with all malice.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other,
just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:31-32
Paul makes it sound soooooo easy. And yet sometimes it’s not, even when you know it is what must be done. Oh, sure, I could go find another church to attend, but I would only be postponing the difficult task of learning how to be more tender-hearted and forgiving. I have more than a sneaking suspicion that God would allow any new church I might join to give me the same opportunities for learning forgiveness as the church I currently call home.
So I’ve got to stick it out and learn to forgive. I’m not having an easy time of it, though, and so I’ve turned to some esteemed Christian writers for help. I like what C.S. Lewis has to say on the subject in Mere Christianity:
When you start mathematics, you do not begin with calculus;
you begin with simple addition. In the same way, if we really
want (but all depends on really wanting) to learn how to forgive,
perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.
One might start with forgiving one’s husband or wife, or parents or
children … for something they have done or said in the last week.
That will probably keep us busy for the moment. And secondly,
we might try to understand exactly what loving your neighbor as
yourself means. I have to love him as I love myself. Well, how
exactly do I love myself? Now that I come to think of it, I have not
exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do
not even always enjoy my own society. (p. 116)
Lewis’ chapter on forgiveness makes a logical appeal for forgiving others by remembering that God loves us all as individual selves, even though each individual self contains some decidedly unloveable qualities. His argument makes forgiveness seem a bit more attainable to me.
But then I look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who also writes about the essence of forgiveness:
But it is precisely a question of bearing – bearing others in all respects,
in all their difficult and unpleasant aspects, and in their error and sin
against me. Being silent, bearing, and loving without ceasing – that
would come close to forgiveness. … Forgiveness is without beginning
or end; it happens daily without ceasing, for it comes from God. It is
liberation from everything that is forced in being with our neighbor,
for here we are freed for ourselves; here we can give up all of our own
rights and only help and serve others. (I Want to Live These Days with You,
p. 216; originally from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, vol. 14, pp. 907-08)
This view of forgiveness feels harder to me. But knowing that forgiveness is essential, I have to keep reading about it and praying about it and working on it. For some strange reason, I find comfort in knowing that it will take time, and that, as Lewis says, I can start with small things and work my way up to harder ones. And that, as Bonhoeffer says, there’s no beginning or end to it but that we can find liberation in it.
Someday maybe there will be less of the spirit of the Hatfields and McCoys in me. Even their story includes times of reunion and reconciliation over the last century and a half, and, even in their story, forgiveness that has no beginning or end. That gives me hope and maybe will give you hope, too.