What About Forgiveness

January 17, 1999


What About Forgiveness?

When you were invited a few weeks ago to request sermon topics, the first note to arrive on my desk asks for help in understanding the process of forgiveness. Actually, it’s more than a note. It’s a thoughtful 3-page letter, provoked in part — as you might guess, by the current political climate, but it goes beyond specific cases to very general questions about when and how to forgive. In some ways it’s not easy to talk about forgiveness because although our orders from Christian scripture are crystal clear, forgiving is one of the hardest thing we are ever asked to do.
So hard, in fact, that we can easily talk ourselves out of it. But as churchgoers we have to take it seriously, because not many things are stated in the Bible with such deadly force as this: Unless you are willing to forgive, you cannot be forgiven (Matt. 6). Still, that stark and unequivocal commandment leaves us with all sorts of issues to resolve, so let’s think about some of them.
In the first place, my sensitive fellow church member asks, do you forgive even if the offender has not asked for it? As I understand person-to-person forgiveness, that would be impossible. We may ask God to forgive someone who has harmed us, but in our relationships with each other forgiveness happens when one person asks for it and another person grants it. We can be willing to forgive, but until there is a request for forgiveness, and acceptance of it, the circle is not closed. To say smugly, “I forgive you,” to someone who’s thinking, “I couldn’t care less whether you do or not,” diminishes the whole process and can be a nauseating form of self-righteousness.
I never found this better described than it was in an old Irish novel I read many years ago (The Return of the Hero , Darrell Figgis), in which a thoughtful pagan learns how some so-called Christian forgiveness may work. A servant in the household of St. Patrick brings the pagan guest a breakfast so thin and tasteless that the strong, healthy visitor cannot bring himself to eat the stuff. When the servant, with a holier- than-thou look, implies that desire for good food is a weakness of the flesh, a sign of wickedness, the pagan guest claps the bowl down on top of the servant’s head and boots him out of the room.
That evening the servant comes with dinner and says with nauseating piety, “I forgive you for lifting your hand against me.” The pagan, who had not asked forgiveness, remarks that people should tell the truth — and when the servant looks puzzled, he explains: “It seems to me that you do not forgive me at all. If you did, you would act as if that little scene had never occurred. Instead of this, you come to be revenged on me by seeking to assert superiority over me. To say that you forgive me is to exult over me, and to exult over me is to be revenged on me….I will not permit myself to be debased by your humility. I will not be enslaved by your meekness.” I wanted to cheer when I read those words, because I’ve seen on occasion that gloating offer of forgiveness. As a friend of mine said one day, “Some people forgive in such a way that one would prefer their continued condemnation.”
Let’s talk about the conditions for forgiveness. The great German Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once wrote that it is a form of “cheap grace” to preach forgiveness toward those who haven’t asked for it and have no thought of repentance. To guard against this cheap grace, repentance has traditionally involved 3 steps: remorse, restitution, and renewal. First, a genuine “I’m sorry and I beg you to forgive me.” Next, insofar as possible, a restoring of what was destroyed, which can mean accepting legal, financial and moral consequences. And finally, renewal — a change of behavior, some evidence that the offender does not intend to keep on offending. Forgiveness is not a cheap and easy commodity to be handed out. It’s a relationship that must be entered into by both parties. It is high-minded to be willing to forgive, but to say “I forgive you” to a person who acknowledges no wrong is to make oneself absurd.
Well-meaning people often tell the wounded party to “forgive and forget,” but there is no necessary relationship between forgiving and forgetting. It is not reasonable to expect people who have been terribly wronged to wipe that out of their memory. Our minds don’t work that way. But if we truly forgive someone, we can’t keep bringing up what happened. Forgiving is not a form of amnesia, but it can become a way of coping with memories that might otherwise destroy our lives. “You told me you had forgiven and forgotten,” the husband said. “Why do you keep finding ways to remind me of my past mistakes?” “I have forgiven and forgotten,” his wife said, “but I want to make sure you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.”
On Wednesday night I spent an hour with a delightful young couple who are in school at KU and will be married here this summer. Like so many young women now, the girl was bright and independent, so I was not at all surprised when she wanted to make sure I would not use the word obey in the ceremony. Her request was easy to grant because I never use that word at a wedding, but I have often thought the marriage promise should read, “Love, honor, and forgive,” because that attitude can save a great many marriages.
My letter-writer askes another question: When you forgive someone you know, is everything supposed to be the same afterwards? As much as possible, Yes, but there may be ways in which you cannot return to relationships exactly as they were. If a friend borrows your car a couple of times and does careless damage both times, but apologizes and pays for the damage, your forgiveness can be genuine even if you decide it might not be wise in the near future to lend her the car again. To use George Bush’s favorite word, it might be “prudent” to combine friendliness with watching for signs of a real change in behavior.
Forgiveness is not dependent on either approval or liking, but it’s abslutely dependent on your exercising the kind of love which in the New Testament goes by the word agape , in which you will good things even for people you may not like or seek out as companions. I may not be able to reach this level, as a flawed human being, but ideally forgiveness will go beyond wishing for good things to happen to the one you have forgiven, and will express itself when possible in actually doing something good for the offender. If this strikes you as nonsense, I can only say that while it’s not the wisdom of the world, it is beyond all doubt what Jesus taught.
We may have to confess this is too much for us, especially while our wound is still fresh, but if we profess Christian faith at all we have to be serious about the demands and the complexities of this thing called forgiveness. I said as we started that it may be the hardest thing we are ever asked to do. No one has put it better than C. S. Lewis, who in a crucial time spoke these words over a British radio network just before the end of World War II: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we have in war time. And then to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’ So do I [Lewis says]. I wonder very much. I am not trying to tell you in these talks what I could do. I can do precious little. I am telling you what Christianity is. I didn’t invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we don’t forgive, we shall not be forgiven.” It would be hard to improve on that. All I can say is that as long as we profess to be disciples of Christ we have no choice but to wrestle long and hard with this tough requirement. I don’t mind telling you that there have been times when I wished Christianity would just let me alone.
Trying to live life on the terms Jesus set can be a pain in the neck. He admitted it himself, more than once. Winning through to transcendent joy and peace of mind, what he called the “abundant life,” can take you at times through painfully honest self-examination. I don’t want to forgive, I say, because look what he did to me! But just enough of the philosophy of Jesus has gotten into me that I am forced to ask myself, Was I, in some part, to blame for what happened? and much as that hurt, I have to tell you that an honest answer has at times made it easier to forgive someone.
We have to be hopelessly self-righteous not to feel some sympathy for most people who fail us. We have to forget things we’ve thought or done that we really didn’t want anyone else to know about. We have to forget ways in which we failed our parents, our partners in marriage, even our children. But if in honest humility we remember our own failures, the ones seen and the ones not seen, we find it easier to forgive others when asked. Shakespeare knew exactly what Jesus taught when these words were aimed at a character in one of his plays who insisted on full punishment of his enemy: “Though justice be thy plea, consider this,/ That in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation./ We do pray for mercy;/ And that same prayer doth teach us to render the deeds of mercy.” [Merchant of Venice , IV, 1, l84ff]
O but it’s hard when someone we don’t even like makes a bad mistake and then asks for forgiveness and mercy. “Justice must be done!” we shout, and justice is certainly no trivial matter, but given pure justice how many of us would enjoy the comfort and reputation we have this morning? How many? If you proudly view yourself as an exception, do so if you will, but most of us cannot. We have prayed for mercy, “and that same prayer doth teach us to render the deeds of mercy.” Not only to good friends who stumble, but to people we dislike for personal, social, political or theological reasons. Offenders of whom we say, “They don’t deserve forgiveness.” And it’s often true, isn’t it? They don’t deserve it — and logic says, “Get even! Exact the last ounce of revenge!” And as we shout those words in anger, we forget all about a Christian virtue called “grace,” which has nothing much to do with logic.
So I discovered again during last week that the more you read and meditate on the complexities of forgiveness, the harder it becomes to put it in a neatly-built box. Then I remembered, finally, that one picture is worth a thousand words, so I decided to leave you with two images of forgiveness in action.
John Plummer, now a Methodist minister, was haunted for years by an air strike he ordered during his service in Viet Nam. He had been told there were no civilians in the area, but not long after the strike he saw that famous picture of a 9-year-old girl running down a road naked and horribly burned by napalm. Miserable for years by feelings of guilt, he finally convinced himself he had done everything possible to be sure the attack area was free of civilians, but the pain had taken its toll: loss of religious faith, alcohol abuse and divorce. He finally turned his life around and followed a call to ministry, but he kept wishing through the years that he could tell Kim Phuc how sorry he was.
He also knew there was no way he’d ever be able to see her because even if she were still alive, she’d be in Vietnam, a country he didn’t want to visit again. But just a couple of years ago Plummer learned Kim was still alive. Her chin had been fused to her chest by scar tissue, and what remained of her left arm was stuck to her rib cage, but after a California plastic surgeon finally completed her repairs she eventually married and created a home in Toronto with a husband and child of her own. In ways too convoluted to list here, she found out about Plummer and his anguish over what had happened, and learned that he — like her — would soon be present for ceremonies at the Vietnam Wall in Washington.
A few days before his visit, Plummer heard she would be there, and knew he had to see her. She spoke to the crowds before he met her, and mentioned that although two of her “brothers” were killed in that raid she would forgive the pilot of the plane and invite him to work with her to build the future. Plummer began to shake and cry, while his wartime buddies embraced him in a silent show of support. When Kim Phuc got word that the man she wanted to meet was standing nearby, she found him, saw his profound grief, and held out her arms. While he sobbed that he was “Sorry, so deeply sorry,” she said over and over, “It’s all right, I forgive. I forgive.” They had only a couple of minutes before the news media whisked her away, but Plummer remembers, “I was floating. I was free. I was finally at peace.”
A few minutes later, someone came with word that Kim Phuc wanted John and his wife to join her at her hotel. Raised Buddhist, Kim had become a Christian, and in her hotel room she and the Methodist minister talked, knelt in prayer together, and she invited him to appear with her in a documentary about her life. “She is,” Plummer says, “the closest thing to a saint I ever met.” Forgiveness — the road to final healing for both of them.
One last vignette about a heart so realistic and forgiving that it has to be seen as a miracle of the human spirit. Scrawled on the inner walls of a Nazi concentration camp by a Jew facing death was this amazing prayer: O Lord, when I shall come with glory in your kingdom, do not remember only the men of good will; remember also the men of evil. May they be remembered not only for their acts of cruelty in this camp, the evil they have done to us prisoners, but balance against their cruelty the fruits we have reaped under the stress and in the pain: the comradeship, the courage, the greatness of heart, the humility and patience which have been born in us and become part of our lives because we have suffered at their hands. May the memory of us not be a nightmare to them when they stand in judgment. May all that we have suffered be acceptable to you as a ransom for them.
It’s hard to imagine the greatness of spirit shown by that dying letter, but just hearing it may free our hearts to forgive someone who is waiting.
In all our dealings with one another, gracious God, teach us
to forgive others as we ourselves have so often been forgiven
by those who love us. Amen.