Praying that God will forgive us as we forgive others is not a kind of quid pro quo, one thing in exchange for another. God is not in the business of being a divine accountant. God is, instead, quick to forgive and empowers us to forgive. This liberates us – we no longer have to be controlled by the evil that others have committed against us.
Forgiving and Being Forgiven
Scriptures: Psalm 130: 1-6; Matthew 6: 9-15
Forgiving is hard. I knew that as a small boy when my Dad’s brother fell out with him because of a family dispute over a farm. I always heard about it from Dad’s point of view. Dad claimed that he had tried to be reconciled with his brother and I believe him. Still, I never honestly heard my uncle’s point of view. All I knew was that my uncle refused to talk with Dad. There were occasionally some very awkward situations at extended family gatherings when Dad tried to talk with him and he refused to respond. I’m not sure Dad ever adequately empathized with him or recognized how wounded he was because of what had happened. Still, to my knowledge, my uncle never tried to harm my Dad or get even. That in itself is no small thing.
A common American political dictum is, “Don’t get mad. Get even.” It’s an oxymoron because if you seek to get even you’re certainly angry. And you’re ratcheting up the conflict. This is the stuff that leads to wars—both political wars and actual shooting wars. As the book of James reminds us, our conflicts come from our cravings that are at war within us. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye, and at tooth leaves us all blind and toothless.” And our lives shrivel up.
Several months ago, our neighboring Ezher Mosque organized an interfaith conversation on forgiveness. As the pastor of an Anabaptist church with the word peace in our name, I thought I should attend. We broke up into table groups to discuss our understanding of forgiveness, examples of people who have modeled forgiveness for us, and what our religious traditions teach about it. It soon became obvious that forgiveness is central to every faith tradition as we shared various scriptures on forgiveness and looked to various people like Nelson Mandela, who have modeled radical forgiveness in their lives.
The group at our table ended up talking about the relationship between forgiveness and remembering. Some thought that if we truly forgave we should be able to forget the wrong that was done to us. Others of us weren’t so sure and questioned if that would even be desirable.
Telling people that they need to forgive and forget often fails to adequately recognize the harm that was done. It also fails to recognize the power imbalance in a relationship. An example is telling a woman that she needs to forgive her abusive husband or a child that he needs to forgive his abusive parents.
Furthermore, forgiving is part of a long journey of healing and reconciliation. Insisting upfront that someone needs to forgive tends to short-circuit that healing process. Insisting that there needs to be expressed remorse and restitution before we will forgive can also short-circuit the journey toward reconciliation. Instead, can we open our hearts just enough to take that first step in the journey toward reconciliation? It doesn’t mean that it still doesn’t hurt like crazy and that we don’t still feel overwhelmed by grief, anger, and a desire for vengeance—wanting the other person to feel some of the pain I have felt. It does mean a commitment to not seeking revenge or trying to get even. It means hoping for healing by God’s grace—not forgetting but remembering differently.
Another thing that can get complicated is expressing remorse and asking for forgiveness on behalf of others. The photo on our bulletin cover is a public expression of being sorry after the riots in Vancouver when their home team lost the Stanley Cup ice-hockey play-offs in 2011. Things went too far when some of the rioters were publicly named and shamed and began receiving hate mail.
The daily news is filled with stories of violence, rancor, and revenge but we occasionally hear an extraordinary account of someone who has forgiven a person who has murdered their child, or another loved one. That happened when Dylann Roof, a troubled young man filled with white supremist ideology, murdered nine people during a Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. Our whole nation was shocked and then mystified when family members of those slain said that they forgave Dylann Roof for what he had done and reached out to him and his family.
Theologian and philosopher John Caputo says that “the only condition under which true forgiveness is possible is when forgiveness is impossible.”[i] He says that we generally think of forgiveness as the closing of an account such as when a bank says that our debt is forgiven after we make the final payment. Christians generally act like bankers when it comes to forgiveness.
We spell out the conditions under which forgiveness is possible, generally four in number: “an expression of sorrow, the intention to make amends, a promise not to repeat the offence, and a willingness to do penance.”[ii] Jesus turns such accounting on its head when he tells us to love our enemies. Consider his prayer from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Consider also Jesus’ interchange with Peter when Peter asked him how many times his had to forgive someone and suggested seven times. That seems like a lot doesn’t it? But Peter’s keeping score, isn’t he? He’s acting like a banker. Jesus completely sabotaged such accounting when he responded, “Nah, let’s make it seventy times seven.”
Some biblical scholars suggest that Jesus’ run-in with the long-robed religious leaders of his day had to do with their differences over such matters. They were accountants who became outraged when Jesus hung out with known sinners including tax-collectors and prostitutes and then freely forgave them without first insisting on a four-fold process of expressing remorse, agreeing to make amends, promising to clean up their behavior, and doing penance.
That brings us to another touchy matter. Is God an accountant keeping score of our debts and sins? It appears that God may be an accountant when Jesus tells us that God will not forgive us unless we can forgive others. Is there a quid pro quo here, one thing in exchange for another? Do you recall the parable of the unforgiving servant who’s master graciously forgave his debt only to find out than this same servant was mercilessly prosecuting a fellow servant who owed him money? The upshot of the story is that the master was outraged and in return had that servant tortured until he paid every last penny. Then Jesus concluded that this is how God will treat us if we don’t forgive our sister or brother from our heart (Matt. 18: 35).
We shouldn’t read the ending of this parable too literally. Think of it as saying that being forgiven is linked with our willingness to forgive others. If we know anything from Jesus’ teaching, God is not the great scorekeeper up in the sky rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Remember the outrageously loving father in Jesus parable of the prodigal son who rushed out to greet and embrace his returning son who had squandered the family fortune.
There’s something deeper going on here when Jesus teaches us to pray that our debts or sins be forgiven in the same way that we forgive others. My capacity to forgive is an indication that I’m a child of our God who freely forgives. I’m not saying it’s easy. No! Its hard stuff. I experienced that as a child as I saw firsthand the tortured relationship between my Dad and his brother. There’s another part to that story. At Dad’s funeral last year, as his oldest child, I was standing in the front of the receiving line beside his coffin. I recognized one of my now deceased uncle’s daughters coming to pay her respects. I kindly thanked her for coming. “No,” she said, “I needed to come.” Nothing more had to be said. For her, what my uncle and his family had experienced as unforgiveable, had been forgiven.
When I’m able to forgive, I’m set free from the cycle of hate and revenge—of the need to get even, of insisting that, if someone hits me, I’ll hit back harder, thereby creating my own personal hell. It doesn’t mean that the pain will ever completely go away or that the relationship will return to what it had been before the offence took place. But we will have laid our burden down.
A woman whose dad had sexually molested her as a child said that she could never forgive him for what he had done—it was unforgiveable. Then she added, “I know I’m supposed to forgive so perhaps I’ll slip in a prayer of forgiveness on my death bed.” Sometime later she came to a different understanding of forgiveness. It’s not something one has to do to be right with God the great accountant. Instead, it’s something God empowers us to do to set us free. She forgave her dad because as she said, “I don’t want him and what he did to control the rest of my life.” That’s what it means to love our enemies and to forgive as we are forgiven.
[i] John Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 73.