Forgiveness is a Choice–How to Forgive the Unforgivable
This sermon about Matthew 18:23-35 instructs us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. I wonder what is the hardest thing you ever forgave. Is there someone who did something to you that you just cannot forgive or even imagine wanting to forgive? This sermon is about seeing the benefits of forgiveness, dispelling common misunderstandings about what forgiveness is, and showing a process toward forgiveness that has proven effective in helping people forgive the seemingly unforgivable.
Forgiveness is the calling of all followers of Christ
A hallmark of the Christian journey is the commitment to become a forgiving person, not just one offense, but as an essential virtue with you all the time. Forgiveness is one of the main themes of Jesus’ teaching and example. As he breathed his last on the cross, he prayed, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”
In the Lord’s Prayer, he taught us to pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Essentially, the prayer asks, “God forgive me, but only to the extent that I am forgiving of others.”
Peter, one of the disciples, inquired of Jesus how many times we should forgive, “As many as seven times?” Maybe he said seven because in that day seven symbolized completion.
Jesus replied try seventy times seven. It is not that Jesus was saying 490 is the magical number. Who can keep track of that many? The point is to stop keeping track and to enter a process where one enters a constant state of forgiveness so that we might become forgiving people.
One of my favorite Jesus parables is about a servant who has been forgiven a great sum of money but refused to forgive someone who owed him a pittance in comparison. The lesson is that if we have been forgiven the debt we owe to God for life, for the forgiveness of our sins, for all of the blessings we’ve accumulated throughout life, surely, we can find a way to let that sense of mercy permeate our lives and forgive others. I think all the forgiveness I’ve ever given has originated out of a sense of when one has been forgiven so much in my life by God and by others, how can I not try to be a forgiving person, too?
What is forgiveness?
The language of forgiveness comes from a sense of indebtedness. Think of old-timey balancing scales. When there has been an offense against a person there an imbalance arises, the scales are tipped. When something happens you might say, “I’m going to get even with you.” That is, “I’m going to retaliate and make you feel pain like you caused me.” Or, we might think, “they owe me for what they did.” We still talk about the scales of justice.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray as Jesus taught, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Forgiveness is about letting it go and deciding not to retaliate—to quit ruminating on revenge fantasies. It’s about finding a healthy way to deal with your anger so that it doesn’t consume you. Forgiveness is about focusing on more positive things for yourself by stepping out of the cycle of always feeling like you need to strike back to prove your strength which only leads them to strike back and so on.
Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye world will soon go blind.” Jesus said, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you repay no one evil for evil, instead repay evil with good.”
Forgiveness is about going through a process where you get to the place where you let go of resentment, try to see the other person in a new light, and hope for the best for them.
Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself.
Sometimes we withhold forgiveness because we see it only as a gift that we are giving to the one person we least feel like giving a gift to. But the truth is that forgiveness is primarily a gift you give to yourself. Most of the time the other person has moved on and doesn’t give a flip whether you forgive them or not.
Forgiveness is a choice, a process where you decide not to allow your thoughts, your spirit, your life to be consumed with resentment and bitterness. That stuff is dangerous; it can turn you into a bitter, sour, perpetually angry person who is likely to displace your anger on someone else or yourself. Anger turned inward is depression. When we hold those resentments in and obsess over what has happened to us, we stay trapped in a narrative where we are always the victim. You are not made for that. You can claim a new narrative where you overcome all of the horrible consequences of what happened to you.
Maybe you’ve heard the adage that withholding forgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for it to affect the other person. The only one negatively affected is you.
There is a lot of research from the scientific community on forgiveness. Purely from a secular perspective, studies consistently reveal that the psychological benefits of forgiving are enormous. People who forgive are likely to see improvements in their health, over-all sense of well-being, and relationships with people who are closest to them.
In our church, we talk about the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding. Part of that inner peace derives from being a forgiving person.
What forgiveness is not.
One of the main obstacles to forgiveness is confusion about the nature of forgiveness. There are a lot of myths that get in the way.
Forgiveness is not acting like it never happened. It’s not about becoming a doormat, opening yourself to let someone keep mistreating you. It’s not reconciliation or giving people trust back again. It’s not restoring the relationship to what it was. It’s not something the other person has to ask for. It’s not a lack of accountability or consequences. It doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries. The relationship might be over, they might have to go to prison, etc. Forgiveness is about how you are going to deal with your hurt and anger. Are you going to trap yourself in anger and bitterness or are you going to take the key, put it in the lock and release yourself? Only you can do that.
Levels of hurt
When we talk about forgiveness, there are multiple layers. There are the everyday things that happen in human relationships, that you just put aside. The more you forgive, the easier it is to forgive the little things. But there are deeper hurts that are longer lasting. Often it isn’t one incident, but a pattern of behavior, broken trusts, betrayals by someone close. Forgiving is a process. It’s best to start with one incident that stands out and build from there. Then there are the things that feel just unforgivable. Ultimate violations of incest, murder, rape, genocide. For these deep hurts and anything you just can’t put aside entering a more deliberate process can help.
A Process for Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a process that doesn’t happen in a heartbeat. It’s not squinting your eyes and saying I forgive. No, depending on the severity of the injury, it can take a long time—years, in fact. The scientific community says it is a process with various stages. A team of researchers who have been studying this for a long time have identified a process that has helped even the most traumatized find a path toward healing. We are talking about incest survivors, people who have had family members murdered, victims of genocidal violence, sexual abuse, you name it, the worst of the worst. It’s a process that works and transforms the lives of the victims. It works on large-scale traumatic events and the ordinary stuff that gets under our skin.
It’s beyond the scope of this sermon to detail the whole process. I do recommend you look at Robert Enright’s book, Forgiveness is a Choice, or any number of others that lay out the process and the work required to get there. From a spiritual perspective, you can add the layer of asking for God’s help in the process. The four phases in the process are:
- Uncovering your anger. Anger can be tricky because we can be afraid of owning it in case it gets out of control, so we bury it or it comes out sideways and hurts someone else. In this process, you don’t just deal with your anger, but the source of it. You own it and see how it has affected you. Are you obsessed with the injury or the offender? Do you think about it every day, does it come up in conversation, your dreams? Has your anger affected your health, your view of other people, your worldview? The deepest anger is usually not over one incident, but a pattern of behavior of someone close. But begin with a single incident and radiate outward.
- Deciding to Forgive. You decide that you are going to enter the process of forgiveness and give the gift of forgiveness so that it can benefit you. It’s about deciding to put aside revenge—even in its most subtle passive-aggressive forms like snubbing, insults, criticizing behind their back.
- Working on Forgiveness. You work toward an understanding of the event, your role if any. Write the story from their point of view. What was their childhood like, what was their inner world like at the time of the event, what stresses/strains were they under? Work toward understanding any brokenness in the offender that may have led to the situation. Often people are hurt by sociopaths who aren’t really victims of some bad childhood or something like that, but they are mentally ill—which is another form of brokenness. Try to work toward some sense of compassion or empathy.
I think back to one of my hardest times with forgiveness—when my brother was killed by a drunk driver. Rick was just sitting in his car at a stoplight when the driver—whose license had been revoked for repeated offenses. It was a long slog toward forgiveness. Initially, I wanted him to hurt as I hurt, his daughter hurt, my parents, hurt. I saw him less as a person and more as a monster.
I realized how I’d dehumanized him and started with wanting him to be treated fairly in the system of justice, have a fair trial and sentence. The key to forgiving him came when I decided not to see him as a monster anymore, but as a person with a problem, a drinking problem, addiction, and probably other problems that he was using alcohol to numb. Seeing him as a broken person seemed to lessen his sense of monstrous power over the lives of our family. He had the power to cause so much misery, but he wasn’t a powerful person. He was broken. This was the real breakthrough that eventually led to forgiveness.
- Discovery and release from emotional prison. Discover the meaning of suffering, what did you learn about yourself, your resiliency. There is something powerful about being able to say, I got through it and forgave, therefore, I can get through whatever hits me. In this phase, you discover your need for being forgiven, that you are not alone, the purpose of your life, the freedom that comes with forgiveness. May you find it in your life, too.
A Journey, a Process
Forgiveness is one of those journeys that is difficult, you won’t always get it right. You may have thought that you have forgiven something only to have it slap you in the face again later. Keep forgiving, keep opening the door to your own freedom from that past.