I am aware that this topic may feel like it is getting old to some of you, my readers. I apologize for that. And yet, I feel compelled to write on it, probably because it continues to be an important theme in my current life. Our lectionary group was focusing on forgiveness yesterday as it presents itself in scripture, and in particular in Luke 7:36-8:3 (for those of you who don't have the entire Bible memorized by scripture and verse, this is the story of the sinner woman anointing Jesus' feet with ointment and tears in the Pharisee's home, much to the Pharisee's upset). Here are some things that developed in my thinking from that conversation:
I believe God forgives us even before we ask. That is God's nature - to forgive, to call us to start afresh, to wipe the slate clean and to give us new beginnings at each moment. God does this for us, all the time, every day, each moment. This is really hard for us as humans to accept. Of course we want forgiveness for ourselves. But we struggle with God forgiving people like Ariel Castro and Anthony Edward Sowell. Also when we are personally hurt by someone, we often feel like we want them to suffer as we have suffered. We want them to know what the pain feels like and "pay for it". I even hear this out of the mouths of people of deep faith who want revenge, who want retribution, who want punishment for those who have, in their own personal opinions, done harm. But this attitude, this desire, this need for revenge is about us. This is not about God. God forgives. That is who God is. And again, I believe this happens before we can even ask.
Still, in most of our protestant churches we offer up a prayer weekly confessing our sins. And this is important because while God automatically forgives, we do not automatically or even easily accept God's forgiveness. Accepting God's forgiveness is a whole other ball game. It requires, first of all, "getting" what we've done wrong. It requires really looking at the ways we've hurt people, feeling it, acknowledging it and taking ownership of that. We accept forgiveness only by really knowing the harm we have done, and that this harm may have ripples - or extend out to other people as well. And while this is not easy for any of us - to really look at the ways in which we have hurt or damaged others, it is the call of any who really want to accept God's forgiveness into their hearts, into their beings.
But it doesn't end there, either. Accepting God's forgiveness frees us. It frees us to start again and it frees us to release the feelings of guilt, sometimes shame, and inadequacy. But it also calls us forward. Accepting God's forgiveness calls us into two actions out of our gratitude for what God has done for us. The first thing that it asks us to do is to try to set right the wrong we have done, to try to make amends or fix it, to work to bring healing and restoration to broken situations and broken relationships. The second thing it calls us to is to change our behavior so that we don't make the same mistakes, create the same injuries, do the same damage and or harm others (or even the same person(s)) in the same way in the future.
None of this is easy. Many times we would rather stay angry and remain focused on the harm that's been done to us, rather than on how we have contributed to a painful or broken situation, or how we have hurt others. If I can stay angry at you, then I don't have to look at my own part in the situation. I also don't have to figure out how to make amends, and I don't have to change any of my own behavior or actions because I can keep telling myself it is YOU who are at fault and YOU who did wrong and YOU who need to change. Unfortunately, that attitude does not ever lead to healing. And not just for the relationship or the situation or the other person. I see people caught in anger, and their lives become more and more bitter, more and more lonely, more and more angry. They live as victims, feeling that life is unfair or unjust. They can develop physical ailments as well (which is not to say that people are at fault for their physical illnesses. There are many reasons for physical illness. But I do think that anger can and does contribute in some cases...that our bodies and our spirits just aren't completely separate.). I also see that while we can try hard to deny our own sin and our own contributions to broken relationships, that it is the people who are most adept at doing this who actually have the lowest self-esteem. This is one of those paradoxes and ironies of life. And I guess the only way I can understand this is that, first of all, somewhere inside of us we know that we have done wrong. But when we fail to acknowledge it to ourselves or to make amends to others, we are never able to actually take in the forgiveness that God offers. We can't accept it when we can't acknowledge the pain we have caused, ask for forgiveness, and accept that forgiveness into our hearts and beings. So our guilt and our shame eat us from the inside, cause us to feel bad about ourselves, and erode our sense of value and self-worth.
There are strong reasons why 12-step programs call people to look at their own mistakes, to own them, to accept God's forgiveness and then to correct them, to make amends. People with addictions can be angry, accusing and self-righteous people (spoken from self-experience). But as long as they stay in that angry, self-righteous place, they cannot let go of their addictions. It is only when they stop putting the "sin" out there, onto others, and instead look at their own mistakes and work to correct them that they can let go of their addictions as well.
I'm reminded of the last Harry Potter book in which J.K. Rowling states that the only way Voldemort (or anyone) can really heal or be saved is to feel remorse for what they have done. And that this is the most painful state of being that a person can experience, and because of that, it is seldom chosen by those who have truly done harm.
Can we chose it? Can we choose to really look at what we have done so that we can release the guilt and accept God's forgiveness? Can we choose to accept starting anew? Can we do our best then to make amends and to change our ways? That is the goal, but it is a journey and a challenge for all but the best of us. My prayer today is that we can continue to walk forward on this journey towards wholeness and God's shalom.