I have always loved these scriptures from Matthew. I have always loved these passages in which Jesus tells us to let go of our anger, to forgive, to love our enemies. These verses are central to my understanding of God, a God of radical and all inclusive love who calls us to also be about loving everyone, especially those we most fear or even hate.
But it became different for me at the point at which I actually found myself having people who felt like enemies. It was easy to preach about loving your enemies when I didn’t have any enemies. Yes, there were people with whom I became angry, people who had hurt me, especially as a child. There were people whom I struggled to forgive, but these gave me room for growth. I saw these relationships as opportunities for me to learn to let go of anger, to learn to forgive. I recognized through these situations that forgiveness is for those of us doing the forgiving much more than it is for the one forgiven. But it was different at the point at which my children were experiencing intolerable unkindness in the community. It was different when people were making judgments against them based on misinformation, half-information, and at the point at which my children were being treated wrongly for something they had no hand in. When people you love, especially innocent people like children, are being persecuted, when their quality of life is significantly altered because of others’ behavior, when you are stuck and cannot get out of a situation with repeated experiences of unkindness and mistreatment, that is much, much harder to forgive. I also found that just as a loss can bring up other losses (like when someone we care about dies, sometimes we find ourselves grieving other people we’ve lost at other times), that the injustices that surrounded my kids and I brought up all kinds of other times when I had seen or experienced unfair or unkind behavior. And while on the outside I could act with kindness and compassion, inside it was very, very difficult to let go of the anger I was feeling.
But I will tell you again what I have said before: we are called to forgiveness not for the sake of the other person, but for our own sake. It was my dis-ease that I was seeking to heal by striving to let go of my anger. It was the turmoil inside of me that needed to be released so that I could live a full life. “Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
I have shared with you before about a friend of mine, Erin, who grew up in an abusive household. Without going through the entire story again, it is enough to say that it took her a long time to forgive her parents, but in doing so, she found herself released from years of anger, rage, and pain. Her forgiveness of the other changed her. C.S. Lewis says, “I do not pray so that I may change God. I pray so that God may change me.” The same applies to forgiveness.
Corrie Ten Boom wrote extensively about her experience in Nazi Concentration camps and what followed. She wrote, “Since the end of the war, I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.” But that didn’t make it easy. Years after her concentration camp experiences in Nazi Germany, Corrie ten Boom met face to face one of the most cruel and heartless German guards that she had ever contacted. He had humiliated and degraded her and her sister and worse. Now he stood before her with hand outstretched and said, “Will you forgive me?” She wrote, “I stood there with coldness clutching at my heart, but I know that the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. I prayed, “Jesus, help me!” Woodenly, mechanically I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother,” I cried with my whole heart. For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard, the former prisoner. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did in that moment!”
We know this. Lack of forgiveness hurts US. When Jesus say, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; and if you don’t forgive them, they are retained” the person who retains them is the one who fails to forgive. We have a choice when we have been injured. We can get stuck in the pain, the injury and injustice, the anger, or we can forgive and accept the peace that Jesus offers us. The passing of the peace is supposed to be a time of forgiving one another. We can offer and accept peace into our hearts, into our beings BECAUSE we have forgiven others and have been forgiven. Peace is the consequence of that forgiveness, it is the outcome of that forgiveness, both given and received.
No matter what happens, no matter how things are going, the greatest damage we can allow anyone to do to us would be if we allowed them to injure our souls. Hanging on to anger and hatred, staying in that place of terror and even the “revenge thinking” that wants to take up so much space in our psyches, if we allow this, that is the way we would allow others to permanently injure us and even to destroy our souls. If we want to take back our power, if we want to refuse to be destroyed, the only way we can do that is by choosing God and choosing to do as God would have us do. The only way we can survive is by choosing love, choosing forgiveness, choosing to let go of anger, pain, and as much as possible, fear, and to live instead in a spirit of hope, forgiveness and even prayer for our enemies. Praying for our enemies -praying for their wholeness that they might have the strength to search for truth, praying for their well-being so that they may have the desire to do good, praying for them wisdom and truth and love and even joy because we believe that, too, comes from God and brings about transformation, redemption, and life: that is part of what we are called to do. It is not all of what we are called to do. We still are called to stand up for those who are suffering. But praying for our enemies is a starting place in what we are called to do.
The result for me is that I, too, find that I am changed by my prayers. I find that as I pray for “enemies”, that they become more human in my mind and less the incarnation of evil that my most fearful and angry moments push me to believe. I find that as I pray for them I gain a sense of deepened hope. As I pray for them, my mind sees more beauty around me, more light in dark corners, more possibility of redemption and reconciliation. I see God more fully, through praying for those I see as enemies.
I invite the same for you. Pray for those you most fear. Pray for those with whom you are most angry. Pray for those who feel like enemies. And allow those prayers to heal you, to change you, to transform you, to make each of us more into the people God calls us to be. Again, we don’t stop there. But when we can act in love and hope and the strength that comes from a peaceful heart rather than in anger and hate, we have a much greater chance of making real change.
One night in the Bronx a man named Julio Diaz was walking down a subway stair case when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife. Diaz gave him his wallet, but as the teen began to walk away, Diaz said to him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The robber looked at his victim like “why are you doing this?”
Diaz continued, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, you must really need the money. I’m just wanting to get dinner and if you want to join me, you’re more than welcome.”
The teen agreed and they went to a local diner. The manager came by, the dishwasher came by, the waiters came by to say hi, and the teen said, “you know everyone here. Do you own the place?”
“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz told the teen. The confused teen said, “But you even talked to the dishwashers!”
Diaz responded, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everyone?”
“Yes, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.
Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. The teen looked very sad but either couldn’t or simply didn’t answer him. Finally the bill arrived. Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this because you have my money and I can’t pay for it. But if you give me back my wallet, however, I’ll gladly treat you.” But then he also asked the kid if he would give him something in return for his paying for the meal. The teen agreed and gave him his knife. Diaz said later, “I figure if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right, too.”
It is not easy to forgive. It is not easy to love and wish good for those whom we fear, those who have hurt us, those who have power over us. But the cost of failing to use those gifts that God gives us, to reach out with grace and the accept and offer forgiveness is high: lack of healing, anger, poison in our very minds and souls. In contrast, the reward for succeeding is peace – the deep peace that surpasses all understanding. Amen.