16913 Germantown Road
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Forgiveness: Is it Possible or Necessary?
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 12/11/2005
For many of us, forgiveness is a Christian concept. In the New Testament, there are several mentions of the need for forgiveness. Jesus mentions that before one places one's gift upon the altar, one should reconcile with any one for whom one feels anger. He also tells us that we should forgive others so that we may be forgiven. Jesus teaches that God is a loving and forgiving God who is the model for our forgiveness for others.
These concepts of forgiveness that many of us learned from our parents and in our churches or religious schools sounded plausible. The "right" way to be always seemed to be the forgiving way. The story of the Prodigal Son, for instance, tells of a wayward son who takes his inheritance, squanders it away, leaving his father's estate for years and returns penniless and hungry. The father, seeing his son, after many years of not hearing anything from him, welcomes his son back with a feast and open arms. The loyal, hard-working son who has stayed by his side stands by, resentful and angry, watching this scene and wondering why the wayward son is being received with such love and tenderness when he has done nothing to deserve it. The father says to the loyal son that everything that the father has is his and he is always with the loyal son. The father points out that this other son was lost and now is found and they should rejoice. The story seems to tell us that Jesus sees God this way - as a father who forgives us, the wayward children, and welcomes us back in a loving way.
However, these stories and teachings are not always easy to understand and apply when it comes to considering serious abuse and destructive behavior. Many people have experienced hurtful relationships where the behavior perpetrated against them could be said to be unforgivable. Domestic violence, sexual abuse, severe emotional abuse, rape, and incest are acts that we cannot understand or easily forgive. How can a person who has been severely abused accept these Christian teachings and simply "turn the other cheek"?
In fact, many churches perpetuated the idea that women who have been in abusive marriages should simply forgive their husbands and stick it out in their marriages. This teaching, which continues as doctrine in some churches, is a destructive and hurtful theology. "Turning the other cheek" long thought of as the "Christian" way to act was exposed by the women's movement and by black theologians during the seventies as an oppressive doctrine. Turning the other cheek can only result often in getting hit again on the other cheek.
Sacrifice has been seen as the cornerstone of Christian theology based on salvation theology. God is seen to have "given" his son into death in order to "purchase" our salvation. Theology based on sacrifice encourages martyrdom. For too long abuse in families and in churches was seen as a private matter to be handled by the patriarchal powers who often perpetrated the abuse in the first place.
This kind of acceptance of sacrifice also teaches that one must forgive one's abusers. The Lord's prayer that many of us recited growing up asks God to "forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us". It seems to be one big deal we make with God to get away with our own sins as long as we are willing to excuse the wrongs done against us.
This kind of "forgiveness" is often not healthy because it does not recognize the deep anger and pain that may result from serious abuse. And it does not recognize that hurting and oppressing others is wrong and must not be condoned.
The readings we did this morning from Jack Kornfield's The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace reminds us, "Forgiveness does not forget, nor does it condone the past… It willingly acknowledges what is unjust, harmful, and wrong. It bravely recognizes the sufferings of the past, and understands the conditions that brought them about. There is a strength to forgiveness. When we forgive we can also say, 'Never again will I allow these things to happen.' We may resolve to never again permit such harm to come to ourselves or another."
So, forgiveness begins with an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. That doesn't mean that the person who has harmed you needs to acknowledge their wrongdoing. It's enough that you acknowledge that you have been harmed.
Forgiveness in psychological literature, as opposed to Christian doctrine, has more to do with how the person who feels harm deals with the hot coal of anger and resentment that they feel burning themselves from within. While Christian forgiveness might deal with reconciliation, many of the people writing about forgiveness today talk more about the inner workings of a person carrying around deep anger and resentment.
One current author defines forgiveness as "the elimination of all desire for revenge and personal ill will toward those who deeply wronged or betrayed us." This author says that the reconciliation or repentance by the wrongdoer long seen as necessary in a Christian mode of forgiveness is not necessary for the person who is wronged. Forgiveness can be seen as a one person act, an internal process which takes time for long term healing much as the grieving process.
Catherine Ponder writes that "When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free."
Forgiveness when taken out of a Christian context, is not something that makes harm done to others nice, but allows the person dealing with the harm able to begin to heal the painful scars and dissolve the hard knots that hold that person hostage and can actually cause physical pain and disease.
The pain that we feel when we've been hurt by others is real. It keeps us awake at night tossing and turning and unable to sleep. It causes real stomach cramps and can cause ulcers. Some say that cancer could be caused by holding onto anger about the hurts that one has endured. Holding on and not letting go of this anger and hurt, allowing it to fester within us can weaken our defenses against disease.
Douglas Showalter is a United Church of Christ minister whose parents divorced when he was in high school. The acrimonious divorce caused his father to turn against his three sons. In an effort of retaliation, his father circulated a vicious letter to friends filled with hate-filled accusations about his sons. His father moved to Canada to avoid paying child support. Rev. Showalter spoke to his father only twice after that. In both conversations, his father continued to demonstrate his hatred and anger towards his sons.
For twenty-nine years Doug Showalter harbored the deep anger and resentment this relationship with his father had created. He describes this feeling as a "fiery bed of simmering coals". But as a clergy, he began to see the results of stored anger and resentment in others. While he was developing a sermon on forgiveness, he began to realize how his inability to forgive his father was destroying him. He set out on a "journey of forgiveness". His journey included prayer, self reflection, and sharing with others. His journey was not an easy one. It took him over two years after he had recognized his need for resolving his dilemma for him to have a break-through. He finally began to feel his anger toward his father dissolve, years after he had learned of his father's death. He felt that it was grace that God had sent him that allowed him to reach a final letting go of his "burning coals" of anger. He said that he still considered his father's actions wrong but he no longer bore him ill will. He began to see how damaged his father had been to have acted in the way that he did.
Rev. Showalter writes about how much pain he felt in his life until he found a way to release the anger he had stored for so many years against his father. He never considered his father's acts as excusable but he knew that he had to let go of what was continuing to make his own life miserable. Many psychologists today say that forgiveness is a psychologically necessary process for healing old wounds. I would say it is also necessary spiritually to find wholeness in the world.
Jack Kornfield says "We may still be suffering terribly from the past while those who betrayed us are on vacation. It is painful to hate. Without forgiveness we continue to perpetuate the illusion that hate can heal our pain and the pain of others."
Forgiveness allows us to let go of a cancer in our life, something that has destroyed our own peace. When we can let go of that pain, we can move on.
Authors talking about forgiveness often mention "stages or steps" in forgiveness much as in grieving. Some of those stages have to do with moving past the anger and the centering on feelings of ill will toward the other person. Once a person has moved past the anger and can begin to take acceptance for their own feelings, they may begin to understand that they have the power to change how they feel about what has happened to them. Understanding that holding onto anger is only hurting themselves more is the beginning of the forgiveness process.
In this process, remembering that forgiving is not forgetting or condoning is important. Moving past one's own pain and taking control of one's feelings gives the person who has been hurt great power. But it doesn't mean that the actions perpetrated against you were okay.
Sometimes moving on means understanding the pain of the person who has hurt us. If we could see each bad act as a sign of someone in pain, someone who is calling out for love, we might get closer to releasing our own anger. Seeing past our own pain into the pain of others is difficult when we are still grieving our own loss. Getting past our pain and beginning to see the where the other person is living is a stage in the forgiving process. Moving into this stage may take a long time. And some people may never be able to move to this stage. But some who do, can actually reach out to their perpetrator and change them.
Jack Kornfield tells a story about a fourteen year old boy who was convicted for shooting and killing an innocent teenager in a gang related incident. The victim's mother attended the trial. She sat quietly and impassively throughout the trial. When the verdict was announced and she was asked for her words, she stood and staring directly at the youth said, "I'm going to kill you." The youth was sentenced to several years in a juvenile facility.
After several months, the mother went to visit her son's killer. She talked quietly with him, not mentioning the murder of her son. She gave the young man some money for cigarettes. She started visiting him regularly bringing him food and small gifts on her visits. When after three years, he was eligible for parole, she asked him where he would go and where he would live. He had nowhere to go. She invited him to come and live with her until he got on his feet. She helped him get a job. One evening after he had been there a few months, she came into his room and sat down. I'll read you the rest of the story from Jack Kornfield's book.
Then she started, "Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?" "I sure do,"he replied. "Well, I did," she went on. "I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That's why I started to visit you and bring you things. That's why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That's how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he's gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you'll stay here. I've got room, and I'd like to adopt you if you'll let me." And she became the mother of her son's killer, the mother he never had.
Then she started, "Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?"
"I sure do,"he replied.
"Well, I did," she went on. "I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That's why I started to visit you and bring you things. That's why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That's how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he's gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you'll stay here. I've got room, and I'd like to adopt you if you'll let me." And she became the mother of her son's killer, the mother he never had.
The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, Jack Kornfield, p. 44-46.
Now this is forgiveness in the extreme. This is the kind of forgiveness that Mother Theresa would have shown. It's like the forgiveness that Pope John showed his attempted assassin. Pope John visited his assassin in jail and told him that he forgave him.
But not all of us are capable or want to get to this level of sainthood. And it's not necessary or expected that most of us would. Most of us in dealing with a serious act perpetrated against us may need to seek counseling and develop a spiritual practice that helps us toward releasing our anger and fear.
In our process toward forgiveness, it is necessary to understand the power the perpetrator has over us if we continue to hold onto and nurse our grudges, our anger, and our pain. As long as we hold inside our resentments, we are victims. We continue to be victimized. But when we can slowly dissolve our pain, dissolve our feelings of ill-will, then we become free. We become free to move on to the future, leaving our past hurt and anger behind. Not saying it didn't happen, not saying it was okay, but asserting that while we have been changed, we can now be made anew. We can be free from the destructiveness of holding onto anger.
Releasing anger, letting go of hatred, we are set free.