catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 6 :: 2005.03.25 — 2005.04.07


Giving grace

Forgiveness for Jesus came easily. Even when he was dying on the cross he had the capacity to see the good in the very people who caused him so much pain. Forgiveness was freely granted, no matter what someone had or had not done to deserve it. Even to a party crasher from the wrong side of town.

For you and me, forgiveness is usually not so easy. Someone hurts us. Someone betrays us. Someone rejects or abandons us. Someone lies to us. Someone takes advantage of us. Someone hurts someone we love. We are angry. It's not fair, it's not right. We wonder, "Why should I forgive? How can I forgive?"

And the fact is, sometimes forgiveness can be a dangerous thing to do. When we forgive before taking care of ourselves, forgiveness can be lethal. I'm reminded of the play Oliver that my husband and I recently attended. Nancy sings about loving her abusive boyfriend, staying with him right or wrong as long as he needs her. But by the end of the play, he has killed her. Safety must come first and self-protection always takes precedent over quick forgiveness.

Once protections are in place, the important work of forgiveness can begin and must begin for our own sake. Forgiveness is an essential part of OUR healing. That is why I should forgive, why it's worth learning how to forgive—because as contrary as it sounds, forgiveness really isn't something we do for someone else (although they can be affected by it too). Forgiveness is really something we do for ourselves—so that we can move into the future without being burdened by grievances of the past.

People do terrible things to each other. Relationships are torn apart. Even when there is no physical harm, psychic damage is even more lasting and painful. All of us have unfinished business—relationships that are unresolved. And healing unfinished business is one of our most important spiritual tasks. How do you know a relationship is unfinished business? It's unfinished if it still makes you uncomfortable emotionally or if you still expect something from the other person.

We need three things before we can even start to reach a level of comfort and release from unfinished business. First, a desire for healing. Second, the courage to experience the unpleasant feelings that will arise. Third, the willingness to learn something about ourselves.

Forgiveness allows us to shed toxic feelings and free ourselves of revenge and resentment so that the original hurt stops throbbing. You may have been terribly wounded, I have been terribly wounded, but those wounds do not have to keep being inflicted upon us, re-inflamed by our own heart and mind.

So we journey forward with forgiveness as our destination. Forgiveness is an inner state not an outer act. Forgiveness is not something we can simply decide to do. It is something that happens once we have struggled with our feelings, searched for meaning, and healed. Forgiveness is a process that may take one night or many years.

In Buddhism there is a state of compassionate detachment—the ability to step outside of one's own self, above the human level, to see the wider view of humanity. If we try to see our tangle of hurts and emotions from God's point of view, things take on another dimension.

God knows all of the hurts that both sides have experienced in their pasts, and how that past pain contributed to the current dispute. God knows how that pain makes each of them act out in ways that hurt others and themselves. God doesn't pick sides. God just sees the tragedy of human victims trying to make their way in a difficult world while carrying their own wounds and scars.

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus creates a stir through his act of forgiveness. Who do you think had the harder time witnessing this woman being forgiven? The guests who knew of her reputation? Perhaps the one guest in the crowd who used to love her? Or the woman herself?

Sometimes the person it is most difficult for us to forgive is ourselves. In the movie The Mission the Portuguese want to take over a Jesuit mission to the natives of the Brazilian rainforest so they can enslave the people. Mendoza is a soldier of fortune involved in the battle. When he returns from one of his raids, he finds his lover with his brother. Blinded by feelings of hurt and betrayal, he kills his brother. In penance for his life of wickedness, Mendoza physically drags his armor and weapons behind him, just as he lugs around his guilt. When he can barely take another step, a priest cuts him free from his burden. But Mendoza returns to it, picks it up and continues to carry it with him.

Given absolute grace, Mendoza cannot yet accept such freedom. How many of us having been forgiven continue to drag our shortcomings, our sins, our mistakes and failings with us throughout our life, even when the weight causes us to stumble, even when it keeps us from moving forward at all? We hear the good news of forgiveness that Jesus speaks, but still find ourselves returning to our guilt and shame, refusing to let it go. Refusing to live in God?s grace.

Can we who strive to be compassionate toward others learn to see ourselves with compassionate eyes? Can we remove ourselves from our twisted snarls of guilt and past failures so that we can get on with what God has in store for us? Guilt disables us. But forgiveness frees us to live lives of love and grace toward others.

In the scripture reading we heard Jesus say, "Your sins are forgiven." This is a misstatement of the Greek. It should actually read, "Your sins have been forgiven." It is not her act of love and devotion that earns her forgiveness. It is the knowledge that she has been forgiven completely that moves her to an extravagant expression of her love.

Jesus' acts of forgiveness break into human lives without even being asked for, transforming us, how we understand God, how we live our lives and utilize our resources. It touches every aspect of our existence. And it brings us not to an intellectually polite "thank you" but to blubbering, messy, wholehearted devotion.

One of my favorite scenes of forgiveness is in the play Les Miserable. Near the beginning of the play Jean Valjean is released from prison but is unable to find work because of his status as a former convict. He is finally taken in by a local Bishop. But in the night, Valjean leaves the Bishop's home taking a silver cup with him as he goes. He is soon arrested and brought back to the Bishop's house.

The officers tell the Bishop Valjean's story of having been given the cup as a gift. The Bishop responds, "That is right. But my friend you left too early, surely something slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also, would you leave the best behind?" And Valjean finds himself the recipient of two silver candlesticks. This act of unmerited mercy and undeserved grace will transform Valjean into a man of exceptional care and concern for others.

Forgiveness is not given to us because we love. Forgiveness stirs up in us the power to love?and in time the power to forgive.

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