I wrote this to my Church Forgiveness Sunday morning:
I got up early this morning to blow the snow off my driveway, but the snow is too wet to blow. My snow blower is no match for ten inches (24 cm) of wet snow, and my back is no match for more than a few runs at it with a snow shovel. I will not be able to make it to Church today.
However, I would like to write a few words to you about forgiveness.
Our Gospel reading today is from the Sermon on the Mount which is found in Matthew chapters 5 – 7. Today’s reading is from chapter 6, verses 14 – 21. This reading follows and is a bit of an explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, particularly the line “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here is the passage:
If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
When you think about it, fasting, praying and giving alms are all easy compared to forgiving. All you have to do in order to fast or pray or give is to make yourself do it. You might say, but “making myself do it” is not very easy. True, unless you really want to do it.
I will tell you a true story. When I was a deacon many years ago, we met for daily matins at 6:00 am every day. We had a young man in our community who was unemployed and in a public way vowed that he would attend morning matins to pray. However, after a couple of weeks, he slowly stopped attending. A friend of mine asked him why, and he said, “6:00 am is just too early. I just can’t do it.” It was only a few weeks later that this young man got a great job. It was a union job with great pay and amazing benefits. The job was much more than the young man had ever hoped for. It was a job driving a bread delivery truck, and the work day started at 3:00 am. Suddenly, getting up early was not so hard. It seems the difficulty of any discipline depends a great deal on how important you really think that discipline is.
Just about any discipline that has to do with the body, if you really think that discipline is important, is mostly just a matter of making yourself do it; but forgiveness is not merely a bodily matter. Forgiveness is a matter of the soul, of the heart. Forgiveness is not so easy.
On its most basic level, forgiveness means that you will not seek revenge. It means that you are letting go of your right to get even. When you forgive someone, you stop punishing them in your mind. It means that you stop rehearsing in your mind how much they hurt you.
However, forgiveness does not mean that you continue to allow someone to hurt you. That is, you can forgive someone, but that doesn’t mean that you trust that person. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting that it ever happened. Rather, forgiveness is commending to God your pain and the suffering you have endured, and commending to God’s judgement and justice the one(s) who caused your suffering. When you forgive, you let go of your right to demand punishment and retribution, entrusting that God is the only One who can bring justice–in this world or in the next.
However, the problem with our mind is that even if one moment I determine to forgive someone, the next moment I find myself again thinking angry thoughts of revenge against that person. Unlike fasting and prayer and alms giving, I can’t just make myself do it. Rather, I have to forgive, and then forgive again, and then forgive again, and then forgive again. Forgiveness is not something I can do just once and it’s done. The thoughts and the memories keep coming back. The scars in my mind are just too painful.
So what do we do? We fall and we get back up again. This is what spiritual warfare is. We fall and we get back up again. I forgive, and then I fall back into thoughts of anger and revenge. Then I get back up again and forgive.
But what if I don’t even want to forgive? What do I do then? I heard a wise nun once say, “If you can’t forgive, then at least want to forgive. And if you don’t even want to forgive, at least want to want to forgive. And if you don’t even want to want to forgive, then at least want to want to want to forgive.” You get the idea. God will accept a start, even if the start is very far from where you need to be. Like the prodigal son in a foreign land, you begin where you are and start walking. And as the Father rushed out to meet the prodigal son, God will rush out to accept our small attempts to move toward forgiveness.
Please forgive me,
Your unworthy priest,