iResolve Part 5: To Practice Forgiveness
February 4, 2018
Pastor Morris Brown
As you know, we’ve been sharing a worship series the past few weeks entitled iResolve. In this series, we’ve been considering some things our faith says we need to resolve to do to get 2018 off to a great start. We began by resolving to follow the light by doing what we need to do to grow in our relationship with God. Then we talked about resolving to let God tell us who we are by remembering our baptism. The next week we resolved to address the problem of prejudice by building relationships with people who differ from us. And last Sunday we talked about resolving to have a positive attitude in all circumstances of our lives.
Today we come to the fifth message in this series. And I’ve entitled this morning’s message iResolve to Practice the Art of Forgiveness. You see, if we want to get this year off to a great start, we all need to resolve to practice the art of forgiveness. Why do we need to do this? Let me give you three important reasons why.
First, we need to resolve to practice the art of forgiveness because from time to time, people in our lives will say and do things—both intentionally and unintentionally—that will offend us, even hurt us deeply. It may be a family member or a friend, a co-worker or even a person at church. But at some point, it will happen.
Second, we need to resolve to practice the art of forgiveness because forgiveness was one of the main themes of Jesus’ teaching. As author and Franciscan mystic, Richard Rohr says, “Two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels either directly or indirectly has to do with the topic of forgiveness—with the need to forgive.”
This morning’s scripture is an example of this. Peter came to Jesus one day and said, “Lord how often should I forgive someone who’s hurt me—seven times?” Jesus looked at him and said, “No! You should forgive seventy-seven times!” In other words, practicing the art of forgiveness is something you should always do.
Which leads to the third reason we need to practice the art of forgiveness: namely, because the failure to practice the art of forgiveness can have a negative impact on our lives. For example, it can take a toll on us physically. As Hebrews 12:15 puts it, “Do not fail to offer the grace and forgiveness of God. Otherwise, the poisonous root of bitterness will grow in you and cause you much trouble.” This verse reminds us that when we fail to forgive people who’ve hurt us - bitterness, resentment, and anger can begin to build up inside us and eat us alive.
As an article that was put out by The Association of Psychological Science says, “Years of research have concluded that the failure to forgive can damage one’s health. Nursing grudges and chronic anger, which are usually associated with the failure to forgive, can be as damaging to our body as smoking, obesity, and a high fat diet. In fact, the failure to forgive is a risk factor that can lead to an early death!” As someone else once put it, “Holding a grudge, nurturing resentment, failing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die!” The point is, when we fail to practice the art of forgiveness, when we hold on to old wounds, when we keep probing old resentments, it can do serious damage to our physical bodies.
Second, the failure to practice the art of forgiveness can take a relational toll. It can cause pain in the lives of people who had nothing to do with the offense. Let me give you an example from my life: A couple of years ago a friend of mine said something that hurt me. Now, I didn’t say anything to my friend, but I was really bothered by what my friend had said. In fact, that evening when I went home all I could think about was what my friend had said, and how it had made me feel. I didn’t tell Pam what had happened, but I was in a pretty bad mood most of the night, and Pam could tell that something was really bothering me.
Finally, after I’d snapped at her over something minor, she said, “What your deal?” So, I told her what had happened. Do you know what she said? She said, “Morris, you need to go to your friend, talk to him about what happened, and forgive him. Otherwise, you’re going to drive me up the wall!”
You know, Pam was right! My failure to confront and forgive my friend was not only affecting my relationship with him. It was affecting all my relationship with Pam! Failing to practice the art of forgiveness can not only have a negative impact on our relationship with the person who hurt us, it can have a negative impact on all our relationships!
Finally, the failure to practice the art of forgiveness can take a toll on us spiritually. In Matthew 6:15, Jesus said, “If you do not forgive others, God will not forgive you.” And in the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught us to pray regularly, we say “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us!” What Jesus is saying is that if we fail to forgive others it can have a negative effect on our ability to experience God. In other words, if we want to deepen our connection to God, if we want to experience of God’s grace and love in our lives, if we want to be the people God created us to be, we must practice the art of forgiveness.
St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century mystic, put it this way in The Cloud of Unknowing, “The failure to forgive blocks the inflow of God’s love into our lives.” The point is, when you and I fail to forgive it can have a negative impact on our relationship with God. It can become a barrier to experiencing God in our lives.
So, if it’s important for us to practice the art of forgiveness because people will say and do things that hurt us, because forgiveness is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching, and because the failure to forgive can have a negative impact on our lives. How do we practice the art of forgiveness? Here’s what our faith says:
First, to practice the art of forgiveness we must refuse to seek revenge. I love the story of the woman who was bitten by a stray dog. Here doctor said, “Ma’am the dog that bit you might have rabies. If he does, you might have it too!” Hearing this, the woman grabbed a pen and paper and frantically started writing. Thinking he’d scared the woman into thinking she was going to die the doctor said, “Ma’am it will be okay. You’re not going to die! You don’t need to make out a will.” “Oh, I’m not making out a will” the woman said. “Well what are you doing?” the doctor asked. She smiled and said, “Making a list of people I’m going to bite!”
Listen, when people hurt us our first impulse is not usually to forgive. Instead, it is to be like that woman. We want to get them back, to seek revenge. We want an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Yet, Jesus said, “When someone hurts you turn the other cheek.” Paul said, “Do not repay evil with evil, but evil with good.” Gandhi said, “If we live by the ‘eye for an eye’ principle, there will come a day when the whole world goes blind.” What Jesus, Paul, and Gandhi are all saying is, “If someone hurts us we must stop the cycle of violence. Instead of seeking revenge, we must seek to forgive.
This leads to the second step in the process: namely, to practice forgiveness we must reveal and release our pain. In other words, we must not ignore the fact someone has hurt us, but go to that person and, in a gracious but honest way, share how they offended us. We must be like Job, in the Old Testament, who went to friends who hurt him and said, “I can’t be quiet. I am angry and bitter. Listen to my complaint!” We have seen an extreme example of this recently as more than 150 women confronted Dr. Larry Nassar in court—to reveal and release the hurt and humiliation they experienced as a result of the sexual molestation they endured while they were under his care.
If we are going practice the art of forgiveness we must find a way to honestly reveal and release our pain to the person who hurt us. Now, it is best to do this in person. Of course, there are times when safety and circumstances won’t allow us to do that. If so, we may need to choose another way, but we must do it!
Third, to practice the art of forgiveness we need to reach out in reconciliation. We need to do something positive to give reconciliation a chance. This is a way for us to stop being a victim and start being a force for good in the life of the person who hurt us. In a sense, it gives us some control back. As Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Back in the ninth century, King Alfred the Great was the king of England. For years, he helped defend his country against Danish Vikings who often raped and pillaged the English countryside. It is said that when King Alfred finally defeated his enemies, people thought he would destroy them for the offenses they had committed. But, to everyone’s surprise, he did not. Instead, he cared for their injured soldiers, fed their hungry people, committed acts of kindness. He forgave the Danes for what they’d done. These acts of kindness and forgiveness had an interesting effect. They led to the conversion of the Danish king to Christianity and to peace in the land. One historian said, “No greater act of statesmanship was ever performed.” To practice the art of forgiveness, we must do something to reach out toward reconciliation.
Fourth, to practice forgiveness we must rely on external resources. Forgiveness is hard. It’s something we can’t always—in fact, I would say we can never—do alone. Very often to forgive someone who has hurt us, especially if they’ve hurt us deeply, we need the help of other people, the help of God.
Well, the good news is that we have gracious God who is willing to help us, and who will place people in our lives—counselors, pastors, trusted friends and family members—who can help us. As a result, we need to be like the little girl who went for a walk in the park with her dad one day. Eventually, she got tired of walking, so her dad put her on his shoulders. A few minutes later they ran into a family friend. Looking up at her the friend said, “My you’ve grown since I last saw you!” Peering down the little girl said, “Well, not all of this is me!” Practicing the art of forgiveness can’t be all us! We need to rely on the help of God and others!
Fifth, to practice the art of forgiveness we must realize it requires time. When someone hurts us, especially deeply, our ability to forgive and move on in our relationship despite the pain they have caused will not happen overnight. It is a process that may take weeks and months, even years, to work through.
I am reminded of the woman who had been wronged by someone. She went to a priest and said, “I decided to forgive this person and tried to, but I haven’t been able to do it yet. My feelings of anger and hurt remain.” After listening to the woman’s dilemma, the priest said, “In the bell tower of our church there is a bell. When the sexton pulls on the rope the bell rings. But, when the sexton makes the decision to let go of the rope, the bells does not stop ringing, does it? It keeps on ringing—ding, dong, ding, dong—until it finally fades away. So, it is with forgiveness! When we decide to forgive, it takes time to stop ringing.”
Just like a wound in our physical body takes time to heal, a wound to our heart takes time to heal as well. It takes time to work through the plethora of emotions we have. It takes time to rebuild trust. It takes time to find the courage to be vulnerable again. We must realize practicing the art of forgiveness requires time.
Finally, to practice the art of forgiveness we must recognize that forgiving does not mean forgetting. We’ve all heard the old saying, “Forgive and forget,” haven’t we? Maybe we’ve even said it. Well, guess what? Jesus never said it! In fact, that’s even not in the Bible! It’s in Poor Richard’s Almanac.
And although it is a very catchy saying, it’s not always possible. That’s because forgetting something someone did to us, especially if it was very hurtful, is often impossible. As Lewis Smedes says, in his book, The Art of Forgiving, “To ask us to forget, would be like asking us to stop thinking about pink elephants. When you ask someone to do that, it’s all they can do! Forgiving and forgetting are not linked. Forgiveness is what’s required precisely because we can’t forget.” So, practicing the art of forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting what happened. It means we chose to acknowledge it, deal with it, and move on in spite of it!
So, let me ask, is there someone in our lives who has hurt us? If we want to get this year off to a great start, if we want to stop the negative impact that hurt is having on our lives, we may need to resolve to forgive them. We can do it! By refusing to seek revenge. By honestly revealing and releasing our hurt and pain. By reaching out toward reconciliation. By realizing it will require time. By relying on our resources. And, by recognizing that forgiveness does not require forgetfulness.
As we come to the Lord’s Table, let’s invite God to help us to practice the art of forgiveness! So, we can live lives that are healthy and whole!
©Morris A. Brown February 2018