Incorporate forgiveness into your daily life
February 17, 2023
"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder;' and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."
- Matthew 5:21-24 (NRSV)
So let's talk about forgiveness. Rarely is forgiveness mentioned in the news; even less so is it mentioned in our penal systems. But for a nation that has so many so-called Christians, don't you think we should hear more often about forgiveness?
As we transition from Christendom to whatever else is coming, my hope would be that those who practice following Jesus become once again adept at forgiveness and lift up this primary expression of Christian practice. My hope would also be that those who are already good at forgiveness, whatever their faith, be lifted up in our communities as examples to follow.
With that said, let me offer a small practice to adopt if you are willing to approach forgiveness as a daily practice.
First, if you are a follower of Jesus, accept the "free space" of Jesus' forgiveness given to all. We who follow Jesus claim to be able to do so because of the "grace" shared by Jesus by dying at the cross and the power of his subsequent resurrection. While this is a miraculous power and both unearned and often unappreciated, forgiveness is a gift we are called to accept before even starting the daily following of Jesus.
If you are not a Jesus follower, still know that as a part of creation, you are worthy to be here. Forgiveness has value only if we understand our own value. You can't offer sincere forgiveness if you can't understand your own value and your own need to receive forgiveness.
The second step I'd offer this week to practice forgiveness is saying, "I'm sorry." Whether you created the problem or brokenness someone is sharing, being emotionally present and apologizing for the person sharing their hurt is the next step for healing. So often, brokenness is all around us, but we get so defensive - "I didn't do it!" - that we fail to even listen to people's stories. Right now, in our community, people have complaints about behaviors that have come from the Christian community. Their complaints are valid, if for no other reason than they are sharing them. It doesn't mean you or I did the thing they are saying hurt them, but we are connected to it by belief, name and practice, however distant the connection. If the Christian faith is going to have any long-term meaningful interaction with our community, we need to get used to saying, "I'm sorry." This isn't enough, but it is a good start.
Finally, if we are to learn to practice forgiveness, we need to pursue meaningful change. We must admit wrongdoing and then pledge to behaviors that lead to change. You may have noticed that I'm not talking about when other people need to ask for forgiveness; we have no control over them, nor should we. Compulsion has no place in the act of forgiveness, except as created as a spiritual pressure that must be relieved.
Telling someone who has been harmed (word, thought or deed) that they must forgive is gaslighting and has no place in faith or expression. It is a sign of an unhealthy relationship and does not validate their harm. Forgiveness is what we do, not what we tell others to do.
Yet there is no limit to how many times we might recognize ourselves as beloved creations who are forgiven, that we can listen and place ourselves within the stories people share, and when appropriate, ask forgiveness and seek the ways that we can work to change our behaviors.
Even as I write this, I'm reminded of the places where I need to seek forgiveness and mend fences. That is my calling. I can offer a truckload of reasons why pursuing forgiveness is healthy and life-affirming for anyone. Yet for the Christian community, this is both our birthright; we are forgiven by God and therefore are to emulate this by practicing forgiveness and asking it and growing within it until we can't anymore.
Contact writer Reverend Brian Cornell of Northwood United Methodist Church at [email protected]