Forgiveness and faith

December 23rd, 2014

The difficulty of forgiveness

In her book “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” Rachel Naomi Remen tells about going to a Yom Kippur service at which the rabbi was to speak about forgiveness. Before he spoke, he walked into the congregation where his wife was sitting, picked up their daughter into his arms, and carried her up to the podium. The adorable little girl, about a year old, smiled at the congregation and won their hearts. They watched as she patted her father on the cheek, and he beamed at her.

Then the rabbi began his sermon about the meaning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When the little girl realized that her father’s attention was no longer on her, she grabbed his nose. He gently removed her hand and continued his sermon. Then she reached for his tie and put it in her mouth. The congregation laughed softly as he retrieved his tie. Then she hugged his neck. Looking over her head, the rabbi said to the congregation, “Think about it. Is there anything she could do that you could not forgive her for?” Of course, the congregation thought about their own children and grandchildren. Then the little girl reached up and grabbed her father’s glasses. The congregation laughed again and so did the rabbi as he took back his glasses. Waiting until there was silence, he asked, “And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?”

These questions reflect our struggle with forgiveness — our difficulty with practicing forgiveness and our forgetfulness that the person who hurts or harms us is also a child of God — and they evoke other questions. How do we forgive those who have hurt us? How do we forgive ourselves? Does forgiving mean going back to the way things were before we were hurt? Is the maxim “forgive and forget” either possible or wise? How is forgiveness possible in cases of spousal abuse, child abuse, rape, and murder? What does forgiveness mean in cases of systemic (corporate) sin, evil embedded in the very fabric of a society, such as racism, genocide, corporate greed, and various kinds of complicity in upholding structures and policies that harm other people?

Confession and pardon

Forgiveness plays a central role in the Bible and in Christian theology and practice. That centrality is evidenced in the service of Holy Communion, which includes a confession as well as the assurance that we are forgiven. In the context of worship, these words offer promise to contemporary Christians in their struggles to forgive and to be forgiven — there can be fresh beginnings, new life, and restored relationships because of who God is.

The presence of a prayer of confession and words of pardon indicates that worship requires more than our praise and thanksgiving, as essential as they are. As Don Saliers writes in “Worship as Theology,” all “modes of prayer must be brought to the test of truthfulness and honesty in the experience of our ongoing life together.” Confession provides opportunity for facing the truth about who we are before God.

“True confession of sin before God is not an indulging of our guilt or a massaging of our feelings of sorrow,” writes Saliers. “Rather, it is directed toward amendment of life. This is why confessing is always in mutual relation to reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Forgiveness in the Bible

A central Old Testament teaching is that God, who makes and keeps covenant with us, is merciful and forgiving. God makes covenants with Noah, Moses, David, and the people of Israel. Throughout the Old Testament, when people break these covenants, God continues to be forgiving and stands ready to restore the relationship. God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, NRSV).

In the New Testament, forgiveness is embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus, who offers forgiveness of sin and healing to the broken. In Mark 2:1-12, we find the story of Jesus forgiving the sins of a paralytic and healing him, actions that incense some of the scribes when they see that Jesus has the power and authority to forgive sins.

God’s offer of forgiveness does not negate our being accountable for our failures, but it reminds us that the nature of God is always to have mercy. We see this mercy illustrated in Luke 15 in the parables of the lost sleep, the lost coin, and the lost son. However, though God’s offer of forgiveness stands, human beings are called to repent. The Hebrew word for “repent” means to turn or to return to God. The Greek word for “repent” means to think differently or to reconsider. Through this turning to God, through this reconsidering what God wants us to be, we accept God’s gift of forgiveness.

Human forgiveness is another matter. Do we have to forgive in order for God to forgive?

Thoughtful Christians disagree about this subject. Some would say yes and cite the Lord’s Prayer as an example: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, NRSV). Others, like Pamela Cooper-White, point out that this verse is an analogy; it asks that God forgive us just as we forgive the debts of those who owe us money.

Forgiveness in Christian theology

God calls us to be in right relationship with other people, with communities, with God, and with all of creation. God’s intention for us is that we live in relationships that are characterized by love, justice, and honesty, but we fail. In theological terms, we sin against our neighbors and stand in need of forgiveness and, where possible, restored relationships. Our sin is sometimes corporate in that we participate in systems that harm others. Examples are sexism, racism, and mechanisms in society that promote a growing gap between the very rich and the poor, consumerism, and degradation of the environment.

Into the morass of our failures and brokenness, God graciously offers forgiveness. What does God intend through offering forgiveness? Joretta Marshall writes in “How Can I Forgive?” that the Christian tradition makes three theological claims that help us understand the process of forgiveness. First, we are called to be in right relationship with God, ourselves, other people, and all of creation. Second, we break relationships through individual and corporate sin. Third, God intends that our relationships be characterized by justice, reconciliation, and wholeness. Marshall writes, “As we move through the process of forgiveness, we find ways to restore and reclaim God’s intentions for the world.”

The process of forgiveness

Marshall contends that “forgiveness is the process into which God invites us as we seek to restore our relationships with one another, with ourselves, with our communities, with the world, and ultimately with God.” This definition challenges some popular notions about forgiveness: that it can happen quickly, that it is entirely a personal endeavor, and that it is only about getting rid of anger and pain.

Marshall describes the movements in the process of forgiveness. After harm or injustice has occurred, it is recognized and named. The person harmed has an emotional response to the pain. Ideally, the next step is that there is mutual movement to repentance, change, and restitution. Then change occurs in the dynamics of multiple relationships, not just in the relationship of the forgiver and perpetrator. Then there are possible movements toward reconciliation, although reconciliation may never be reached.

The goal of the process is healthier relationships with others and with God. Marshall says, “What we hope for in the process of forgiveness is that the honesty of naming our hurts, pains, sins, and injustices will lead us not only to a deeper awareness of God’s grace but will also lead us to embrace the fullness and abundance of our relationships with one another and with ourselves.”

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