Hard Knocks #3:
When relationships break down: Sin and Forgiveness
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
John the Baptist strangely announced Jesus in this way.
Hard knocks: when we lose important relationships – many ways: through death or physical separation, or through conflict, anger, hurt, and sin.
All week, as I thought about this, I kept coming back to one matter of central concern to Christians: forgiveness.
I’m reminded of a story from my extended family: in middle age, one member of our family had a fight of some kind with his brother. The two cut off the relationship and did not speak for over 20 years, though they lived near each other. It took the death of their sister to break the ice. What a waste – 20 years without your brother! No fight, no grudge is worth that loss.
A strange saying of Jesus begins to make sense in this context:
“When you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; when you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23)
God forgives sin readily, eagerly: we know that through the suffering love of Jesus. But humans do not forgive so easily. We are good at grudges, we can nurse them along like some prized orchid…as if they were things of beauty!
Yet we see the devastation we work when we don’t, can’t, refuse to forgive. We think we are hurting the one who hurt us: getting back at him; making her suffer; tit-for-tat. Sometimes that’s true. But mostly, we are planting a cancer in our own hearts that will grow and infiltrate and destroy all that is good and joyful in our lives.
Think of a time when you really struggled to forgive someone who hurt you deeply. What happened? Were you able to forgive in time? Is the hurt still festering in your heart today?
I can think of several cases, when I felt so hurt and misused, I just couldn’t let go of the injury and resentment that filled my heart. One time, I kept going over the matter in my head, like a loop tape I could not turn off. I prayed for release. I created a small ritual to represent letting go of the resentment I felt…by writing it down, praying to let go, and then burning the paper. I went to therapy and talked it through. Eventually, the resentment faded, and I was able to understand, and forgive.
French saying: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner.
When all is understood, all will be forgiven. It’s a nice, hopeful thought, and I’ve often wondered if it is true. Perhaps that’s part of what heaven is about: when we have full understanding, we can accept others, and ourselves, as we are, warts and all.
Rituals may help us. We Anglicans like our rituals! I have a book on marking life events with blessings and rituals, including “A blessing ritual for a broken trust” – for acknowledging an affair outside of marriage, and pledging to work to restore the relationship. This is hard, hard work to do, and we need to ask God’s help with it. There are other rituals for asking release from long-held anger and resentment. These are all grouped under the heading: “Letting Go.” In the end, that’s what forgiveness is: letting go…and giving it up to God.
Because sin and pain are real, we have to make room for sorrow in our faith, in our church life – not to dwell on it endlessly, but to acknowledge that sorrow that is a real part of human life. Hymns help us with this:
To think on Jesus: “When I survey the wondrous cross….”
To remember how much God has forgiven us: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy…”
There are Christian preachers who seem to promise a perpetual rose garden in life – if we believe the right things, maintain a positive attitude, behave the right way…and send money to their television “ministry”! But that’s not the way life is really.
Any religious faith worth its salt has to make room for sorrow, the honest grief that comes from real losses. We love to celebrate the good things in life at church – babies born, weddings, all the blessings of our lives – and that’s good to do. But we also need to grieve death and loss. Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers can teach us something about this, in their emphasis on Jesus’ suffering sacrifice on the cross….
MLK Day – a day that calls us to remember the more sordid and shameful parts of our national history, and to renew our commitment to equal opportunity, fair treatment, and justice in this country. I am reading the acclaimed new novel “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead. It is an excellent novel, but it is hard to read of the sordid ways white people terrorized black people through fear, beatings, sexual abuse, and mutilations of black bodies. God knows, there is much horrific sin here; so much to be rectified, so much to be forgiven. It is staggering. Any offense ever done to me, as a free, privileged, white male, is tiny by comparison.
While many changes in law and society have reduced the horrors faced by black people in the United States, we have a long way to go. Black lives do matter, and we must say so, because they are the ones who are getting shot so often. Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that control over black bodies was at the heart of slavery, and then of Jim Crow, and we, as a society, still use violence to control black bodies.
We are not there yet; the struggle must continue. Dr. King exhibited an amazing ability to refrain from lashing out in anger and violence, even though he was surely provoked. Did he forgive his tormenters? We don’t know his heart, but in his words and actions he portrayed a forgiving nature, even as he fought the wrongs against African Americans.
So, forgiveness is hard, very hard. Sin is real; we hurt each other terribly. Relationships are broken, and may never recover. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we can strive to forgive. We can work at it. We can pray for it. We can ask God to help us do it, because God clearly has sharpened God’s forgiveness skills for millennia dealing with human beings. Remember that story about Adam, Eve, and the serpent?
We started with the strange name by which John the Baptist announced Jesus: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” So, can Jesus really do this – take away our sins? Well, yes: he reaches out to us and offers to take all our sins upon himself. It’s an amazing gift of love. But we have to be willing to hand our sins to him, and not just our sins, but our grudges, our bitterness, our dearly-held resentments against others. And that’s where forgiveness comes in. We have to let them go: open our hands and our hearts, and let the cancer drain out of us. It’s one of life’s greatest challenges, and it promises life’s greatest rewards.