Photo credit: Mimi Moromisato
Readings: Psalm 130, Matthew 6:9-15, Divine Providence #280 (see below)
Forgiveness is one of those topics that seems like it simple on the outside, but actually contains multitudes within it. I believe this is partly because forgiveness is such an emotional topic. To countenance forgiveness, we have to come face to face with the fact that human beings mess up so much and hurt each other all the time. Thinking deeply about forgiveness means we have to acknowledge that these hurts have ongoing consequences, that they are sometimes held deep within us for a long time. We have to embrace accountability and admit how difficult that is for the human ego, and that many times we will avoid it. And we have to acknowledge the fragility of human relationship, how dependent it is upon our ability to forgive each other.
So, it makes sense that forgiveness would be part of the Lord’s prayer; it is an important spiritual and transformational practice. And clearly, in the biblical context, in was important to Jesus as well, for in our Matthew text, he expounds upon the notion of forgiveness even after he finished telling them how to pray, as part of his famous Sermon on the Mount.
The first important thing to acknowledge about forgiveness as notion, is that forgiveness is a function of relationship; it always occurs *within* relationship, and it doesn’t have any meaning except *as* a function of relationship. This certainly can include our relationship with ourselves, or even our higher and lower selves, but ultimately forgiveness only comes into play because there is a disconnection between two things in relationship. It a holy threshold, an essential recognition of our infallibility but also a declaration of hope that relationship can exist and thrive in the face of imperfection. Imagine if forgiveness didn’t exist; how alone and isolated, how rigid yet fractured we would be.
But even though forgiveness represents a moving forward of relationship through the process of dealing with disagreement and tension, that doesn’t always mean the moving forward is the same thing as the continuance of the relationship, as it was. The outcome of forgiveness is many times the repairing of relationship, but sometimes it also is the letting go of relationship. Let’s consider these in turn.
As human beings, as the Lord’s Prayer shows us, we incur debts to one another. Debts of empathy, understanding, care, concern, and dignity. There are so many ways that we hurt and disappoint one another, and we often feel the pain of this deeply. Many times, this debt or disconnect is created because of an imbalance between how we expected to be treated and how we were actually treated. And this disconnect threatens or prevents relationship.
Enter, forgiveness. Disconnection of relationship is not necessarily a terminal condition, thank the Lord. Forgiveness is the process by which relationship is restored. But because it is a function of relationship, it requires engagement on the part of all who are in the relationship. Forgiveness requires accountability, what Swedenborg calls repentance, on the part of the one who was hurtful, and grace on the part of the one who was hurt. Both sacrifice ego; one sacrifices rightness, the other invulnerability.
Relationship depends upon empathy, upon caring about the wellbeing of another. Part of that caring, must include accountability when it is warranted. Without accountability, without repentance, forgiveness as a function of relationship repair is not possible, because refusing accountability is a fundamental abdication of empathy, (of putting oneself in another’s shoes and imagining their point of view) and how can relationship survive without empathy? This is part of what is making our national talk of unity so fraught right now. We yearn for true relationship with our fellow citizens but worry that papering over differences without an effort toward reparation just perpetuates existing cycles of injustice. I recall this challenge as a parent: that we teach our children to say “I’m sorry” from a very young age, but at some point we also need to teach them how to “be sorry,” we need to teach them the value of empathy and accountability. We need to teach them that empty words cannot carry relationship, and that to be sorry means to act differently in future.
We see from our reading today that Swedenborg was very critical of religious traditions that tried to circumvent true repentance, that offered what he called instantaneous salvation, a wiping away of our transgressions no matter how we regard them. Other theologians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer have called that “cheap grace.” The work of repentance must cost us something, must cause a re-evaluation of our ego and identity, so that an actual new and different future for the relationship in question can be brought into being.
But just because something is costly doesn’t make it a punishment. We often think about relationship in terms of give and take, but I’m not sure that works here very well, as it invites a sense that repentance is something we “take” or “exact” from each other. Forgiveness is really more about give and give. One gives repentance, another gives grace, and a new future gets to be written in relationship. This is what Jesus was referring to in the Matthew text. A lot of the time, Jesus speaks of forgiveness in terms of pride and hypocrisy. He cautions his disciples against holding grudges, or about withholding forgiveness in exchange for power. And it is in this context we hear the end of our Matthew text, which on the face of it sounds rather transactional, but really is about cultivating a compassionate state of mind. The refusal of either accountability or grace for selfish reasons just compounds sin upon sin, and will close our hearts way down every time. God always forgives, and always will, but that can’t have any functional reality for us until we open our minds to what we need to be forgiven for, and then extend that humble mindset to our interactions with others.
So, what about the other side of things: forgiveness as relinquishment. What about when there is no accountability or repentance on offer? Forgiveness still has a role to play here but it is less about repair and more about freedom. When an emotional debt has caused a disconnect in relationship and the one who has hurt us refuses accountability, it is very difficult to continue forward. And even if the relationship is severed, that doesn’t mean we might not still be tethered to it in an emotional way. There is no world in which it is God’s intention for us to remain in that hurt forever. Forgiveness can release us.
But it can be very hard. The way in which we culturally, unconsciously, understand forgiveness can make us feel like forgiving a hurt means somehow we are condoning it. Think about the common words: “It’s okay, I forgive you.” These words are usually offered in the context of relationship repair, but take on a whole different tone when repentance is not offered. The words “It’s okay” will often times hover over any contemplation of forgiveness, whether we realize it or not.
So it is important to remember that forgiveness is not a statement of right or wrong. Forgiveness is an action that intentionally heals a wound. Whatever hurts we have endured, our pain is a declaration of the wrongness of what has happened to us, and that declaration will always stand. But still the potential of that holy threshold remains unresolved, and forgiveness practiced on our own part, can release us from that lack of resolution. This kind of forgiveness will necessarily contain some measure of grief and a recognition that it is God’s work to reform other people, not ours. Like I said, hard spiritual work that takes the time it takes. But of course a God of love would wish this kind of release for us, and help us to make it so.
Now I know, I’ve simplified things a little here, perhaps even a lot. It certainly is possible to feel hurt based on our sense of ego or entitlement, or false assumptions. There is such a thing as selfish pain, and not all hurt means that someone else did something wrong. And it is also true, that it is possible to hurt someone unintentionally, and the associated repentance in that case will feel different to when hurt is actually intended. And I’ve said nothing at all on the topic of consequences, which are often an important part of accountability, or healthy boundaries, which are an important part of healing. Forgiveness tugs on a multitude of strings because the restoration of relationship is complicated and contextual and individual.
But the ultimate goal is wholeness, however it can be found. The psalm from our readings said “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” (Psalm 130:4) Our God models an unrelenting forgiveness not because of some hazy idealism, but because it is the only way to stay in relationship with us, God’s fallible creation. And God wants that more than anything else.
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD; 2 Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. 3 If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? 4 But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. 5 I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. 6 I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. 7 Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. 8 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Divine Providence #280
Another popular misconception is that when sins have been forgiven they are also set aside. This misconception is characteristic of people who believe that their sins are forgiven through the sacrament of the Holy Supper even though they have not set them aside by repenting from them. It is characteristic also of people who believe they are saved by faith alone or by papal dispensations. They all believe in direct mercy and instant salvation.
When the sequence is reversed, though, it is true: when sins have been set aside, they are forgiven. Repentance must precede forgiveness, and apart from repentance there is no forgiveness. That is why the Lord told his disciples to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:27) and why John preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3).
The Lord forgives everyone's sins. He does not accuse us or keep score. However, he cannot take our sins away except by the laws of his divine providence; for when Peter asked him how many times he should forgive someone who had sinned against him, whether seven was enough, he said that Peter should forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). What does this tell us about the Lord, who is mercy itself?