The Power in Forgiving Ourselves and Others

Can you think of a time in your life when you couldn’t forgive?

One time jumps out in my life.

In 1998 in my role as the head of a gay Republican group, I was in Texas speaking at a rally to protest the fact that the local chapter had been forbidden from participating at the state GOP convention. Out of nowhere, a number of buses showed up full of counter-protestors, mainly young boys and older men from a Christian camp. It was 100 degrees and these protestors were screaming every epitaph you could imagine. The police warned us there was little they could to protect our safety as the shouting got heated.

I was furious. The mother of one of the organizers got up to speak and was drowned out by the counter-protests with screams, “Your son’s a fag!” among other charming comments.

Something about going after a mother made me angrier. I was on stage getting ready to speak when the young protestors jumped on stage screaming in my ears. I remember wanting very badly to punch him in the face. I’m glad I didn’t own a gun. When it came to be my time to speak I threw away my speech and talked about the love and forgiveness of God and said it wasn’t there in those so-called Christian protestors.

There’s a video of one protestor following me around afterward screaming, “God hates you. I hate you.” And I respond that God loves me and we worship different Gods. This is all on videotape if you are interested in seeing it.

After the event, I learned that these boys were mostly foster kids raised in a cult. My feelings about them and that day moved from anger and even hatred to understanding and forgiveness. What I know about myself is the ability to forgive those people from that day is not something natural to me. It is not my personality. There’s certain righteous anger in not forgiving evil people. The fact that I can forgive I count as one of the greatest gifts of being a follower of Jesus.

I share that story because I can’t think of a day I was more unforgiving. I’m sure each of you here today has a situation that was so horrible in your life that you feel you can’t forgive the other person. You might feel there’s a good reason for holding a grudge.

As the election comes closer we are encouraged by our tribe to harbor grudges and even hatred for those on the opposite side. These grudges lead us away from a desire to empathize or understand and forgive. If you find yourself saying, “I can’t forgive them for voting for whoever,” you are caught up in it.

The gospel lesson this week Jesus speaks to one of the most profound aspects of Christian discipleship—the critical importance of forgiveness. It is a theme I’ve been speaking to over the past few years because I feel that a politics of forgiveness is necessary to worry to avoid increased violence within our culture, even leading us to civil war.

The ability to forgive is a spiritual super-power that holds our society together. Often, without knowing it, and with the best of intentions, there are people in my life who I have offended. Some of you on this call now might be thinking of some way I’ve offended you. Some of those I offended will likely never speak to me again. In some cases, I don’t know I’ve offended. I’m not sure what I did wrong.

In my own life, there are also people in my life that offend me. Many have no idea I feel this way. I don’t bring it up. In fact, there are people I’ve never met nor have met me who I harbor a grudge against.

The fact is we are constantly offending and being offended-many times each day. Church groups and nonprofits, far from being immune to offending, harbor them in greater numbers than other groups. No minister that I have ever met has not had a story or many congregants who left in anger. And no minister I know hasn’t reported incredible unforgivable frustration with a person in their congregation. Churches are second only to our families as a place we harbor grudges. Most of us have some offenses we hold against our families. And, many of our family members harbor some offense against us.

It is impossible as human beings to avoid offending and being offended—it is human. And, while we don’t have the ability to control how others feel or act, we do have free will over our own lives to decide how we will react. By the grace of God, we can forgive even if we haven’t been asked to do it. We can apologize even when we aren’t sure what we did wrong.

This ability to forgive is not a natural virtue. It is a spiritual gift given by God working through us. With the loss of faith in our culture, we are witnessing a loss of forgiveness that ripping us apart. Though forgiveness might be a super-power of the Christian faith, it is highly misunderstood. I want to share three things forgiveness is not and one that it is.

Let me start with what forgiveness is not.

1. Forgiveness does not make the person being forgiven innocent.
Going back to my original story, forgiveness is not saying that the bad a person does is okay. What those boys did was despicable. Forgiving them doesn’t make it right. In the parable, the servant’s debt still stands though they won’t go to jail for it.

2. Forgiveness does not require us to submit or be silent to injustice.
Forgiveness is not submitting to bad behavior nor keeping your mouth shut. In my story, I still went on to call them out and speak my truth. In a culture that thinks in binary terms, Jesus leads us to the paradox where we can condemn sinners while loving them. We can hold that tension.

When the members of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC got on the camera with the killer, Dillion Rufus, who shot their loved ones in church after Bible Study and told him they forgave him, they were teaching the world the power of Jesus in their lives and the power of forgiveness. In fact, it was one of the most profound moments in my life where I saw the power of Jesus lived out in public life. The church members were met with confused responses from a secular culture that condemned them for their failure to condemn the boy.

3. Forgiveness does not happen without a change in our lives.
The Christian theology I grew up in teaches that if you say the words, “Father forgive me,” all my past, current, and future sins are forgiven. This is a popular understanding in modern Christianity. However, it does not follow from Jesus’ teaching in the gospel today. The point of the parable is that the servant’s sins are forgiven to the degree he forgave others. When he failed to forgive others he ends up punished. Forgiveness is a spiritual practice we will work on our entire lives. The parable is pretty graphic:

‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger, his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Swedenborg makes this point as well.

Many churches teach if you say you believe in Jesus you have salvation, simply by saying the magical words. They teach if you ask forgiveness you will be forgiven. The truth is more complicated. We have a role to play. If we say we believe in Jesus this will only be demonstrated by our love of others. If we ask for forgiveness, this will only happen to the degree we forgive others. We have an active role to play in our spiritual development and words are not enough. There must be action.

What forgiveness is:

Forgiveness is an Opportunity to Review our Own Lives
In my original story, I can look at the horrible way they treated me without knowing me and use it to reflect on where I need to grow. I can ask, are there people in my life that I judge or condemn with a label based on who they are? The answer is yes. I need to work on that.

There’s a popular Christian phrase that I really don’t like called “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I’ve seen it used too many times by Christians to justify their hatred of people they don’t agree with under the guise that they are just hating the sin. My sermon title plays with this phrase calling us to love the sinner including ourselves and it might be the person we are mad at or ourselves. And we should focus and hate the sin in our own life by transforming it through the grace of God.

What can you do to use the anger in your life to reflect on what needs to change in your life? When Jesus asked the men ready to stone a prostitute, let him without sin cast the first stone, I believe he knew that many of those men engaged the prostitute. Jesus calls us to reflect which is the foundation of all spiritual growth. You want to grow spiritually and find a way to reflect on your life. If you can’t do it yourself get a therapist, coach, or spiritual guide to help you.

Forgiveness of others in our life is not something that needs to wait for them to come to us and ask. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can forgive those who never ask. Dillion Rufus never asked the members of Mother Emanuel to forgive him. They gave it as a gift of God to Dillon and the world and, in so doing, did more to teach about the power of Jesus than hundreds of sermons.

In the parable reading today, imagine if the first servant reflected and said, “Wow, I’m so lucky this guy just saved me from prison. Who, in my life, owes me and I can help avoid prison?” Instead, he used his freedom to punish others.

The point is often made that forgiving others is actually good for those doing the forgiving. This has been proven true through many studies. Holding onto a grudge is actually giving power to the person you can’t forgive and holding within yourself corrosive hate energy that will eat at you. Forgiveness is not only spiritually powerful; it actually heals the physical body.

Forgiveness is a spiritual practice of the followers of Jesus. In a world descending into contempt, victimization, and grudges; forgiveness emerges as the leading most needed in these times.

Amen.