The Power of Forgiveness
(2 Samuel 19) Luke 15: 20 – 32; John 20: 19 – 23
Can you imagine a world where every person, every community, nation and tribe work on payback? Can you imagine a world that harbours every grudge and grievance and demands justice? Justice without mercy is not true justice, it’s just payback. Payback emerges out of the wells of anger and revenge.
On the other hand mercy – kindness and forbearance – springs from the waters of love and humility. Forgiveness and mercy offer us a way that allows relationships to start again. Solzhenitsyn stated that our capacity for forgiveness distinguishes us from the animal world. I would say that to forgive or to apologise is the beginning of becoming truly human.
In Shakespeare’s play the Merchant of Venice, Portia disguised as a lawyer, tells Shylock that justice without mercy is not justice. When Shylock asks Portia to explain why he should show mercy to Antonio, Portia responds [Merchant of Venice, Act 4:1, lines 185f]:
The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
… Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy.
Portia reminds us that mercy and forgiveness benefits both the giver and the recipient. She points out that justice alone will not bring reconciliation. Shakespeare has spoken well through Portia.
These truths are at the heart of the Gospel and the Bible. Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Upper Room on the evening of the day of the Resurrection are so relevant today. John tells us that Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” [Jn 20: 22,23. Cf. Mt 18:18] Now what does this mean – if you retain the sins of any, they are retained?
Is it not true that when someone offends us we feel a degree of resentment if not anger? If we don’t forgive the person these feelings don’t disappear: they merely reside in the inner recesses of our mind. While we think that we have dealt with our feelings we have not. We have merely pushed them aside for the moment. Those feelings continue to quietly corrode our thinking and being. They can make us physically unwell and they certainly harm our spiritual well-being. In other words the sin is retained. Now if I have been offended by X and I don’t deal with it, a wall is erected between us. Every time I see X we may be quite sociable but we don’t get close and there is always that unspoken thing between us. You see, if I do not forgive X I retain X’s sin against me. That is what Jesus is getting at. I retain the wrong done to me and that forms a barrier. However if I forgive X then we are set free to relate to each other. Jesus’ commission is very relevant to both our private and public lives. So what is the forgiveness process?
Firstly there are three recognitions that need to take place.
Recognition one is that we hurt each other by our thoughtless remarks, selfish acts, our wilfulness, prejudices and fears. Something small can become something quite large. There are those hurts that are big, but even the little ones can grow. The ugliness of insults, our looking after ourselves at the expense of others and the greed that takes more than we’re entitled to causes deep rifts, hurts, and injustices. Unless we take time to forgive we will merely construct a deep pits of resentment and anger, shame and guilt. The hurt continues to grow.
Recognition two is that we need help to forgive. Forgiveness is never easy, neither is it simple. We need to humbly admit that we need an exemplar: someone who can show us how to forgive. It is in Jesus that we find the compassion and humility that makes forgiveness possible. More importantly Jesus has already forgiven us and begun the process for us.
Recognition three is knowing that retaining a feeling of unforgiveness is bad for us. When we have been hurt by someone’s thoughtless or selfish behaviour the hurt turns to anger and resentment. Such feelings become cancerous. They can ruin our well-being. Likewise when we have hurt and offended someone we experience guilt and shame. Shame and guilt affect the way we relate to people. Then we are the ones needing forgiveness. We need to forgive and to be forgiven for we are sinners.
The steps of Forgiveness.
The first step is to acknowledge the offence and its affect on us. Don’t pretend either to yourself or the person who has hurt you that it “doesn’t matter”. It does matter.
The second step is to be prepared to forgive. This is the hardest step. The forgiveness begins with our willingness to forgive. I once prayed for three weeks everyday to forgive someone who had really angered me at work. I finally reached the point of forgiveness. There was never reconciliation as there was no opportunity to meet with the person. However I was set free from the anger and resentment and found I could relate in a meaningful way with that person. The willingness to forgive together with God’s help to forgive set me free.
Thirdly, if there is the opportunity to do so, approach the other and tell them that their action has hurt you. If that person either denies it or defends their action listen, but avoid an argument. Just reiterate that you were offended by their action and leave it at that. If you have begun the forgiveness process in your own heart your anger and resentment will not be increased by their rejection of the fact that they have offended you. You go away and take it to God again and pray that you can forgive them. The forgiveness process is only completed when the offender says sorry. If they do we graciously accept their apology.
The fourth step is reconciliation. Reconciliation only takes place after the offender says sorry and the offended has forgiven them. That is the beginning of reconciliation.
Some notes on the process. Reconciliation is not always possible. So the most important thing to do is to forgive them and ask God to help you take away the sense of injustice you have suffered. Secondly, the worst thing we can do when someone says sorry is to say, ‘Oh it doesn’t matter’. It does matter. Furthermore to say to someone who has apologised to you that it doesn’t matter is to make out that they are silly to think they have hurt you.
Victor Hugo’s drama Les Misérables provides us with a wonderful insight into what forgiveness is and is not. It is a wonderful insight into the blessing of forgiveness and the damage of unforgiveness. I say forget this sermon and watch Les Misérables, or better still read the book.
In Les Misérables Hugo tells the story of Jean Valjean, a French prisoner sentenced to a 19-year term of hard labour for stealing bread. When Valjean earned his release he was a hardened and an angry man. In those days a convicted criminal had to carry identification and when he arrived back in France no innkeeper would have him stay in their premises. After a few days a kindly bishop took pity on him. Valjean that night settled down in his room waiting for the bishop and his sister to go to sleep. Then he got up and stole some silverware. The next morning three policemen brought Valjean with the stolen silverware to the bishop’s residence. They wanted the bishop to identify him and confirm the theft. Instead the bishop responded directly to Valjean with, “So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?”
To everyone’s surprise, no less to Valjean himself, the bishop declared Valjean innocent, and no less Valjean himself. The bishop fetched the candlesticks and gave them to Valjean saying; “Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.”
This amazing encounter pregnant with grace changes Valjean’s life. He is reformed. But a detective, Javert, who knows only justice, stalks him. He pursues Valjean and when Valjean saves Javert’s life, Javert finds no corresponding forgiveness and jumps off the bridge into the river Seine. Hugo has written a novel about forgiveness and justice. It stands as a literary monument to the power of mercy and forgiveness and the ruination of unforgiveness.
Remember God has already forgiven us and set us free in Christ Jesus.
Remember God the Spirit is with us helping us deal with the friction and fracturing of life.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 18/08/2019
John 20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”