Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast
20th January 2019
“God knows that when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” (Gn 3:5)
Since the beginning of human history, the words of the serpent have found an echo in our hearts and minds. We all are moved by this desire to be like God on our own terms, in our own way. We can say that all our sins are marked by the stamp of the false promise that we can be like God while relying on our personal or collective strength and intelligence.
We are told that the serpent “was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made” (Gn 3:1). Indeed it was! The serpent knew that our resemblance to God was/is at the core of God’s creation. God did not create us and the world without investing himself in it. He “created humankind in his image” (Gn 1:27). Despite the sin of Adam and Eve, there is within us a longing for something more original than the first sin, our original likeness to God.
As we wrestle with this longing, God does not leave us without help. In Jesus Christ, he gives us a sure way to resemble him, to become like him: it is the way of forgiveness. When we forgive, we are like God, but on his terms, according to his will and his power working in us.
In the same way that St Paul writes: “Jesus Christ is our peace” (Eph 2:14), we can say that he is our forgiveness. When we forgive, we become Christlike. The more we forgive, the more we are transformed into the Lord’s image, the more we reflect him (cf. 2Co 3:18) and the more the world, this world – not a place somewhere far away – can reflect something of the beauty of the original creation.
Why is it so difficult for us to forgive?
It is hard to forgive because forgiveness is about the Cross (cf. Heb 9:22). For Jesus, our forgiveness passed through his death on the Cross, for us to forgive cannot be any less costly than to die to our self-sufficiency and pride. To forgive is to let go, and since we seem to be wired in such a way that we cling to everything, even to what seemingly hurts us, it will always be difficult for us to forgive.
The first stumbling block on the way to forgiveness is labelling. Despite St Paul’s warning that “we know only in part”, seeing things only in a mirror (cf. 1Co 13:8.12), we want to believe that we know everything about people and their motivations. So in our desire to be in control and to feel secure we label ourselves and others.
One consequence of the labelling process is that we end up identifying ourselves with our wounds, clinging to them. They become the expression of our whole identity. While it is true that who we are today is the consequence of all that happened to us over the years, we must be careful not to think that we are our wounds and failures. The Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf is very clear on the subject: “Christians believe that neither what we do nor what we suffer defines us at the deepest level. (…) No human being can make or unmake us. Instead of being defined by how human beings relate to us, we are defined by how God relates to us. We know that fundamentally we are who we are (…) because God loves us. (…) Absolutely nothing defines a Christian more than the abiding flame of God’s presence, and that flame bathes in a warm glow everything we do or suffer.” (The End…, p.79)
To reduce ourselves to our wounds and reduce the one who hurt us to his or her evil deed is to dehumanise our self and the other. We have to remember who we are, what our true identity is. To forgive is to respect our own identity as well as the identity of the one who has hurt us.
St Paul warns us: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)
When we refuse to forgive, we make ourselves prisoners of what has been done to us and we hold captive those who have hurt us. Could this situation not be the best definition of what hell is?
The link between forgiveness and liberation is rooted in the Sacred Scriptures. Almost all the authors of the New Testament use the Greek word aphesis with the double meaning of liberation and forgiveness. This word is found in the passage from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus reads in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Is 61:1 in Lk 4:18). “To let the oppressed go free” could be translated “to let the oppressed go forgiven”, a translation which does not sound too odd if we remember that “unforgiveness” is a force of oppression and imprisonment.
The main symptom of the refusal to forgive is the inability to move on in life. When I have been hurt, the temptation is for me to be an eternal victim or when somebody has made a mistake, for them to become a failure. The labels are powerful, they stick; they prevent us from growing in freedom, from having life and having it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10).
Like the people of Israel who is called to leave the land of slavery, to forgive is to humbly consent to engage ourselves on a journey which may be long and arduous, yet we believe that, guided by the Lord, it is a journey which leads us to the land of freedom and renewed life. On the contrary, the refusal to forgive is a futile and desperate attempt to remain in control of the course of our lives and it is a sure and sad promise of mere survival.
And here we face another stumbling block to forgiveness: for the offended and for the offender the real cost of forgiveness is change… and we do not like to change.
It is clear that the offender has to repent and experience a conversion. But the offended has to change too. For the offended, the change implied by the process of forgiveness is first a conversion of the memory.
Maybe it is important to stress that forgiveness is not about ignoring the hurt which has been done to us, it is not about pretending that nothing happened, it is not about forgetting. Forgiveness is about remembering correctly – in a life-giving way.
To refuse to forgive is to remember in an unhealthy and unchristian way. Whether we are victims or wrongdoers, and we all enter into both categories to some degree, the refusal to forgive and to be forgiven imprisons us and others in the past. It makes us connect to our past in a harmful way, it is a form of self-harming.
Let us be honest, often the main problem is not the hurt which has been committed, but the feelings of humiliation, anger and resentment which accompany the hurt. These feelings keep the hurt alive and hurtful. So the problem is that of a memory which ruminates the events and allows them to fuel the pain and to distort our right judgment. When this happens, our whole life is focused on the hurt, our whole existence rotates around the offence.
It is normal to feel resentment when we are hurt and when a relationship has been betrayed or broken. In a way this is a healthy reaction, it is a question of self-respect. But resentment, anger, and disappointment are only one step on the journey, a first and necessary step perhaps, but certainly not the last. The next step is to renounce resentment, to accept to let go of it, because it is becoming an enemy within us, a poison which consumes our heart, drains our energies and kills life within us.
Moreover, from a religious perspective, to withhold forgiveness, to refuse to engage into a process of letting go, to look at everything through the prism of one hurtful event, could be considered as an act of adoration of the past, a form of idolatry, when in fact it is the present which requires our attention and our energies. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, our eyes and attention should be fixed not on our wounds but on Jesus alone (cf. 12:2) – Jesus who is our wounded healer. The words of the psalmist exhorts us: “Look towards him and be radiant, let your faces not be abashed” (33(34):6)
Our memory has to be converted, purified and evangelised over and over again. A wounded memory – and we all have wounded memories – must learn to put things into perspective and come back to what is essential: if this brother or sister of mine is lost to me, I am lost to God. The words of Martin Luther here are a warning to all of us: “A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbour through love.” (The Freedom of a Christian, in Faith in Christ and the Gospel, p. 105)
The last point which challenges us deeply in our attitude towards forgiveness is that the process must be initiated by the victim.
This affirmation goes against all we spontaneously believe and experience. When we are offended our first reaction is to wrap ourselves up in our dignity, to cling to our special status as a victim, and to wait stubbornly for the offender to come and beg our pardon. We feel forgiveness ought to be initiated by the offender.
However this is not how God deals with us, his pardon is given to us without any prerequisite. It is not repentance which makes us gain God’s pardon, but it is the free and gracious gift of God’s pardon which makes us repentant.
If we want to be like God, if we want to resemble him then we cannot make repentance a precondition, we cannot say; “I will not forgive you until you come to ask for it”. When we do that, we fence in grace at work within us. Let us remember St Paul’s words: “God proved his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).
The initiative is from God, the offended party, who comes to us, the offenders and forgives us.
Let us return to the Garden of Eden and we see that it is always God who takes the initiative. He looks for Adam and Eve, and ever since then, it is always the Lord who takes the first step in our direction. The Lord is unceasingly looking for us, coming to us, over and over again the Lord says to us as he said to Zacchaeus: “I must come to your house” (Lk 19:5).
In Christ, God comes to us and makes peace with us, he alone is able to move us away from a situation of enmity to a positive life-giving relationship. Christ is the central agent of overcoming sin by forgiveness, he frees us and opens the way forward. In our relationships with one another, we, as Christ-bearers, have been confided the message and the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation (cf. 2Co 5:18-19). In his generosity and humility, God gives us the grace and the power to become like him and to break the deadly circle of bitterness, all forms of violence, including those most subtle forms of violence which are the silent treatment and exclusion of others.
In our hearts, in our families, in our Churches and between our Churches, we are called to refuse to let hurt and violence committed against us contaminate our souls and poison our relationships. Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jewish woman killed in 1943 in Auschwitz, wrote in her journal: “Every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable”(J. 23.09.1942, p. 259). As Christians, what kind of atom do we want to add to our world?
Forgiveness is a small and narrow door that cannot be entered without stooping and struggling. It requires the courage to be humble, to hope “against all hope” (Rm 4:18), and to choose life, to choose the Lord who is life (cf. Jn 11:25).
Today and every day, the Lord knocks gently and with patience at the door of our hearts, repeating the words said to the people of Israel: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30:19).