Charlotte Bronte was right: forgiveness is the mightiest sword. Forgiveness cuts away the hate and leaves us dead to evil and alive to God.
We are starting Lent this week: a time to focus on our own sins and not on the sins of others. Christianity teaches us to love our enemies and to be forgiving. Forgiveness is (at least) letting go a desire for personal vengeance and letting go of hate. Let’s stick to those two hard tasks for a moment!
Beware refusing forgiveness over small issues.
My dad preached a powerful sermon today on forgiveness that came from almost sixty years of ministry. He pointed out that as a little boy he had been unjustly punished and that for a long time this gnawed at him. By the time he met that administrator, he discovered a decent man and never had the heart to tell his tale of woe.
Too many of us hold onto petty grievances and we should let them go. Everybody does irritating things, even smallish wrong things to the people around us. We hope people cut us some slack, but if we are not careful, we don’t give other people the same forgiveness we hope to receive.
Don’t confuse forgiveness with calling “evil good.”
Years of pastoral counseling means that Dad has heard many horrible things. He pointed out that these hard, terrible things are always evil. Forgiveness never consists of calling an evil good. While God can cause good to come from evil, this does not mean the evil was good!
God forbid. Beware the church that tries to minimize evil and call that forgiveness. Grace is not cheap, it cost the Son of God his life. We may receive the grace to forgive sin, but only if we can call evil sin! We cannot love our enemies if we pretend that they are not our enemies
Don’t confuse forgiveness with supporting injustice.
Sadly, some would say that not seeking personal revenge means that we have to let terrorists kill us, or lunch counters to remain segregated, or marriage to be mocked by abuse. This is a great evil.
God is just and forgiveness is not saying an unjust system is “ok” or that a man has a duty to sit at the back of the bus and just grin and bear it. It does say that hate is toxic and is victimizing. Frederick Douglass was right: you cannot make a free man a slave. Jesus was right: you cannot make a man who loves his enemies a victim.
Sadly, “love the sinner, hate the sin” has been so narrowly applied, we forget the truth behind it. We can love a sinner, like a wife beater, but still seek justice. I did not rejoice when the man Usama faced God, but I was glad the terrorist was dead. This seemingly fine distinction matters. Hate sin. Hate injustice. Hate violence. Never lose sight of the people behind the sin lest we become self-righteous and forget our own faults.
Surely Stalin did monstrous evil and we short hand it by saying that Stalin was an evil man, but we should pause. We do not rejoice in the damnation of any man, but in justice. We hate the many monstrous acts of Stalin and I am proud to be a citizen of a Republic that opposed him and the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
I cannot allow myself the luxury of hate.
In our lives, we should call the police and they should do justice, but we pray for our enemies. We pray that as they face the day of doom, they repent and receive mercy with justice. The old British custom of saying to condemned:
The sentence of this court is that you will be taken from here to the place from whence you came and there be kept in close confinement until [date of execution], and upon that day that you be taken to the place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy upon your soul.
This was said seriously. The judge did not rejoice: he did justice. We could rejoice in the justice, but right to the moment of the hanging we prayed for repentance.
The pastor who tells an abused woman to grin and stand it has told the sinner to sin some more and then prays for mercy on the victim. This is a great evil and incompatible with the wisdom of the Christian church.
Yet sometimes even the civil authorities fail us . . . not just the family or even (God help us!) a corrupted Church. Read Frederick Douglass on the Southern Church.
Of course, if the civil authority itself does injustice, as existed in the South in my early childhood, civil disobedience is necessary. Though not all Christian’s agree, John Locke, apologist and Christian philosopher, shows us when rebellion is justified.
African-Americans in the South chose a noble way of civil disobedience and with the leadership of men like Martin Luther King taught “no hate.” Our nation was blessed with greater virtue than we had earned. No perpetrator of injustice could demand such sanctity, but we can thank the saint and God for it.
Forgiveness is not always easy.
Sometimes the fault is small and we forgive easily. At other times, even in my own life, a great betrayal filled with lies and harm to others has made forgiveness hard. It is easy to confuse pain with hate. I will always feel pain at the betrayal of a friend, but I can stop hating. The pain . . . God help me. . . will fade, one hopes, in time and be swallowed up in the joy of Paradise.
When I have caused great pain, then I have prayed for forgiveness. When it was extended, it was undeserved. I could not (God help me!) demand it. I then pray that the pain of the bad I have done will be eased. I must never, ever pretend bad was good.
My dad pointed out an important truth: God will help us. We cannot save ourselves and we cannot forgive ourselves (always). We ask God to work synergistically with our will. We cannot always pray that we forgive, but (as Dad said): Help me to want to forgive and then forgive.
Forgiveness sets us free and sets the evil person free to receive judgment.
Our lack of forgiveness consumes us. This gives evil power over us and this is simply sad. When we can forgive, or at least start the road to forgiveness, then we can be free.
We don’t need the person to ask for forgiveness to let go of the hate. We should let go of hate as quickly as possible. I doubt that in many cases relationships can be restored. The narcissistic person can be forgiven, but you should stay away. The traitor can be be forgiven, but don’t rehire him.
There is, oddly, a revenge in forgiveness. By becoming healthy, whole, and happy apart from the abuser we heap “coals of fire” on their heads. If they will let the fire of the Holy Spirit burn away injustice, then this “revenge” will redeem.
Who can know?
All we can do is to ask forgiveness for our sin and forgive those (as we can) that sin against us. God help me, that is my goal this Lent.