Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Perhaps you are like me, in that there are times when forgiveness seems especially hard, and especially unfair. Then I try to remember that forgiveness is not something we do for the other person, as much as it is something we do for us. Charles Bracelan Flood, in his fine history, Lee: The Last Years tells a wonderful story about General Robert E. Lee, forgiveness, and moving on with our lives.
Flood relates how shortly after the Civil War the old Confederate general was visiting in Kentucky. One day a woman took General Lee to see the remains of what had once been a beautiful old tree standing in her front yard. The woman loved the tree and Lee listened patiently as she cried and cursed the Yankees whose artillery fire had destroyed the trees’ limbs and much of its trunk. When the woman finished her rage she looked at Lee, waiting for some denunciation of the Yankees, or at least a word of sympathy. But Lee paused for a moment, and said to the woman: “Cut it down, my dear madam, and forget it.”
There are times when I, like the woman, keep visiting the wrongs done to me. Then I hear a freeing voice deep from within saying: “Tim, cut it down, and forget about it. Stop visiting the wrong done to you, and be done with it. Move on.” When I do decide to cut it down and forget it, I experience the freedom that is forgiveness. Not forgiving the wrong done to me is like drinking poison and waiting for my offender to get sick.
I am writing about forgiveness today because it is a subject that keeps coming up. I have been in ministry for over 30 years, and the one subject that we come back to again and again is forgiveness, or need for it. The first pastoral visit I made as a young pastor fresh out of seminary, was to a man in his 90’s who was troubled by a wrong done to him in the First World War. He had refused to let it go and it dogged him his whole life. He kept visiting the wrong done to him, fumed over it, and would not cut it down.
In today’s text the Apostle Paul writes from within a Roman prison about living free, living free by forgiving as “God in Christ” has forgiven us. Paul thinks about the wrong God had forgiven him, and any wrong he needed to forgive seemed to pale alongside. C. S. Lewis in his “Essay on Forgiveness” reminds all us sinners: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you”. Whenever I say that I cannot forgive my offender, what I am really saying is that I am unwilling to forgive. But more than that, I am saying that I don’t want to be like Jesus; I don’t want to be like Jesus who from His cross was giving out forgiveness to His tormenters!
It has helped me to think about forgiveness as a process, a process in which I will always need God’s help. Sometimes the most I can muster is to tell God “I am willing that You make me willing to forgive.” And when I do that, almost without exception, I find God’s forgiveness start stirring within me. I make the choice to surrender to God my right to hurt my offender, the way he hurt me. And whenever I surrender that to God, I feel a lightness come over me. It is the freedom of forgiveness. I am set free! I am no longer stuck, mired down in the past. I am free to go on with my life, to grow, and to flourish.
There is a way of praying forgiveness that I and many others have found helpful. For those offenders we find especially hard to forgive, praying this prayer with a trusted friend might is usually helpful. The prayer goes like this:
Hold in your mind someone you find it hard to forgive (this may be yourself also). When you are ready pray for that person, asking God to love and bless them. Be specific and generous in your prayer.
If you find anger still there tell God about that, don’t pretend. You will be able to forgive when the time comes.
If you will see this person again imagine yourself being different with them, the difference forgiveness will make.
If you won’t see them again or if they have died simply open your hands to let go of the anger and hand them over to God.
If you are not ready to forgive yet simply pray for the grace of forgiveness. There is no need to feel guilty, forgiveness takes time and healing.
If the anger is still strong you may need to find a way to let it out. A way that is safe and doesn’t harm anyone, such as punching a pillow or throwing rocks into the sea.
Thank God for this time of prayer.
Grace and peace,
photo by tim geers