Forgive him (or her)? Forgive myself? How could God forgive me? These are all questions we have asked ourselves at some point. We who were raised in the Christian tradition in which forgiveness is intrinsic to our faith. We, who as children, freely asked for and so easily received forgiveness. Sometime between our childhood and our teen/adult years, we learned to savor and recall moments of hurt or regret. Regrets that continue to haunt us and enter our lives, our dreams unwelcomed. Memory of hurt too often recalled, nursed, leading to thoughts of how such egregious actions can be balanced out in an uncaring universe. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Sounds like a quote from a Shakespearean tragedy, but it is all too modern, a blithe saying speaking to something as old as humankind.
We want to be forgiving. We know the calling from the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those…” And yet when we think about our attitude towards offering forgiveness, these words might come to mind: “miserly, parsimonious, miserly, stingy.” Why do we hold on so tightly to what God gives us so freely? Why do we think we are so undeserving and unworthy of forgiveness from others and God? Why is forgiveness such a barrier to climb over? It frustrates us and leaves us questioning ourselves. And yet we stand as perplexed as St. Paul: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Romans 5:15)
All of these attitudes and presumptions are chains that bind and burden us, hiding from us the immensity of God’s forgiveness, mercy, and love. The person who has harmed us might well be completely immune from the burdens we carry. We are the one in chains. We are the one burdened. It is a burden passed from generation to generation. It is a burden that suffocates friendships. It is a burden that dooms marriages and families. It is a chokehold, keeping us from the abundant life promised us in Christ.
It is our natural reaction when we have been hurt, something taken from us – we want to retaliate, strike back, or have our rights upheld. We want to be made whole in the way we want – maybe even get a little ahead – a bonus for our troubles. But are these reactions that help or burden our walk with God? “In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. … If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.” (Gal 5:22-23,35) That is a great list of a way to be in the world. But another way to look at the list St. Paul offers is that it is a list of all the things we want to hold hostage from the people who have hurt us. Ironically, in that moment, there is no love, joy, or peace. We will not release the gifts of the Spirit into the world. We chain them and lock them away. There is no life in the Spirit – in us, anyway.
Moments of hurt and the memories that linger are moments of choice – to walk in the Spirit or, as St. Paul says, to walk in the “flesh.” “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: … hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, … and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:19-21)
St. Paul did not say he ever really figured out why he does what he does not want. But he always chose Jesus and the life in the Spirit. Maybe that is our lesson. In moments when forgiveness hangs in the balance, there is always a choice to make – a difficult one for sure – but a choice none the less. We can choose to withhold forgiveness and remain in bondage. Or we can choose to walk in the Spirit and be people who offer forgiveness. Perfect forgiveness? Perhaps not, but forgiveness that is at least a start of walking in the ways of God. It is in the doing that we learn the depths of love; it is in the doing that we truly learn to forgive. “Make no mistake: … a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit.”
Walk in the way of the Spirit. Choose to be a forgiving person. Be set free.