Forgiveness is a topic I rarely preach on. Yet forgiveness seems to be somewhat of a permanent obsession with most people. I rarely think of it and I guess that surprises me. I live with regrets and I feel badly I have said things and done things that upset or hurt people. If I could go back in time I would change those things. But I can’t and so I reason that my best approach is to spend less time wallowing in self-pity and more time focusing on improving myself, my behavior. I confess I am a tad cynical about the topic because it tends to come up with me as a Minister less as something people feel they need to be forgiven for and much, much, much more as a litany of what others have done to them, that they need to forgive others for, but can’t.
In our era of self it should not be surprising we focus more on what bad things were said and done to us than what we did to others. I do understand this is a challenging issue. If we move to matters of lasting pain, particularly abuse, we see how forgiveness becomes problematic, if we forgive someone does that make us a floor mat, potentially open to be abused again, do we send a signal to the abuser that s/he can do this again without consequences? There are no easy answers and when I have these kind of conversations I am often present less as some arbiter and more as a listener, to let the other have a safe space to air out their pain.
I am fortunate that I do not dwell on the harm done to me. My focus is rather on what I can do or say so I do not repeat my mistakes. I like feedback that helps me get there, I am less interested in persons who attack with drama while at the same time being unaware of their own same shortcomings. As for those who harm me I tend to follow the old saying, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Again, like my own mistakes I look to learn from past experiences. So if a person is apt to be hurtful, mean, cruel, I will open and kind and interested with that person until I learn that I cannot trust her/him to be respectful. From that moment on I remain respectful, kind and fair but no longer place myself in a vulnerable place so that other can take advantage of me. Interestingly while I tend to be emotionally disinterested in such people I will find my anger flared when these people carry out their hurt on others, particularly innocent third parties. I have a gift of language and a sharp tongue, I tend to be very tough on people who make it their business to be mean to easy targets.
Yesterday I had an experience of the power of forgiveness. An elderly volunteer withstood the brunt of a foodbank client, the client gave her royal hell over a small matter that upset him. The following week this client sought out the elderly woman and apologized. The senior volunteer, who is legally blind now, was moved to tears by the gesture, “it restores my hope in humanity”, she said. Forgiveness does have power. My own concern in such conversations is the implicit assumption that what we do and say is minor and what others do and say is major and worthy of great angst.
I like conversations about forgiveness that are balanced, that put matters into some perspective. Abuse is wretched and long lasting in its pain. But to hang on to small slights and harsh words when we ourselves have done similar things, said similar things, begs the question Jesus asked in Mathew 7 “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” It was and is a very good question.