A Sermon Manuscript
We have all heard that we should forgive others; we should forgive those who may have offended us, betrayed us, or wounded us. But how do we actually forgive? How do we let go of these often-deep wounds and hurts? How do we move to a place of freedom and peace regarding things from our past? While this message is not an exhaustive approach to the freedom that forgiveness can provide, for those of you who may struggle with forgiving and/or letting go, I will share a few tips on how one might possibly forgive another and then perhaps start to move in the direction of freedom and peace that true forgiveness fosters. It is my hope that you might find a sense of release from some negative feelings of the past.
For me, the journey, or the process, of forgiveness began a few years after the death of my father. I had thought that I had forgiven him, but I found that the pain and anger associated with him would resurface when I experienced conflict. I easily assigned blame to him for all of the woes in my life, which I believed rested squarely on his shoulders. My father was an alcoholic and abusive man, who was involved in the deaths of three individuals and spent most of his life in prison. When he was with his family, he physically and verbally abused my mother and stoked fear in his children with guns and other acts of violence. Finding a way to forgiving him was a monumental task.
“Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”
— C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” You see, for so many, forgiveness requires strength and struggle. We must navigate through ethical dilemmas and conflicts that involve our personal values, conscience, truth, compassion and, yes, anger. But the struggle may hold an opportunity to develop a process for healing and forgiveness. After many years, I have discovered a process.
I contend that without a process, mere spoken words of forgiveness are not likely to be sustained in the long term. Most of those who have been married for any length of time will attest. Every one of us have messed up and have had to ask for forgiveness. We have at times heard the words, “I forgive you.” But then, when faced with a new conflict, that thing that was supposed to have been forgiven is somehow right there in your face, resurrected in all its glory. “You remember when you did this or said that!” The abandoning of the promise to forgive often comes up when I am conferencing with couples after one has fallen short in the relationship. In fact, it shows up in all types of relationships.
As clergy, I have counseled and prayed for many people. Some of them have been estranged from their parents, siblings, childhood friends, and the list goes on and usually involves something that one or several parties cannot seem to forgive the other for. I have officiated memorial services for all types of individuals. On several occasions, I have dealt with some difficult family dynamics, and I have seen the looks of regret and witnessed the anger that comes with unresolved conflict. Many people haven’t spoken to a relative in years and may have longed to reconnect in some meaningful way.
Real forgiveness is not transactional.
When asked by his disciples, how many times one should forgive another, Jesus replied, “seventy times seven.” The implication here is that the act of forgiving should be endless. The object lesson seems obvious: we forgive others because we too will need forgiveness in our own lives. But this sounds transactional, and real forgiveness is not transactional. We may have to forgive someone or something even in the absence of an apology. Likewise, after we have done a great amount of internal work of soul-searching, self-evaluation, and building up our courage, our request for forgiveness may still be rejected. Even so, I suggest that we should seek forgiveness anyway, and we should forgive others whether we receive forgiveness or not.
The act of seeking and granting forgiveness is rooted in our humanity and the frailty that often accompanies it.
At its foundation, the act of seeking and granting forgiveness is rooted in our humanity and the frailty that often accompanies it. But not only that. The act of earnestly seeking and granting forgiveness strives to rise above this frailty and to overcome it, even if in retrospect. In the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “All life is inter-related. All men are caught in an in-escapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” It is from the recognition of this inescapable mutuality and common destiny that forgiveness, in its most noble form, is born.
I don’t want to oversimplify and diminish the monumental task of overcoming past pain, resentment, and bitterness to grant forgiveness to the offending party. But sometimes, in an effort to restore peace and hope, we may be overly optimistic about the state of our healing process, so we may rush to grant forgiveness prematurely. Perhaps, in those instances it should behoove us, instead of saying, “I forgive you” before we are actually ready, to say “I promise I will work on forgiving you completely.”
Instead of saying, “I forgive you” before we are actually ready, say “I promise I will work on forgiving you completely.”
How do we grant and receive forgiveness to and from others as well as ourselves? Besides the obvious asking for forgiveness, we should seek to restore what we can. You may recall a story about two youngboys who both needed a bike. One thought that he should pray that God would send him a bike; the other thought it was easier to steal the bike and then pray to God for forgiveness.But forgiveness requires a state of contrition and an act of reversal; you don’t get to keep the bike. You pay restitution; you serve time; you bring back some sense of recovery to the injured party. This is the heart of justice; justice serves to restore some sense of balance to a party suffering an imbalance as a result of an injury. True contritionmust come not only with genuine sorrowfulness but also have a restorative action component.
We must also know the limitations of forgiveness. The justice component kept showing up as I explored the concept of forgiveness. This is where it can get somewhat tricky. I have a bit of an issue with the biblical notion of “seventy times seven,” because I believe that our forgiving of others has limitations, as justice demands it to be so. I work as a chaplain at a veteran hospital. As you might imagine, I deal with many care recipients who have PTSD issues and often the guilt that comes with war and moral injury, where a soldier is ordered to perform duties that are in direct conflict with the moral foundations of life that they were taught as children, like those pertaining to love and goodwill. To put it plainly, soldiers are sometimes commanded to kill.
Some of these veterans confess that they had done horrible things to other human beings that are too painful to admit, and some speak of the atrocities that went beyond military command. One former soldier who was in hospice with only days left to live confessed to me of a grave transgression that he and a group of other men committed against a woman. Let’s just say that it was what you probably imagine. I am not entirely certain about how priestly confession works in Catholicism and how one is absolved of their offenses without restitution to the injured party or their families, who might still be dealing with the aftereffects. The man that sat before me had lived many years of peace and pleasure, never having to bear the consequences of his action, nor paying for his crime against this woman. He sat there, looking me directly in the eyes, pleading for some absolution. Perhaps, in his mind, my being the chaplain was the closest thing to God. I don’t know if he found absolution in that moment, but all I could muster—all I could to do for him—was to say, “God knows your heart.” As I listened to his words, his voice started to become muted and obscure, and the voice of that nameless, faceless woman began to call out to me for justice.
This is where the limitations of forgiveness lie. I don’t believe it is our place to absolve people of offenses that they may have committed against someone else.
This is where the limitations of forgiveness lie. I don’t believe it is our place to absolve people of offenses that they may have committed against someone else. Many times, the need of injured parties for justice may be greater than the need of those who seek absolution.
I try not to argue with people who think they know what will happen after we die, if anything. None of us really know. But I understand why some need to believe in heaven, hell, or a hereafter; I get it! Some have suffered so severely in this life that the only hope they have is for a court of justice in the hereafter to bring them some sense of a reconciliation in what had been denied them during their life here.
“I cannot forgive you for taking my brother’s life. I can only forgive you for the pain that you have caused me in the loss of my brother.”
I made the difficult decision to give a victim’s impact statement after the trial of a perpetrator, who was found guilty of the brutal murder of my brother. When I took the stand, I called my brother’s killer by his name, and he looked at me as I began to tell him about my brother, his generous nature, his propensity for honesty, his beautiful singing voice that he had now silenced. I told him that he was found guilty, and that his sentence that day was for his crime against the society. I went on to say, “After your sentence is served, you still have a reckoning to do; you will still bear the guilt of your actions.” I said to him, “The State can’t release you; and I cannot forgive you for taking my brother’s life. I can only forgive you for the pain that you have caused me in the loss of my brother. My mother and my siblings can only release you from the loss of their relationship with my brother that you have robbed them of. But none of us have the power or the right to forgive you for taking a life that was not yours or ours.” I continued, “There are only two beings that can release you from your guilt. The first one would be my brother, whose life you have taken, and the other one is the Source, the Giver of that life.”
But then I said, “Mr. Adams, I want to offer you some consolation and to leave you with some hope. When my mother, my siblings, and I went through my brother’s ransacked and blood-soaked apartment, we ran across my brother’s bible. In it we found a cardboard bookmark with an inscription in my brother’s broken handwriting. Mirroring the words of Jesus, he wrote, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” I told him, “I know my brother must have had you in mind when he wrote it.” The jurors were in tears, and the judge said she had never heard a more graceful statement. I knew that it wasn’t my place to wholly absolve this man of his actions. We need to know the limitation in our ability to forgiveness; to know where our boundaries lie.
I eventually experienced a breakthrough that enabled me to forgive my father. It was at a personal development forum in Minneapolis a few years ago. There, the moderator encouraged the group to seek completion and forgiveness by letting go of any unresolved issues one might have with someone in their lives.
The moderator began to give the guidelines on how I could get this done. We were to call and speak to these people in our lives, not assigning blame or telling them how they had wronged us, but acknowledging our own inauthenticity in refusing to let go. In other words, we were not to call them and then go about telling them how much they messed up.
I sat there, counting all the reasons why I could not release my father. Besides all that, by that time, he had already died. And just when I finished that thought, the moderator said, “If your father or mother is no longer alive; write him or her a letter. Let your letter be about your own inauthenticity in carrying the past all these years.”
The healing happened almost instantaneously when the facilitator began to tell us that our parents couldn’t be someone they weren’t. He went on and on, making sure that every one of the attendees comprehended what he was trying to get across, “Your father was the person he was because he was simply the person he was. He can never be someone he isn’t or wasn’t. Of all the choices you thought he should have or could have made; he could have only made the choices that he had made. End of story.”
Nothing from our past is changeable. It is forever fixed and is the breeding ground for regret and shame. Even if you can look back into the situation and can see a million different choices that were available to you or to someone else, the only real choice that was available was the actual choice that was made. I know that this may be difficult for some to hear. Once I counseled a 72-year old man who was still angry that his father had abused him at the age of 6. The pain was real. We talked for hours about what happened way back then. Now I don’t minimize the fact that abuse may take years of therapy or that there is rarely a quick fix to years of trauma. I realize, however, that in most cases, therapy is about dealing with the consequences and attempting to get the individual to begin to move to a place of acceptance.
The place of acceptance is supported by being in the present. The only way that we can actualize the present is by living in it.
The place of acceptance is supported by being in the present. The only way that we can actualize the present is by living in it. Eckhart Tolle wrote, “If your mind carries a heavy burden of past, you will experience more of the same. The past perpetuates itself through lack of presence. The quality of your consciousness at this moment is what shapes the future.”
As long as we feel, think, or believe that our loved ones could have done something differently than what they actually did, it would only keep us living in the past, and the real forgiveness is not possible or accessible. My father could only do what he did, and he could only choose what he chose in the context of his life’s circumstances that started even before he was born. For me, holding him to what I imagined him to be is not the reality of who he actually was then and who I am now.
I know this sounds a bit simplistic, but this realization changed my life forever. The letter I wrote to my father finally led me to true forgiveness. It sounds as if an 11-year-old child wrote it, because in all truth, this was the person who was wounded so many years ago. That’s how long I carried my anger. This is how long I had lived being incomplete.
Please forgive me for trying to make you into someone you are not. And forgive me for my anger toward you for your not being that someone whom I thought you should be. I no longer expect you to be the person you are not because it is impossible for you to be anyone else. Dad, I am so thankful that you and you alone are my father.
I have been blessed to have a father like you, simply because I now have a life that works; I have had great successes; I have experienced great jo, and, yes, some trouble and tears along the way; but that’s life.
Dad, I have lived a life of which you would be proud. I love my daughter and my spouse; in fact, I love all of my family. And I know that I have never told you this before… but I love you. So goodbye, daddy, may you rest in peace, knowing that you are loved and accepted just the way you are.
I chose to show grace to my father, and for the first time in my life I was able to forgive him because I realized that I could never change the past; I can only change my perceptions of it.
I had a long-time friend who a few years ago confessed that he has been upset with me over something that I had said over thirty years ago. He wanted me to address the issue and his anger. The problem was, I did not remember the incident at all, and so I told him that I didn’t recall the event; besides that, I no longer was the same person I had been thirty years ago. In fact, I no longer knew that person. None of us are the same people we were thirty years ago.
It is impossible for our older selves to undo the choices of our younger selves.
Who among us haven’t thought that they would like to go back and speak to the person they once were? To ask them to change their ways, to make different choices, to go down another road, or at least to buy some of that Google stock? It is impossible for our older selves to undo the choices of our younger selves. I asked my friend to forgive the twenty-five-year-old me. He found it difficult, since the 50-year-old me wasn’t sad or contrite enough.
It is important to remember that healing, just like grief, doesn’t have a timetable. And if we are the offending party, or the perpetrator who has done the difficult internal work and then expressly sought forgiveness, it may take time for the injured party to find it in their heart to forgive. It may even take them a lifetime.
We cannot demand forgiveness, nor can we expect it as a default.
We cannot demand forgiveness, nor can we expect it as a default. Although we may have done our part, it doesn’t mean that they have done theirs. And unless our offense was especially serious or heinous, we must learn our bitter lesson and ultimately work on forgiving ourselves. A wise person once said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
You could sit down and write a letter to your twenty-five-year-old self, forgiving that self of a choice that for some may still be a source of pain. Tell your twenty-five-year-old self that you know they could have only made the choice that they made back then. Accept the choice, be it good or bad. It is the only choice that could have been made because it was the choice that was made.
And if you were the injured party, if it is at all possible, start thinking about how the past can never change. Start envisioning ways to release someone who can never go back to undo a deed that was done. Start building on what is now, letting go of what no longer exists, the past.
- Take a moment, if you will, and think of 2-3 people whom you have offended, and the relationship was damaged or lost as a result, or the people who are no longer there:
- Is there anything you can do to make it better with these people? If so, consider working on making it better: apologize, seek to restore, seek to right the wrong.
- If there is nothing that can be done, seek to restore. Write your 25-year-old self a letter and release yourself from guilt and shame.
- Now do the opposite. Think of 2-3 people who wronged you.
- Reach into your heart and see if you can commit to working on forgiving them, even if these people didn’t expressly seek your forgiveness.
- Start with the idea that nothing done can be undone; the past is complete.
Forgiveness takes time; it takes work; and some things are easier to forgive than others. But every day there is an opportunity to give or receive forgiveness.
Every day there is an opportunity to give or receive forgiveness.
In some way, by forgiving something that happened in the past, we essentially cut off the causal thread that links that past to our present, and we prevent it from moving into our future. I’m not asking you to forget the past. Just reconcile it. I know that there may be things happening in our world that are unforgivable. There are some transgressions so egregious that there is no place for forgiveness or reconciliation. I’m not asking you to do that heavy lifting. That may take years of therapy; it may take more than just you. Some things will take all of us doing the lifting together.
In this present moment, our world is in desperate need for its people to discover or develop a process that leads us to a place of forgiveness, recovery, hope, and justice. Today, I task you to discover your processes for the giving and receiving of forgiveness; not beyond what you are able to do, but that which we all can do through acceptance, thought grace, and by living in the present moment.
May this process begin now.