Forgiveness is the ground in which we live. It is the only ground in which we can sustain living in a way that’s balanced and whole. living in a constant state of unforgiveness throws us off balance. Everything seems so off kilter for so long, we accept that skewed vision as the norm. Our word for ground, literally ‘dirt’ comes from the Latin humus, from whence we also get the words humans and humility. Humility and forgiveness are inextricably linked. This connection is not to keep the victim of wrongdoing forever the victim or the injured party. The connection between humility and forgiveness keeps us all on a level playing field. Humility and forgiveness in equal measure remind us of who we are, of the sorts of things of which we are capable and the consequences of these actions, both positive and negative.
An abundance of useful beneficial work in the field of forgiveness is been done by Dr. Virginia (Toddy) Holeman (Reconcilable Differences, 2004), Dr. Everett Worthington (Forgiveness and Reconciliation,2006) and Miroslav Volf (Exclusion and Embrace, 2010). Dr. Holeman’s work is in the area of interpersonal and family relationships and comes from a Christian counseling viewpoint. Dr. Worthington is one of the most valuable of writers-one who is actually living in the most difficult of situations calling for forgiveness and has the gift of articulating his personal journey in useful and meaningful ways. Miroslav Volf is a contextual theologian who grew up in the Serbian – Bosnian conflict. His work is known by his emphasis on humility – personal and political.
“How often do I have to forgive my brother?” Peter asked Jesus. “Seven times?”
“Seventy times seven.” Jesus replied. Jesus might as well of said Peter had to forgive one more time than had been wounded, in perpetuity, ad nauseaum. Peter had to forgive past the point where it made him sick to his stomach. That’s true for all of us. Past the point of fear and nausea comes the place of acceptance in the Holy Love Jesus modeled. It is that unconditional no-matter-what kind of love that makes forgiveness possible.
Forgiveness means: I will not destroy or sabotage this relationship with you even if you are trying to. Forgiveness is a means of fidelity. We as humans cannot be faithful like this on our own. We as humans can’t live like this our own. One of the most terrifying moments of my life was when someone I cared for deeply, yes loved, try to convince me that there was no such thing as unconditional love. In the fragmented way of human communication, the only broken shard I grasped from that conversation is that he would never be able to love me unconditionally. I continued to bleed from the realization that our promises to each other were at best conditional and based on behavior, financial status. Perhaps our relationship was controlled by some other factor totally beyond my control like the weather or the phase of the moon. Even stronger was his protest that not even God could love us unconditionally. We, not the creation that God called good, could be loved. We are just too broken. That kind of shame and guilt has been used for far too long to manipulate relationships – personal, social, and even religious. Literal fear of God, that we are spiders hanging by a thread over an immolating flame is not the heart of Jesus life and message. Those words were the beginning of the end of that personal relationship. Those of us who have relied on that travesty to scare people into some sort of religious decision need to look to our own glass houses before picking up another stone.
There IS love that is unconditional, the no-matter-what kind of love that we are capable of at our best moments. That’s because our best moments are empowered by Someone higher and bigger than you and I. The presence and power of Holy Love assures us of forgiveness and grace. Neither comes without sacrifice. Forgiveness and grace mean we still must live with the consequences of our actions and other people’s actions. Living simply with God and each other isn’t complicated, it’s just difficult.
Forgiveness in the places that we have been hurt and accepting forgiveness extended to us when we have hurt another cannot be accomplished by our own power. Human history-international, national, domestic and interpersonal-easily proves that point. We can only forgive and be forgiven, love and be loved, to the extent that we have accepted and live in the love and forgiveness offered to us by God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer; Father, Son and Holy Spirit; I AM; the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end; God who spoke order out of chaos in Genesis to create the world and speaks the same order out of chaos over our lives every minute of every day.
So how do we practice forgiveness? In the words of Greg Jones in the title of his seminal book on the subject: we must embody it (Embodying Forgiveness, 1995). Forgiving love, Holy Love can become part of that which we are if we will give ourselves and our agenda over to God. We practice forgiveness when we give up our agenda for revenge and getting even. We practice forgiveness even when we give up our right to our own hurt when we are the victim. We practice forgiveness when we accept and inhabit the hurt we have perpetrated when we are the offenders.
“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion — without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous… into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows [as the cross demonstrates] that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God’s love for him. And when one knows [as the cross demonstrates] that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of God’s justice and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.”― Miroslav Volf
Forgiveness is not saying that it’s okay. It’s not being a doormat when wrong is done to us. It is not allowing the perpetrator the leeway to say: “Just wait until I do it again so you can forgive me some more.”
Forgiveness is perpetrator and victim standing face-to-face, eye to eye and accepting life in the wounded-ness and fear of both parties and then walking away. Social justice and the morality demanded by life in community require restitution and consequences. That is for neither the victim nor the perpetrator to decide. Forgiveness is not about making excuses, sweeping the truth under the rug or slapping ax murderers on the wrist because they had horrible childhoods. There are social justice and moral problems of huge magnitude that must begin with the acceptance of burdens imposed and burdens carried.
In the end, the victim and the perpetrator must stand on level ground at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. Beyond all the courtrooms and legal chambers across our planet there is no higher or more eternal judge than the one who gave his life as the ultimate expression of forgiveness and Holy Love.
I offer no apologetic here. I offer no discussion of whether or not you believe that Jesus existed in historical sense or was resurrected in a bodily sense for whatever particular divine agenda might be on the table. To paraphrase the Psalmist: I was young and now I am old and I’ve never seen true reconciliation happen, with or without restored relationship, except by the expressed power of Holy Love working in the lives of ordinary people.
There is love. It is unconditional. There’s one tiny little caveat. We have to say yes. We have to accept that holy love. Then we can let it permeate our lives like the fragrance of frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh are two of those old Biblical gifts that heal and make us whole and make us holy.