The journey toward our healing starts with unconditional love and forgiveness – unconditional love and forgiveness we offer first to ourselves. These two are so closely interwoven that it is impossible to conceive of unconditional love without forgiveness and vice versa. As God loves utterly and forgives utterly, so we are to offer love and forgiveness. Jesus in his reply to the Pharisees stated: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it; Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 37-39) In the prayer he gave to his friends, and in his subsequent explanation Jesus is quoted as saying: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive others … if you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Parent will forgive you … but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Parent forgive your transgressions.”
There is no doubt God desires that we are all healed and whole, yet self-forgiveness and self-love are either neglected or put in the “too hard” basket. Worse still, many of us have never heard this portion of the Gospel. Yet from our earliest days we have been subjected to moral and spiritual directions which have taught us what was “good” and what was “bad”; what was “expected of us” and what was “unacceptable or inexcusable conduct”. In fact, we are bent over by layer upon subsequent layer of shame and guilt, imposed on us by family, society, various spiritual decrees and regulations, by those who employ us and those with whom we work. Our greatest need is to see ourselves with the eyes of God, as people who are loved and are forgiven totally. We may need to turn to those skilled in the ministry of healing of memories to help unlock all those doors behind which we have repressed pain, anxiety, bitterness and failures together with the memories of those kindnesses we neglected, and all those acts of conciliation we refused. As Jungian John Sanford notes, “We are all of us wounded people. The is no such thing as a person who is free from illness, incompleteness, and injury to his or her personality. Some of us can simply hide from our woundedness better than others. When we can no longer hide from our woundedness, we are ready for individuation.” As those who have not yet forgiven nor loved themselves we remain unhealed people. What is our reaction when we are required by Jesus to love and forgive others as we love and forgive ourselves, if we have not yet made peace with ourselves? How can we express unconditional forgiveness and love to others when we have not yet experienced it in our own lives?
Fear – the opposite of love – is manifested in many forms: hatred, jealousy, pride, resentment, anger, greed, prejudice, hostility, conceit and various “-ism” words. Each and every one of these manifestations of fear corrodes our personality, our spiritual walk, our attitudes and our physical bodies. Changes in blood pressure, indigestion, ulcerated stomachs, nervous breakdowns and coronary attacks can often be traced back to lack of unconditional love. Unconditional love frees us from all bonds and restrictions – we rejoice at the successes of others, and mourn over the plight of many. We are so filled with love that life bubbles over. Those who are yet to know this experience of unconditional love often close in on themselves, creating a universe of which they are the center. They are fearful and jealous of their reputation, they begrudge the successes of others, they become neurotic and sometimes paranoid that there is a conspiracy somewhere directed against them. Their fear, hatred and jealousy eat away at their peace of mind, at their relationship with the Creator, and at their physical bodies. They become consumed by fear, riddled by the worms of nightmares of their own making. Their lives are punctuated by explosions of anger, and as such are immature reminders of childhood. Whether these outbursts are used as a release of tension or frustration, or whether they are used as a weapon, they are still only tools of manipulation. James 4: 1-2 speaks of these outbursts.
God continues to love all of creation, passionately, unconditionally. For God so loved the world that …
“If love is the soul of Christian existence, it must be at the heart of every other Christian virtue. Thus, for example, justice without love is legalism; faith without love is ideology; hope without love is self-centeredness; forgiveness without love is self-abasement; fortitude without love is recklessness; generosity without love is extravagance; care without love is mere duty; fidelity without love is servitude. Every virtue is an expression of love. No virtue is really a virtue unless it is permeated, or informed, by love (1Corinthians 13).” – Fr. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism.
Why shouldn’t those who have wronged us be punished, made to bear the cost of their actions/words? We all have a deep-seated conviction that “someone ought to pay.” Jesus spoke of this “eye for an eye” attitude – the letter of the law – as being superceded by the requirements of Love. How can things ever be made right? How can those words/actions be wiped from the memories and lives of the victims and of others? Revenge merely sets one on the same level as the one who has wronged you, forgiveness moves you both closer to God. From forgiveness it is a tiny step to accept others as beloved children of God, and to love them as such.
Jesus demonstrated that God condemns no person; therefore why do we? Why do we refuse forgiveness when for our own healing, wholeness and peace of mind we need to be forgiven and to offer forgiveness? “Forgiveness means that we have asked for a miracle: the ability to see through the mistakes that someone has made to the truth that lies in all our hearts” – Marianne Williamson, Illuminata. Forgiveness is seeing others as loved as equally as we are by God, and as justified, forgiven and reconciled by the blood of Jesus as we are.
Forgiveness removes our rights to avenge and to revenge. It prevents us from attacking others. Forgiveness costs – often it seems to produce more pain than the original wounding. It involves accepting voluntarily the harm or evil that has been inflicted on oneself, and letting the other person go free. In love, we bear the cost of those sins against us. Both human and divine forgiveness are substitutional. The cross was the price God paid to forgive us. We could never pay the debt of sin we owe to God, so God paid it for us. By our forgiveness of others we pay their debt to us.
Forgiveness does not mean we suppress our anger – forgiveness means we give up our right to anger. Alone we cannot do this, it is far too hard. Every person is one for whom Christ died, and one whom God regards as a perfect, loving child. We need to recognize that each and every one of us is an immortal soul. Our actions and reactions will become part of the immortal record of our lives. We need to turn to God and ask for strength to tread this path, so that we may offer forgiveness, acceptance and love to others. Only God knows and understands others, so rather than trying to analyze their motives, we need only to be accepting and forgiving. In Col 3: 12-14 Paul speaks of this. God has never refused forgiveness to any person, nor turned away from any.
There can be no peace without forgiveness. Forgiveness does not erase the past, nor can forgiveness change it. Instead forgiveness removes the power of the past to cause pain or anger; it provides permanent healing of those memories. Forgiveness empties the bitterness from our lives. Bitterness left to fester will erode our attitudes, our rationale and motives and our relationship with God. To be able to accept God’s forgiveness we must be free in ourselves to offer forgiveness to others. We must be prepared to offer this forgiveness not only once, but should a memory of the offence be renewed we must offer forgiveness once again – continually. To offer forgiveness continually is to live forgiveness by accepting the rough and tumble of life, by turning disappointments into opportunities. While we still may not like the person(s), or may find a clash of lifestyle or philosophy to be a bit too much to say ‘friend’, we at least reach out to find the common ground and see if friendship, or at least the ability to work and live together, develops.
C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory speaks of the unconditional love we are asked to demonstrate:
“And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat — the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”
It is by forgiveness that we dissolve the bonds that tie us to those we forgive, as well as to our old thought patterns and beliefs. Without the willingness to forgive we perpetuate the pain, the abuse and the memories of those past traumas continuing in our present time. We have no need to confront that person(s) to offer forgiveness. We can ask God to wrap them in our forgiveness and love, or we can choose to visualize sending a cloud or blanket of love and forgiveness to them and having it enfold them. Those who use a pipe in prayer will also know how to send such blessings. There is no barrier to prevent us extending our forgiveness, save our own willfulness. Perhaps we don’t choose to forgive today, or let go of those painful memories just yet. We want to hug them a little longer to our breasts, to feel the thorns again pierce our flesh. Why? Why in the name of the Risen Christ do we Christians choose this option? Christ has borne the cost of forgiveness, why must we punish ourselves by refusing forgiveness? Why do we choose to continue to live as the victims of rape, of verbal or emotional abuse, and of rejection when in an instant we can set ourselves and the perpetrators free? Do we not believe we deserve the peace and joy such forgiveness will secure? What is the fear which will not permit us to live as healed, whole, radiant people?
As a society, as a nation, as part of all creation we need communally to seek forgiveness from God. While a society cannot be ordered to don sackcloth en masse, we can gather publicly and commit to the change, and the Christians of our nations can (as individuals and as the Church) confess our sins before God and another (or many others) and seek God’s forgiveness. Our society and our nations have practiced racism; we have been willing to destroy the mountains of food we have overproduced while millions in the world starve; we have not spoken out when we have seen the rights, the homes and the lives of others destroyed; we have created barriers of class, gender and sexuality. As members of our societies and our nations we must be prepared to seek forgiveness from those whom we wronged, and try to make restitution. Sometimes restitution is not possible, but our act of confession and sorrow allows the growth of roots of healing. And with this healing comes reconciliation.
Reconciliation is not easily achieved on either side, for each of us has been damaged by our own acts and by the acts of others. We have built defensive walls to protect us from further damage. God will need our permission to start demolishing these walls. But by the gift of unconditional love and forgiveness Jesus has moved to restore our relationship with God and our relationship with each other.
For this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.
Sometimes I believe we forget the price God paid so that we could be forgiven, so that no trace of those sins would ever remain to convict us in God’s sight. Jesus was physically put to death, his body broken, spilled out for us. When we read the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ commission for each of us, we cannot but note that God’s directs our concern outward to others. It is our neighbours, our families, our enemies, and the untapped fields waiting to be reaped for Christ which are the focus of God’s attention. When we share the Eucharist it is not a solitary meal, for even if we are celebrating it by ourselves, we do so within the entire universal family of believers, past, present and future. God’s love and forgiveness pour out, as Christ’s blood was poured out, for all. And that includes all from whom we have withheld our forgiveness. We can never be sure of the hidden compulsions which cause people to strike out, so how can we judge their words and actions justly? God does know, and God forgives.
Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.
We are called to be a peculiar people, to view life differently and to live it differently. In some ways our walk may seem topsy-turvy to others; our values have changed from self to service. In Matthew 5: 21 – 24 are recorded Jesus’ words which challenged his hearers’ previous thoughts about their relationship to each other and to God. Jesus not only overturned the tables at the Temple, but he overturned our responses to one another even to this day. When, after the war, Corrie ten Boom met a former guard who had been responsible for the torment of women in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, try as she could, her hand would not extend to touch his … until she put the matter in God’s hands, and forgave. She could then clasp his hand and bless him. Topsy-turvy it could seem.
The words whose echoes still resound in the ether, continuing to challenge us to repudiate the reasons we use to justify withholding unconditional love and forgiveness, are those which Jesus spoke at Calvary:
Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.