For us to say that we forgive someone is one of the easiest things in the world for most of us. For us to feel it can, at times, be a long and difficult struggle. I have often said that I feel the reason that so many people attach a set of proscribed activities and rigid dogmatic rules to their Christian faith are because the rules that Jesus taught and shared are often among the most difficult for many human beings to live and follow; loving our enemies, doing good to those that do harm to us, and always forgiving others when they sin against us. But it is in the following of these guidelines Jesus blessed and gifted us with that we come a little bit closer, in my opinion, to touching what God is really all about — love, mercy, compassion, kindness, and grace.
To me the way we show our gratitude for all God has given us, all God has done for us in our lives, all the blessings we have known, is to show it by expressing our love for all the rest of God’s children, which means all of us. One of the ways we can show that love is by seeing the Christ and the God that is in everyone, even when they are hiding it below a mask of pain, hurt, and anger they might be feeling that causes them to react to us in ways that are at times less than loving, at other times downright hurtful. God, our Creator sees us, in my view, as beautiful and perfect, just as God sees all of creation. It is we who allow that at times to be obscured by fear and pain.
I do not have a belief in the theory of “original sin” in the traditional sense, or the doctrine of “all have sinned and fallen short” in the literal sense, yet I do. I don’t believe that anyone is truly “rotten to the core” or that anyone is born a “bad seed”. To me this belief only perpetuates in us the things that cause us to do rotten things sometimes, those things like low self-esteem. What I do believe in, however, is the fact that I don’t think that any of us can say that we have gone through our lives and never hurt another of God’s children, whether deliberately or on purpose. I know from experience that fear, which usually takes over if we have turned away from God or have allowed ourselves to feel distant from God, can cause us to act in some very destructive and potentially hurtful ways. I have done this, and I have felt the ensuing pain, only to find out later that if I had simply turned inward and listened to and trusted in God, that I never would have felt the need to act out of fear.
I feel that Jesus taught that the greatest wrong we could do was to deliberately and selfishly act in a way that hurt another one of God’s children. I feel that the only way we sin against God is by sinning against one another and acting in unloving ways, and that yes, sometimes we do fall short. To me if we are truly loving God more than anything, we would never dream of deliberately harming another human being. Yet sometimes, despite the best intentions and effort, we still do. That, to me, is the human fallibility that Jesus rose above in His Divinity. And when we act in a way that hurts another, then sometimes they hold that hurt within and give it back to us, and we volley it back and forth creating a lose-lose situation, the type that forgiving can rescue us from. Or sometimes the hurt that is given to another can remain inside of them, and they pass it on to another, who passes it on to another, until it has spread into something that is one of the worst form of cancer, a legacy of pain and revenge, sometimes exacted on those who are innocent which could have been avoided had forgiveness been practiced. Or sometimes, worst of all, we may hurt someone and be unable to forgive ourselves and exact revenge on ourselves through self-hate and self-hurt. But there is a cure for all of these and it begins with forgiveness.
To me, forgiving breaks that chain of hurt and starts the negative events that created that chain working backward until it creates a good thing, an opportunity for growth and love and reconciliation, from a downward spiral to an upward one. Who cannot see the beauty in the depth of Jesus’ love for all of God’s children, even the ones who had Him crucified, as he forgave them for succumbing to the illusion of their fear of what He was teaching and acting destructively? Who cannot agree with the feeling it gives one to be able to love and forgive those who are persecuting us for who we are, simply because they have been made to fear, out of their misunderstanding of what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or different in some way from what they were taught by those in fear of us to be “acceptable?” To me the greatest challenge we all face as LGBT Christians is forgiving those whom are acting out of fear and misunderstanding and creating pain and hurt for us. Who cannot see the tremendous opportunity for us to let our light and understanding of what Jesus taught us to live bring light to the lives of the entire Christian community, the LGBT Communities and the world?
Not forgiving has consequences, and they are not always small. I relate back to the events of the past year that we have been witnessing on the news; the tragic death of the students in Littleton, Colorado recently is a prime example for both the need and the opportunity for forgiveness. Did those boys who committed the shooting have an opportunity for reconciliation? Did they know about forgiveness? In my opinion they were acting in revenge — revenge for their pain and for feeling outcast and being ridiculed for being “different”. As a bisexual I can understand exactly what that means. I have been bashed and ridiculed by conservative Christians and non-Christians alike. But Jesus speaks from my heart and tells me, no matter how hard it is, you must forgive, otherwise the personal consequences could be devastating. I think what happened to these poor boys in Colorado was that no one ever showed them the release, the inner peace that comes from forgiving those who have hurt us. Those who hurt us have, in my eyes, been temporarily blinded from the Truth, that everyone is a child of God and therefore precious, no matter what personal prejudice or fear we allow to interfere with that perception at times. The pain built inside them and turned to rage, and now there is a new challenge, for the rest of us to forgive the hurtful thing they did. The same thing for those who have committed hate crimes against us just for our being LGBT people. It is my sincere belief that it is out of a distorted vision of God they may have been taught to believe, and their own fear clouding the reality that we are all God’s creation and therefore should be loved as such.
I have heard it said that a rattlesnake, which bites itself, will eventually die from its own poison. This to me is the perfect analogy of what not forgiving can do to our soul. It can slowly become bitter and poisoned, until we can to our own dismay, find ourselves wanting to strike back a bit like a rattlesnake and poison another — sort of a “misery loves company” type solution that isn’t a solution at all. But I think that until we are truly able to forgive even the worst hurt that we cannot understand what true unconditional love — like that which Jesus represented — really is.
Jesus had so much to say about forgiving and that we should not set limitations upon it. I recall being in a Bible study and hearing about the time when Jesus forgave a person and those around Him were astounded that He seemed to have the authority to forgive human sins. In my mind it clicked that He was telling us that we have the power and ability to forgive others, even when they have wronged us. We have the ability to do what at one time it was thought only priests, rabbis, and religious leaders were able to do. He was also telling us what we needed to do to avoid the consequences of hurt — the consequences that take place as we reap what we sow. Emmet Fox once wrote, “Christ is the Lord of karma”, and though I do not visualize God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit as a source of punishment, I do believe in sowing and reaping as a Natural Law of the Universe God Created. I have witnessed it, both positively and negatively too many times to disregard it as a superstition. I believe if one does not forgive and decides to hold in the pain and possibly cut themselves off from another person who acted in error, creating brokenness of relationship, everyone loses. Forgiving is a win-win situation. Through forgiveness God can rescue us from the poison of fear, and if we feel we have injured another of God’s children, we have been assured by Jesus that if we forgive, we too shall be forgiven.
One of the things Jesus said that has always astounded me was the simple words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” This to me and many others is the cornerstone of what it means to be a practicing Christian, and was so shocking, if not incomprehensible to the religious leaders of his day. He was saying that what God desires more than anything else is for us to treat one another with Love, Mercy, and Compassion — that overrides any dogma or doctrine. What I have found disheartening at times, however, is that there are many religious leaders today that find this as being the core of the Christian faith as an incomprehensible idea. I recently participated in a religious forum where a conservative Christian called me and all other LGBT people an “abomination” even when we are living with honesty, integrity and love for God and neighbor and yet he went on to extol how he knew that Jesus would support the death penalty. I asked him about forgiveness and he just began quoting scriptures to defend his position. I wondered where, if at all, forgiveness figured into his Christian faith. It made me exercise my own ability to forgive his fear and prejudice.
For someone like myself, forgiveness has not always been the easiest at times, and I think one of the most difficult involved a person who claimed to be a friend who stole over $15,000 dollars from me under false pretenses and worse than that, lied to me about things that hurt me very deeply. I recall in those days, before I had reconciled with God attempting suicide and standing at this person’s front door, wrists bleeding, and in tears, and listening as they reassured me with lies to keep me from begging them to give me money back. I recall being in a relationship with someone who cared nothing about me and took advantage of me in order to benefit themselves. And I recall the homophobia and heterosexism and hate I endured at the hands of the church growing up, the silent screams I would hear inside as my parents condemned homosexuality and bisexuality, not knowing how they were hurting me, and the discrimination I receive still today from members of both the homosexual and heterosexual communities for being bisexual. But all I have to do in order to forgive is to look within and listen to my heart, look at and cherish the beautiful blessings God has given me in life, and know the peace I have found through practicing the teachings of Jesus and then I feel no need to hold a grudge or hurt someone back for what they did to hurt me. When we know that God loves us, cares
for us, and accepts us unconditionally then there is no way that we could ever hurt another of God’s Children, for all we desire is to thank God by embodying Christ and Loving One Another.
And for those of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender the challenge to forgive is there at times, especially when we find ourselves called to forgive those who are trying to tell us that we are not acceptable to God. The very best wisdom I can pass on in this instance is to remember that they have been hurt, too. They have been hurt by believing in a God that loves some and not others, that behaves a lot more like human beings can at their worst than the God embodied in Jesus Christ, a God that many of them fear instead of rejoice in. As LGBT Christians I feel the most powerful thing we can do is let Christ shine through us and forgive the way they hurt us whether intentional or unintentional and allow God to work through the witness of our lives to educate them that the fears they have are unfounded. When we forgive we break the chain of hurt and pain and God begins to create in us a new heart, one of love and compassion and reconciliation.
Think to yourself: is there anything at all to be gained from holding a grudge? If someone has hurt you, either recently or long ago, have you forgiven them and let it go or are you letting it eat you up inside? God wants us all to be freed of this pain if we still carry it around, free to live, to love, to embrace the life of joy and abundance, the Kingdom Jesus knew which exists for us all whosoever we may be, where there is no pain. I have always found that forgiving takes a lot sometimes, and is often a difficult process depending on what we are called to forgive, but God will definitely help us through every step, or carry us, and the end result is a life free from any of the wounds and scars that we may find ourselves yoked with when we cannot let go of old pains.
Jesus said that we are not to forgive seven times, but “seventy times seven”. A friend once tried to ask me what that number would come out to, and I think I told him, “I don’t care what it adds up to. To me it means infinity. You can’t limit forgiveness. If you limit it you miss the point.” And so I still believe. But if we all do our best to practice it and let our doing so be our witness and testimony to our faith, I think we might see the bringing about of the Kingdom God intended comes a little closer to us each day.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.