In The Art of Forgiving, the late Lewis B. Smedes tells this story: Her rage pinched her voice into a hiss as she defied me to tell her how she could forgive a creature who had done the worst thing to her that anybody could ever do to a mother. A man who had just moved into the house down the street from hers got drunk one night four months ago, fought with his wife, got into her Lexus, gunned it past her house, struck down her four-year-old boy, left him dead on the curb at the edge of her front lawn, and drove away. "Forgive him?," She wheezed, "Better he burn in hell."
Smedes continues: I had never felt more respectful awe at a mother's fury. It happened on a radio talk show. Ten minutes later, another woman called. "I heard the woman whose boy had been murdered," she explained, "and I knew I had to call and tell you my story because the same thing happened to me four years ago." It turned out that her boy too, was just four years old, that he had been struck by a truck driver, dragged fifty yards and killed. She had never really known before how powerful hate could make a person feel. Hate became her inner heat, its flames refueled each time a lumbering truck rumbled past her house. Every day that dawned, she ordered the Great Avenger to stomp his heel on this worm. Hate was her only strength.
For a while. Then it turned against her and began to choke her by degrees. After two years of captivity to her hate, she woke up to the fact that the man who killed her son was killing her. And she was giving him permission. What could she do to reclaim her life? See a therapist? Maybe. But she went to her priest first. The good father's first impulse was to push her straight into forgiving the man. But, then good sense got to him. He said, "Before you do anything, start a chapter of Mother's Against Drunk Drivers in our town. You have to let this town - and yourself in the bargain - know that you are mad as a hornet and are not going to tolerate drunk driving. After that, we can talk about forgiving." (Lewis Smedes, The Art of Forgiving, Ballantine Books, New York: NY, 1996, pp. 149-150).
The woman started the chapter of MADD in her town and gradually she backed into forgiving in the strength of intolerance and came back to life. Forgiving intolerable things does not make them tolerable. Forgiving starts out on the premise that some things are intolerable and no one should tolerate them. They are intolerable, not because no one has the stomach for them, but because they violate the laws of life. Forgiving intolerable things people do to us is the hardest threshold to cover when embracing forgiveness as a moral value (Smedes, p. 151).
We must also know that some things are intolerable no matter how many people put up with them. Additionally, intolerable things are forgivable. Forgiving an intolerable wrong does not make it tolerable. Forgiving an intolerable thing does not mean we intend to put up with it. So what are some of the things we should not tolerate? (This list is far from complete . . . In fact, the more we expand the list, the more questionable it can become). Cheating on a partner is intolerable. Cold-blooded murder is intolerable. So is abusing a child. Or abusing a spouse. Or lying to a friend. Forcing sex on someone who does not want it is intolerable. So is racism. These things are intolerable under all conditions, in all cultures, in all times. They don't become tolerable when some twisted people decide it is time to tolerate them. They would still be intolerable if everyone on the planet tolerated them. (Drawn from Smedes, p.151).
We hear people say of intolerable situations that something "is unforgivable." But that isn't really true. What we may mean is: "What you did to me is so intolerable that I may never be able to forgive you for it." But, the fact that you or I don't have the grace or wisdom to forgive something doesn't make it unforgivable any more than my inability to speak Portuguese makes Portuguese unspeakable. (Drawn from Smedes, p. 152).
In time, we learn that forgiving and not tolerating have nothing in common. Like the second mother who called the radio talk show, we may be able to back into forgiveness of the intolerable act. But, we never need to do so by accepting the intolerable act itself. Remember, intolerable things are forgivable. But, forgiving an intolerable wrong never makes it right.
In today's Gospel story, a woman is caught in the intolerable wrong of adultery. By Judaic law, she should be stoned to death. The Scribes and Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus as he is teaching in the Temple. Their hope is that Jesus will say and do the wrong thing in response to her adulterous ways. Jesus bends down and writes in the dirt. Then, after the constant badgering of the gathered Self-righteous ones, Jesus stands and says, "The sinless one among you go first. Throw the stone." He bends down again and writes in the dirt again. As he does, they all walk away, stones dropping to earth rather than flying at woman. Jesus gets out of the dirt one more time when all have left them. He asks, "Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?" "No one, Master," she replies. "Neither do I," says Jesus. "Go on your way. From now on, don't sin."
The intolerable is not tolerated by Jesus. But, forgiveness comes to the woman that day. Jesus does not condone her sin, but neither does he condemn her as a person. The Greek word for sin here is "Hamartia" which is an archers term meaning, "missing the mark." So, he is saying, don't miss the mark again. Perhaps I am wrong beginning with intolerable wrongs as we explore forgiveness as a moral value. Because, no matter what we are faced within the situation of forgiving, we always face three stages of forgiveness.
First, we need to rediscover the humanity of the person who hurt us. Second, we surrender our right to get even. Third, we revise our feelings toward the person we forgive (Ibid, pp. 5-6).
Both the greatest gift and the greatest curse we carry in life is our ability to remember. Lewis Smedes, writes: It has been said, that 80% of what we see lies behind our eyes. If this is so, 80% of what we see when we look at a person who recently wronged us and deeply wounded us must lie behind our eyes in the memory of our pain. We filter the image of the villain who harmed us through the gauze of our wounded memories and in the process, we alter his reality. He shrinks in our minds eye to the size what "he did to us." He becomes the wrong he did. No longer is he a fragile creature living on the edge of extinction. He is no longer a confusing mixture of good and evil. He is . . . the sinner who did us wrong. (Ibid., p. 6).
The journey of forgiveness begins when we see the other as human - filled with human frailties and pain, just as we are. I have often felt sadness or grief when faced with forgiving someone who has wronged me. I look at them and see a person who is torn apart inside themselves by resentments, fear, mistrust, and more. When I rediscover their humanity, I can begin the important work of forgiving their sin against me.
Second, we need to surrender our right to get even. Forgiveness means pouring the liquid fuel of vengeance into the earth. We often hang onto the toxic parts of our anger and resentments. They burn us up alive on the inside. We want our enemy to suffer as we have suffered. In the name of bringing justice to a situation, we hang onto old hurts. That raises a question: What is the difference between vengeance and justice? "Vengeance is our pleasure of seeing someone who hurt us getting it back and then some. Justice, on the other hand, is secured when someone pays a fair penalty for wronging another, even if the injured person takes no pleasure in the transaction. Vengeance is personal satisfaction. Justice is moral accounting" (Ibid. , pp. 7-8).
I can't tell you how many people I have seen in 20 years of ministry, who carry their hurts from life around everywhere with them. They inflict pain and suffering on others in their path because (in the words of the Apostle Paul) they have not worked out their own salvation. They dump their pain at home, at work, at school, at church. They dump it in the check out lines of supermarkets and on the telephone lines with telemarketers. They have not surrendered their right to get even and they get even with the wrong people, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, for the wrong reasons. In this, we see the toxicity of unresolved issues which have not been surrendered to the powerful healing balm of forgiveness.
Once we have recovered our offender's humanity and given up our right to enjoy getting even, we begin to feel new feelings toward the one who has wronged us. When we see a person differently, we feel that person differently. We may have felt simple hate before, now we merely "wish that some good things might come the weasel's way" (Ibid., p. 10).
After all, it is the best we can do! We begin, slowly and surely to move malice aside and give a weak and hesitant handshake of hope. We feel the benevolent stirrings of a miracle inside of us. Forgiveness, in its embryonic stages, is beginning to find a place in our heart. A miracle of healing is beginning in our hearts. There is so much more to say about forgiveness as a moral value. Each of us has work to do personally, in our family systems, in our culture and in our society when it comes to forgiveness.
Some of us need to work on forgiveness in the church as well. Having watched the Truth and Reconciliation proceedings in South Africa, I have become aware that we in need such a cleansing in the United States of America. We need to find ways to purge the toxic waste of racism and violence and hatred from our societal bloodstream. We need to find a way to forgive one another as God has forgiven us.
Henri J. M. Nouwen writes in Forgiveness: The Name of Love in a Wounded World: I am struck by how I cling to my own wounded self. Why do I think so much about people who have offended or hurt me? Why do I allow them to have so much power over my feelings and emotions? Why can't I simply be grateful for the good they did and forget about their failures and mistakes? It seems that in order to find my place in life, I need to be angry, resentful or hurt. It even seems like these people gave me my identity by the ways in which they wounded me. Part of me is "the wounded one." It is hard to know who I am when I can no longer point my finger at someone who is the cause of my pain!...
Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We do not even know what we are doing when we hurt others. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour - unceasingly. Forgiveness is the greatest work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family (Quoted in The Only Necessary Thing, Nouwen, Crossroad Publishing, New York, NY, 1999, pp. 152-153).
I encourage you, with all that is within me, to embrace the stages of forgiveness in your own life. First, rediscover the humanity of the person who hurt you. Second, surrender your right to get even. Third, revise your feelings toward the person you forgive. Begin the work. As Henri Nouwen says, "it is the greatest work of love (you will do) among the fellowship of the weak that is our human family.
In closing his book on The Art of Forgiveness, Lewis Smedes writes: Forgiving is the only way to heal the wounds of a past we cannot change and cannot forget. Forgiving changes a bitter memory into a grateful memory, a cowardly memory into a courageous memory, an enslaved memory into a free memory. Forgiving restores a self-respect that someone killed. And, more than anything else, forgiving gives birth to hope for the future after our past illusions have been shattered. When we forgive, we bring light where there was only darkness. We summon positives to replace negatives. We open the door to an unseen future that our painful past had shut. When we forgive, we take God's hand, walk through the door, and stroll into the possibilities that wait for us to make them real (p. 176). When we forgive, we set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner we set free is us . . . When we forgive we walk in stride with the forgiving God (p.178). And Jesus said to the woman, "I don't condemn you. Go on your way. From now on, don't miss the mark." Words we can live by. Words we can forgive by. Go and do likewise. Amen.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church