Forgiving from Your Heart

One of the important parts of my life and work involves ministry with police officers. In recent years, this work involves a 3-day conference held twice each year in my state that seeks to provide encouragement, help, and healing for police officers who have been involved in critical incidents--shootings, other violent events, car wrecks, and more. I have been helping to lead these seminars for police for all the years since the infamous shootings at VA Tech, where I served as a police chaplain.

To attend these seminars with police officers is to be engaged in a big sea of complex thoughts and feelings, emotions and actions related to life and death, revenge and forgiveness. Here is an example. A police officer was killed in the line of duty and the murderer was on the loose. First, to have an officer killed in the line of duty is one of the most difficult things for any police department. Second, to have police searching desperately for one who killed a fellow officer is one of the most motivating and maddening pursuits that police have to handle. Tremendous grief and loss for a fellow officer and friend . . . get mingled with fear as the search unfolds . . . which gets combined with natural and intense desires for revenge . . . all of which can put effective police work in jeopardy. We are usually not at our best when those elements come together--grief, fear, and desire for revenge.

One officer, in a debriefing session that I will never forget, described it this way: "I was riding around filled with hatred. This criminal had killed one of my best friends. It was going to feel so good to find him and kill him. I was ready. I was focused. I had a mission. But as the hours passed, I realized how I was getting caught up in the rage and loss. I realized I was becoming, in my thinking and feelings, all that the killer was--a hateful, murdering person. I realized--'I am different. I have to be different. I am more than that. I cannot be pulled into that death-filled, hate-filled kind of existence.' He said, 'I have to be the trained officer whose duty is to protect and serve.'"

I have so much admiration and respect for police who have to deal with so much and who seek to serve among us.

In that case, the culprit was caught, not killed by police. There are obviously lingering issues--various emotions and sincere struggles with forgiveness and life after such tragedy. But the way that officer described his own struggle reminds us of the struggle we all have at various times. All of us can find ourselves swimming in the big sea of complex thoughts and feelings, emotions and actions that relate to revenge and forgiveness too. Lots of challenges and hurts can pull us away from our best selves, a long way from who we are called to be.

Someone once said that there are probably really only seven or eight basic themes for sermons. If that is true, forgiveness has to be one of those themes.

Jesus speaks often about forgiveness, and he does so as strongly as anything he says. Forgiveness is at the center of the Lord's Prayer--"forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Forgiveness is central to so many parables and stories of Jesus.

In this particular chapter, Jesus has been teaching about how to live together as God's people. He has just given instruction about what to do when you have a conflict with someone. You go and you confront them, striving for restoration and community. And then Peter asks Jesus, "So, if someone sins against me, how many times must I forgive? Seven times?"

Peter knows that forgiveness is part of faithful life. Indeed, forgiving seven times seems quite extravagant. Surely that has to be enough--enough faith and love, enough forgiveness to please God.

But Jesus says, "NOT seven times, but seventy seven times," which is a way of saying forgiveness is absolutely essential to faithful life, and even calculating it, trying to count it, is out of bounds for faithful people. Forgiveness is meant to be our way of life. Disciples forgive and forgive and forgive. That is Jesus' strong and continuous message.

Here is the deal--most of us accept the premise--that this is supremely important to Jesus, that Christians should forgive. What we struggle with is how to practice it.

How do we move from where we often find ourselves--hurt, angry, victimized, abused, alienated--to where we say, "I am more than that. God calls me to more than that"? How do we get our minds and hearts from thoughts of anger and hurt and revenge to sincere forgiveness from our hearts? That is what Jesus wants from us!

In order to move us from where we often find ourselves--hurt, alienated, angry, vengeful--to where we are called to live--boundless forgiveness--Jesus tells a great story about a king and a slave. This story is filled with circumstances so exaggerated in order to make his points.

Could a king be so extremely generous is forgiving such massive debt from a lowly slave? Well, the point is clear--that is how much God forgives each of us.

Could a slave, forgiven so extravagantly, then be so harsh with a fellow slave who had meager debts? Could someone actually walk out of the king's palace on a road paved by freedom and grace and then act with such cruelty to fellow slaves in debt? Well, the hyperbole makes the point--in fact, that is how we often live when we do not forgive.

There are two tools that Jesus uses to motivate us here. There is grateful response. God forgives so much; we are called to forgive. Goodness intends to lead to goodness. Grace intends to evoke gratitude and then more grace from us. But it does not always happen like that. So there is another motivator--punishment. When the slave fails to respond to generous forgiveness, there is the threat of torture: "So my Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive."

Which motivator most speaks to you? Some of us are motivated by positive news that calls forth our very best toward the kingdom of God. In Jesus" story, we have been given immense grace just like the slave of the king. Then some of us seem to be motivated by fear and punishment--look, forgiveness is so central to life, and if we like the idea, but fail to implement forgiveness into our heart and life as disciples--well, we are promised torture and suffering. Jesus wants to motivate us to faithful lives as disciples--lives that actually practice forgiveness--not sometimes, not seven times, but always and endlessly. What Jesus wants is "forgiveness from our hearts." Not ideas like, "Well, I can forgive, but I cannot forget." That is not forgiveness from your heart. Or we say, "I know I am supposed to love him, but that does not mean I have to like him." Well, that's not forgiveness from your heart.

Perhaps we might find our way toward real "forgiveness from the heart" in this way.

First, always we have to REMEMBER the context in which we live. We have to REMEMBER that we belong to God. God's love covers us. God's grace and forgiveness--as with the slave in the story--intend to form the backdrop of everything about our lives. We REMEMBER all that God gives us and we REMEMBER what Jesus expects of us--forgiveness intends to be central to life. Some call this "remembering rightly."[1] What we tend to REMEMBER is the wrong that was done to us. What we tend to REMEMBER is the hurt we feel or the betrayal that we experienced. We tend to REMEMBER how we were victims of the wrongs done to us. And when we REMEMBER only those things, we start signing on to the ways of the world, NOT GOD. When we remember only the evil that was done to us, we move NOT toward redemption and discipleship. We participate NOT in the emerging reign of God but in the struggling world that Jesus came to redeem.

Jesus calls us to another kind of REMEMBERING--the larger realm of God, the grace that covers us and sustains us. Forgiven so extravagantly, we are to be people who forgive. This is not just a good idea. This is to be our way of life.

Second, we have to work at CHANGING OUR THINKING and CHANGING OUR FEELINGS. When the police officer recognized how he was sinking into revengeful, murderous ways, he said, "I am better than that." When we find ourselves betrayed, angry, hurt, abused, our tendency is to react rather than respond. We tend to be full of vengeance and aggression instead of forgiveness, to hold grudges instead of living with grace. Jesus encourages us to not just react with aggressive thoughts and negative feelings. Jesus encourages us to respond in such a way that another, faithful, moral fabric emerges, a new realm takes shape. The cycle of evil and hatred is broken by love and forgiveness. The cycle of revenge and abuse is broken by new thoughts and feelings that actually free us for life closer to God's heart.

I am reminded of that old saying about anger and hatred. To nurture our anger and hatred is like drinking poison hoping that it is going to kill the other person. And yet all it does is kill us and separate us from God's love. Seventy seven times! We forgive and forgive.

To forgive does not mean we condone what was done to us. To forgive does not mean we acquiesce or deny justice. To forgive means to refuse to let what happened destroy us and alienate us from God and from one another. It demands hard work and vigilance, but it is the way to life and discipleship and to God.

Jesus invites us to "forgive from our hearts." May we go that way as faithful disciples. Amen.

Let us pray. O Lord, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to stand and serve you--with love and forgiveness--that is to abide forever. Amen .


[1] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory--Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.