Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Lent 2020: Forgiveness Is a Two-Way Street

In today's Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches The Lord's Prayer. It's one of the prayers most common to all flavors of Christianity, from Catholic to Orthodox, liberal to evangelical. Almost all Christians know it and say it.

The question is, do we really take it to heart? Because it not only humbles us before God, but it also expects something of us in return.

First, "thy will be done." We sometimes turn to God in prayer to get something we want. Yet God is not a wish-granting genie, and the purpose of prayer, at its core, is to conform ourselves to God's will. We're not going to change God's mind by asking super-extra nice. It doesn't work that way. What will be, will be. Even Jesus, praying with all his might in the Garden of Gethsemane the evening before his death, ended his supplication by saying "yet not my will but yours be done."

Second, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Most of us are probably eager to embrace the first part of that line, but maybe not so much the second part. And if that weren't hard enough, Jesus doubles down immediately after teaching the Lord's Prayer and tells the assembled crowd: "If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions." What he's asking us to see is that God made forgiveness a two-way street. He will freely forgive us, but only if we also forgive others.

God's not being an unreasonable, crotchety old meanie here. He wants us to humble ourselves, to empty ourselves of our need to be right, to hold grudges, to refuse to mend wounds and move on. We can't come to him full of the idea that we're in the right. We have to come to him with the humility of one who recognizes that he's in charge, not us. We don't call the shots, as much as we might like to think we do. Just as we'll be judged to the same extent we judge others, so we will be forgiven to the extent we forgive others.

So how the heck do we do that? It's not easy by any means. I ought to know, because I used to be a notorious grudge-holder. No one could hold a grudge like me. I'd hold on to things literally for years. And I absolutely refused to back down. If I did, I felt like I was letting the other person get away with being wrong. I was caving in. And my ego simply wouldn't allow that.

Then I got older, and maybe a tad bit wiser. I had a kid, which changes your perspective. And I got sick, which has a way of softening you and rearranging your priorities. I realized that I wasn't gaining anything by insisting on being right. No one but me cared about how, in my stubbornness, I clung to "the principle of the matter." I just decided to let things go. More importantly, I was able to see that I wasn't always in the right. My ego had always insisted on saying that the other person was in the wrong. But maybe, I realized, that wasn't always true. Maybe sometimes I was the bad guy.

I still struggle with all this at times, but I do think I'm better than I used to be. Nowadays, if someone annoys me or wrongs me, I do my best not to hold on to it. I overlook it and get over it, or, if the person has a history of being toxic, I'll just cut them out of my life, wish them well, and move on. I'm certainly not going to let them live rent-free in my head, which is what I did for years with those whom I felt had wronged me in some way. Why do that? Just move on.

Sometimes, people criticize this aspect of the Christian walk, especially those who have suffered abuse at the hands of another. And I totally get that, as someone who was abused as a child. If you forgive an abuser, aren't you just enabling the abuser, and telling him that what he did to you was OK? Aren't you saying, in a sense, that you deserved the abuse?

Well, this is a topic I don't take lightly by any means. I completely understand why abuse victims would suffer to forgive. But the lesson I learned was that forgiveness doesn't have to mean "what you did to me was OK." To me, it means looking deeply into the abuser's brokenness, and working to understand what it is inside that person that makes them think it's OK to mistreat another human being. What experiences created that person? Because it's obvious that there's something wrong with someone who resorts to abuse. Maybe they were never taught empathy. Maybe they're struggling with mental illness. Maybe they themselves were abused, and abuse is simply a learned behavior for them. Maybe they're so angry with themselves that they take their anger out on others. Whatever it is, the abuse comes from a place of disorder or pain, and it's that which we can have mercy and pity on, if we struggle with forgiving the person or their actions.

That's how I moved past my many years of anger at my abuser. I was able to separate myself from the abuse and look at what caused her to be an abuser. I know that she was a very unhappy person who struggled mightily with her personal demons. I know she suffered from mental illness and addiction. None of that makes what she did OK, but I can have pity on the brokenness within her that caused her to become an abuser. A happy and well-adjusted person wouldn't abuse a child. I can feel sorrow for the fact that she was unhappy and in turmoil. Once I was able to do that, she no longer lived in my head, and I set her behind me and moved on. I no longer wished her ill. By this time, she had died, having lived a short and tortured life, and I was able to find the grace to pray for mercy on her soul.

As we forgive those who trespass against us.

Forgiving others isn't something we do to get off the hook with God. We ought not do it because we feel obligated lest we suffer divine punishment. It has to come from the heart, and it's not always an easy thing to do. If you struggle to forgive, take it from me -- be patient and kind with yourself. Give yourself the time you need. And forgive only when you're ready to. But work toward it. That's the key. Don't give up. You'll feel the shift in your heart when it's time.

This is the hard work of Christianity. The hard work of humbling ourselves, picking up our crosses in imitation of Christ, and striving to conform ourselves to the will of God.

The Lord's Prayer, then, is not just a nice collection of words we say to please the Father. It's a challenge to us to change how we see the world. It's a call to humble ourselves before God and our fellow humans. It is, at its core, a prayer of personal transformation.

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