If I had to guess, I think most folks would expect that since I’m a pastor I practice what I preach. Let’s just say, I try. I’m not so different from the folks who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday. I’m human and I’m imperfect. Shocking, I know. I struggle with all the same things everyone else does, including forgiveness.
The good people, let me correct that, the awesome, faithful people I serve, have heard me preach many times about forgiveness. Jesus teaches us to forgive seventy times seven and to turn the other cheek after all. And from time to time after one of those sermons, I have had someone approach me and tell me they feel like a bad Christian because they are struggling to forgive what seems to them (and me sometimes) the unforgivable. Their stories of pain wrench at my heart and there are times when all I can say is, “Dear God.” They want a magic wand or a formula in order to be able to do what they think they cannot. I tell them I don’t have one. I often invite and encourage them to pray and share their struggle with God. “God understands,” I say. “God knows what you are up against. God loves you and doesn’t think less of you because you are at a place of unforgiveness. Sometimes all we can do is try. Moment by moment. Day by day.” And truth be told, we may never get there. I think sometimes too, that giving it over to God is all we can do.
However, I also believe that depending on the wrong, if we are not careful, our anger will fester into resentment and eat away at our soul. We become so consumed by what someone has done to us. We want them to pay, to feel the pain they have caused us, and we cannot find peace until that happens. And chances are, depending on the wrong, that may never occur. In which case, we will have spent a good deal of our lives in a place of anger and pain, missing out on joy, allowing the person or situation that has wronged us to have control over our lives continuing to hurt us over and over again.
While that may make good intellectual sense it does not always translate to emotional sense especially in times of deep hurt and pain. Many people get through it, some do not. Whenever someone comes to me and shares their struggle to forgive, I am left wondering if I have any unresolved forgiveness issues of my own. It is a reminder to reflect and become self-aware of my own sometimes unforgiving nature. I have known betrayal and profound hurt. It is usually easy for me to let go of minor transgressions even when an apology hasn’t come, or if reconciliation hasn’t been sought. However, there have been other times, if I am honest, when I have borne an unforgiving heart.
Lately, I have been considering unforgiveness as a form of violence against oneself. We often think of violence in terms of extreme verbal and physical abuse. But often our self-talk and the burden of unforgiveness can take not only an emotional but physical toll, on us as well. It hurts, it can cause illness, and left untreated, it can destroy us. I think if we are to truly love ourselves, and we have to before we can love others, it would serve us well to forgive others in order that we may find calm and peace. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the behavior of the person who wronged or hurt us, it means that we will not allow their behavior to poison our being. It is an opportunity to be gentle, kind, tender and loving with ourselves. It is a great act of non-violence.
As I move through this season of Advent, I am preparing room for the Christ child in my heart by letting go of any unforgiving feelings that have been taking up too much space in my heart and taken up residence for far too long. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one, and as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Forgiveness is the final form of love.” The world needs more love. Yes? Yes, it does.