“Pastor, there was a reason I had not been to church in three weeks” one church member told me years ago. When he said it, my mind raced for answers, “Was his mother in the hospital and I forgot to visit? Did I talk too much about money at the Wednesday night dinner?”
I said, “Ok, what was going on that made you miss the last three weeks?”
“It was your sermon topic.”
“Really? I have had people skip my sermon for other reasons, but it’s never been about the topic,” I said.
He said, “At the end of the service a month or so ago you mentioned you were going to start a three-week series on forgiveness. I can’t stand a person in my life right now. I’m in no place to forgive. ”
I was surprised. Most people I have met struggle with forgiveness and they are looking to hear how to forgive. This man had been so deeply hurt that the thought of being asked to forgive kept him away. I was haunted by his statement: “I’m in no place to forgive.”
The more I have reflected on those words, the more I can call to mind others saying the same thing, just in a different way. I have heard questions and statements such as these:
“How do you forgive someone who won’t admit they’ve done anything wrong?”
“I might forgive, but I won’t forget.”
“How do you forgive someone who is dead?”
“Once I forgive a person, how can I make sure they don’t hurt me again?”
People find themselves saying in their own way, “I’m in no place to forgive.”
I confess that even as a minister steeped in learning about forgiveness, it’s hard for me too. This coming Sunday, I’m preaching on some of Jesus’ final words, “Father, forgive them for they do no know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). To give some context, Jesus forgave the people who were jeering at him while he was hanging from a wooden cross. The savior of the world chose to use his final breath to forgive. If there ever seemed an appropriate time for a person to say, “I’m in no place to forgive” this was it!
Of course, we’re not Jesus. His power to forgive in the face of such brutality expressed the depth of mercy in the heart of God. God is a forgiving God. Even though we are not Jesus, we are not off the hook either. We are called to have the mind of Christ as Paul writes in Philippians 2:5. We strive to forgive because we are imitators of our Savior.
Forgiveness is a journey. Maybe some people can forgive at a moment’s notice. For most of us, forgiveness takes time. One of the most helpful analogies I can remember was offered by Pastor Adam (not Alexander) Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection. In his message, he compared sins to rocks.
He began by showing the congregation a pebble. He likened the pebble to a slight jab or insult someone else might throw at you. A pebble-sized sin is when someone purposely calls you out in front of people. Usually, we can forgive people by day’s end.
He then showed a medium-sized rock, the size of a baseball. This rock represents those times a person lies and gets someone else in trouble. It represents the car beside you in traffic that cuts you off. These will hurt us for a day or two or maybe a week but most people can be like Taylor Swift and shake it off (I’ve officially met my pop-culture eye-roll quota).
He then went to the middle of the platform and uncovered the last rock. It was a four-foot tall boulder. The boulder represents the kind of sins that can get a person fired from work, end a marriage and send people to jail. To forgive people for these types of sins takes work! Adam Hamilton could not toss it to the side. He brought out a hammer and a chisel. He said that when the sin against you feels this heavy on your soul, forgiveness often means chipping away at it each day. To chip away means a prayer each day to ask God for power to forgive. To chisel away at forgiveness means finding the strength to stay in the same room as the other person. You take steps toward forgiving that person. One day, after you chipped away long enough through your faith in Christ, the boulder is gone and the weight lifted.
For instance, I remember this one young man years and years ago (we’ll call him Jim) who couldn’t forgive his father for walking out on him and his mother when we he was a teenager. Jim refused to invite his father to his birthday party. He never answered the phone when his dad called for Christmas. The wound was too deep. But Jim got involved in a Bible study at the church. He talked openly about his hurt and how he felt that if he had a relationship with his dad, he would be betraying his mother. Jim’s mother entered the conversation too. She was in no place to forgive Jim’s dad. In fact, she admitted wishing her ex-spouse were dead at times. Then she admitted her guilt for feeling this way and that really she didn’t mean it.
God was working. One day, out of the blue, she said to me, “I want Jim to feel like he can have a relationship with his dad. I’m willing to give it a try.” Jim confessed to his mother that despite the pain, he did want to know his dad. Jim and his mother started with a prayer each night. By Thanksgiving, Jim reached out by text and followed up with a phone call. One day, Jim’s mom came up to me and said, “Will, you’ll never believe this. Jim and his dad went to a football game the other day. They are developing a good relationship. I’m happy about that.”
I asked, “That’s amazing! What about you? Have you forgiven Jim’s dad yet?”
She said, “Don’t push it. But I’m on the journey.”
Jesus is a forgiving savior. His magnanimous spirit is one to emulate. How might we all start our forgiveness journey?