VIEW VIDEO I drove down to our farmhouse this past Tuesday to mow, a trip now reminiscent of the Shackleton Antarctic expedition, except I wasn’t trapped by the ice a hundred miles short of the South Pole, but was stuck in Martinsville in the I-69 detour without food or water. When I finally arrived at the farm, I discovered I was out of gas for the mower, so drove the ten miles back into town, then returned to the farm and started mowing only to get stuck in a ditch with no one around to pull me out, so had to tie a rope around the mower and drag it out of the ditch, which hurt my back, so I went inside to get an aspirin and discovered we were out. I tried meditation instead, which didn’t work, it never does, but I keep trying it because it’s cheaper than a chiropractor, so today I’m feeling every single minute of my sixty years.
Wouldn’t you just love to have one easy day? I know it’s all relative. This past Tuesday while I was wrenching my back, someone else was learning they had terminal cancer, so it’s always relative, and there’s always someone who has it worse than you do, but wouldn’t it be nice to have just one day where everything happened magically and easily, with no effort. If you have a day like that, treasure it in your memory, for it is rare indeed. I am reminded of that whenever we talk about becoming whole, which we had been doing before our detour for Easter and last week’s message by Dr. Leah Gunning Francis.
Today we continue thinking about the habits of wholeness─those customs, patterns, and behaviors that help us become who we were created to become. Becoming whole is hard work. If it is easy for us, we probably aren’t doing it right. What are the habits of wholeness we must cultivate? Thus far, we’ve talked about balance, by which we mean giving each aspect of life its proper weight, place and priority, lest we lose our sense of equilibrium and fall. Then we discussed patience, which we defined as the calm acceptance that things can happen in a different order than the one you have in mind. Since giving that message three weeks ago, life has conspired to test my patience on a daily basis and I have had to regularly remind myself that things can happen in a different order than the one I had in mind.
Today, I want to talk about a third habit of wholeness, and if you thought balance and patience were difficult, then try this one. Forgiveness. In a study on forgiveness, psychiatrists at Berkeley University defined forgiveness as “the conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your pardon.”
Forgiveness is deliberate. It is an on-purpose decision. It is not done thoughtlessly or recklessly. It is intentional. It doesn’t deny the feelings of retribution or revenge we might feel, but it chooses not to be ruled by them. It decides not to let those feelings dominate or govern our lives.
Forgiveness doesn’t diminish the pain others have caused us. It recognizes that real and actual harm has been done. It never discounts the damage and injury done to us or another. Indeed, it acknowledges that some hurt is so grievous it doesn’t deserve our forgiveness and that some people are so unmindful they will never realize the harm they have caused others. But we realize our refusal to forgive can create such resentment and bitterness within ourselves, that in the interests of our own well-being, our desire for revenge must be released, lest we become unwell. Remember what Anne Lamott said, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison then waiting for the rat to die.” Not forgiving eats us up.
The writer Emo Philips once said, “When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that God doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bicycle and asked God to forgive me.”
But forgiveness isn’t just God’s work. It is our work too. It is a habit we cultivate in order to become whole and complete human beings. Forgiveness is our work too. And I mean the word work literally. It is work. It is an effort. It never happens magically and easily. It takes time. The families of the slain Fed-Ex workers should not be asked or expected to forgive an injury they are only just now beginning to comprehend. Forgiveness is work. It is an effort. It never happens magically and easily. It takes time.
I remember a man coming to me who had found out the day before that his wife had been unfaithful. He said, “Of course, I forgive her.” As it turned out, he hadn’t, he’d just thought he should. He thought forgiveness should be automatic for Christians, that if you were a Christian you forgave people instantly, without delay. But I think pain and injury must first cool for forgiveness to be both extended and appreciated. My mom used to make these wonderful cherry pies, and I always wanted to eat them straight from the oven, but my mom wouldn’t let me. “Let it cool first,” she would say, “It will taste better.”
Some things are better after the heat of passion has cooled. Forgiveness is like that. Time allows the allows the perpetrator to become aware of the harm they have they caused, and simultaneously allows the offended to appreciate the liberating power of pardon.
Let’s recap, Friends. Forgiveness is deliberate and intentional. It doesn’t easily dismiss or deny the harm caused. While it is nice if the offender is aware of the pain they’ve caused, some people are clueless and will never understand what they have done no matter how many times you tell them. Forgive them anyway so the rat poison doesn’t kill you. Forgiveness is work. But it is not just God’s work. It is our work too, and takes time, because passion must cool for forgiveness to be fully appreciated.
That mythical one easy day doesn’t exist. Life is not only a series of joy, it is a series of struggles, one of the greatest of which is releasing our anger and bitterness at the proper time. When we do that well, when we cultivate the practice of forgiveness, we are well on our way to human wholeness.