Why Do We Forgive?
Why Do We Forgive?
Our passages today focus on reconciliation, the hard work of forgiveness. It might not look that way at first glance, as the passages have more finger pointing in them than words of forgiveness. However, if you dig deeper you will find that the theme of forgiveness and the restoration of relationships is at the heart of the passage.
Some years back the Templeton Foundation funded a major nationwide study on people’s attitudes toward forgiveness. Co-sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute for Mental Health, the study found that 75% of Americans are “very confident” that they have been forgiven by God for their past offenses. The lead researcher, Dr. Loren Toussaint, expressed great surprise at such high confidence, especially since many of these same people are not regular church attenders. Still, three-quarters of the people surveyed had few doubts about God’s penchant to let bygones be bygones.
The picture was less bright, however, when it came to interpersonal relations. Only about half of the people surveyed claimed that they were certain that they had forgiven others. Most people admitted that whereas God may be a galaxy-class forgiver, ordinary folks struggle. It’s difficult to forgive other people with whom you are angry. It’s even difficult to forgive yourself sometimes. But where forgiveness does take place, the study found a link between forgiveness and better health. The more prone a person is to grant forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress-related illnesses. (Scott Hoezee)
Today, we have two passages that deal with sin, hurtful actions and broken relationships. None of us likes to be told that we are wrong, most people don’t like criticism. But of these two passages, I wonder which we would prefer?
Ezekiel, where God charges Ezekiel to warn the people of Israel that if they don’t run from their wicked ways, they shall surely die. Now, let’s be clear, this passage isn’t talking about physical death. God isn’t going to strike someone with lightning or have them run down in the street if they don’t turn from their wicked ways. The death that is being referred to here is a spiritual one. It is the death or loss of relationship with God. God delights in our goodness and when we are wicked, it is opposite to the character of God. It offends God and causes a fracture in our relationship. The result is the death of our relationship with God.
In Matthew, Jesus urges the disciples to approach people in private when they have sinned against us. Only if they refuse to listen do you elevate the concern. In our highly legalistic society, where we have rules and laws for everything, it makes this passage look like a 12-step process in how to receive justice. Except that isn’t what the passage is about.
When someone sins against you, when you sin against someone else, the result is a broken relationship. The point of this passage isn’t to get someone to admit that they are wrong, to privately and perhaps publicly shame them, but rather to seek restoration of the relationship. This is a passage about speaking honestly and listening well. Most people don’t do things that hurt out of spite, but rather because they themselves are already operating from a place of hurt. We can only overcome this when we approach someone in honesty and sincerity, not with a desire to show how they are wrong, but with a desire to mend the relationship.
Let’s be honest, if we don’t care to mend the relationship then there is no point in approaching the individual who has caused us hurt. What both our passages from Matthew and Ezekiel have in common is the renewal of relationships.
Prof. Audrey West writes, “For many people, it is easier to identify the ways they have been harmed than it is to recognize the ways their actions can harm others, even if unintentionally. Perhaps one of the most difficult truths of this passage is a reminder of the human capacity to cause harm to others—both in the systems in which we participate as well as in our personal actions (or failures to act)” (Audrey West).
By nature, most of us have an inward-looking perspective. We are concerned with those things which affect us, and we make decisions based on what serves our own self-interest. The common good or what is best for our neighbour is secondary in the equation. We have difficulty reconciling how we might have hurt others and often our decision is to alienate others rather than find a way to live in harmony. Both the passage from Ezekiel and Matthew make it clear that we need to be open to those situations when we have harmed others.
When we read Matthew it is easy to put ourselves in the position of the aggrieved party, after all that’s the perspective the passage is written in. What we need to be open to and remember is that there may be times when we are the one who causes harm? How would we want to be treated if things were reversed, how would we want others to treat us?
Prof. Michael Chan reflects on the passage from Matthew. He considers it from the many negative and anonymous comments which we might find in online conversations. Truly, I’ve read some terrible things, some of which have been posted on Christian sites. Chan writes, “But Christians face yet another challenge. As confrontational behavior online runs rampant, the fear of confrontation persists within local church communities. Avoidance of confrontation is one of the most pervasive and predictable sins in modern Christianity. Somehow we’ve come to believe that words like “welcoming,” “inclusive,” “compassionate,” and “loving” exclude confronting people for the various ways their sins invite destruction to themselves, their families, and their communities. This fallacious belief is nothing more than the bourgeois ethic of “don’t be judgmental” dressed up in quasi-theological vestments. Unfortunately, however, this line of thinking happens to be utterly foreign to the biblical texts” (Michael Chan).
Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. It turns it into something else and that is damaged relationships with God, our families, friends and neighbours. If we are honest, we can recognize how this also damages us and isolates us from others who care about us.
I would encourage you to talk, share differences, listen for understanding and respond in love with all who you meet. And remember to forgive, those who have harmed you and yourself. Remember that the reason that forgiveness is of such importance to God, is because God wants to have a good relationship with us. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
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