How and Why Do I Forgive?

by | Mar 26, 2023

Matthew 6;9-15

PRAYER: God of grace and mercy, you have forgiven us, and in so doing, have taught us to forgive others and you have taught us to receive forgiveness, even when we don’t know how. Be among us today that we may hear of the hope that comes from your grace, and in so doing, be inspired to live as new creations.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

My late father-in-law spent a couple of years in a concentration camp during World War II. He had been in the Polish resistance and was captured a couple of years into the war. His entire family spent time in concentration camps. His mother and one of his brothers were killed. He had another brother who died after the war was over from the effects of what he endured. Both of his sisters also survived the camps, but one of them – his sister Maria – did something that my father-in-law considered unforgivable. She married a German soldier.

I cannot pretend to know what it feels like to have survived such a horrific place, and I do not have the qualifications to dictate how my father-in-law should have felt. But I know that many years later, his sister tried to reconnect with him, and unfortunately, he would have none of it. He never forgave her. Even though we found out – because my mother-in-law went behind his back and met his sister – that she had an impossible choice to make. Either she accepted the advances and eventually the marriage to the soldier who became her husband, or she would be killed.

At one time or another, we have all found ourselves in need of forgiveness or hurt by someone and in the position to offer forgiveness. It can be an incredibly difficult thing to do. Sometimes, it may be easier to stay angry, cut off the relationship, or ignore the wrongdoing (our own or others’) and hope it goes away. My father-in-law was a good man, a decent man. He loved his family, he was a masterful gardener. He was quite brilliant. But he often struggled with the subject of forgiveness. He could forgive, but it was not easy for him. It’s entirely possible that he may have asked himself why he should bother with forgiveness, or even how to do so.

In this passage from Matthew, Jesus is teaching his followers how to pray, and he’s using words that we should find very familiar: “The Lord’s Prayer.” This is part of a bigger teaching in the gospel of Matthew, teaching us how to live out faith. In both the Lord’s Prayer and the verses immediately following (v. 14-15), Jesus talks about being forgiven and forgiving others together – never one without the other. Forgiveness is meant to bring healing and reconciliation to a relationship. That is a gift God gives to us by forgiving us. And it is also a gift we give ourselves “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I should point out that while forgiving someone can lead to reconciliation in our relationships, sometimes it doesn’t / will not. We’ll never know whether or not my father-in-law’s relationship with his sister could have been repaired… if they could have reconciled. Until the day he died, he was never able to bring himself to even trying to understand why his sister had done what she did. He held onto that – I don’t know, anger? Resentment? Disappointment? Until the day he died. But you see, forgiveness is really about freeing ourselves from the resentment, hatred, anger, that hurts and harms our own souls.

As we forgive, we play a part in our own healing. If we do not forgive others (v. 14), holding that hatred, resentment, and anger, will make it all the more difficult to fully receive the forgiveness that God wants to offer to us.

We all know that forgiveness can be incredibly difficult, whether we’re on the giving or receiving side of it. The surrounding conversation in Matthew 6 can help us better understand Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. You may remember that on Ash Wednesday, we read a few verses earlier in the chapter. In these verses, Jesus teaches that living a life of faith is not about putting our religion on display. It isn’t about how much we give, how well we pray, or whether or not we fast. We cannot and should not try to live our faith as a way to impress others. God sees what we do privately and knows what is in our hearts and our motivations. God knows every detail of our lives (the challenges and struggles we face, what we have overcome, our backstory), not just the face we put on for the world. In knowing all of this about us, God has compassion for us and chooses to forgive us. What if we, like God, had a window into what was happening in the minds and hearts of others – especially those who have hurt us? If we could know and understand where hurtful words and actions came from, might we find compassion that leads to a healing forgiveness? This is not to say that knowing someone’s backstory excuses harm or wrong, but it may help us find our way to forgiveness.

You see, forgiveness frees us from resentment and turmoil. God, who knows us inside out, sees where our mistakes and failings come from. God loves us through it all, offers forgiveness as a gift, and shows us how to extend it to others.

During our group discussion last week, we all came to the same conclusion that when we forgive, what we’re really doing is letting go of a tremendous burden that we’re carrying ourselves.

My brother and sister-in-law already had a 5 year-old son when their second son was born in 1983. Their second son, Kyle, was born perfectly healthy. There was no indication of any problem. About 5 or 6 weeks after Kyle was born, my brother and sister-in-law left their two sons with a babysitter and went to work. The babysitter was a trusted family friend, this was no stranger to them. At some point, the baby stopped breathing. He died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS. It was the worst possible thing that could happen. Our family, as you can imagine, was devastated.

Many years later, as their older son was preparing to get married, he and his dad (my brother) went to visit Kyle’s gravesite. Kyle would have been 27 years old at this point. While standing at the grave, my nephew turned to his dad and revealed something he’d kept hidden all these years. He told his dad that for many years – even to that day – he had blamed himself for the baby’s death because he was the older brother and was supposed to protect his brother. My brother and sister-in-law never knew that their son had been carrying this burden all those years.
Now of course, we all know – everyone knows that there was no one to blame for that tragic loss. But that didn’t change the fact that for all those years, my nephew shouldered this blame that did not belong to him.

Sometimes, when it comes to forgiveness, the most difficulty we face is in forgiving ourselves. The people we can be hardest on… is ourselves. We often believe that we are not worthy of forgiveness, and we then carry that burden that is simply not ours to carry. It weighs us down. It impacts our relationships with others, and it distances us from God. We find ourselves pulling further and further away from God because we cannot imagine a God who forgives if we cannot even forgive ourselves.

Forgiveness frees us from resentment and turmoil. God, who knows us inside out, sees where our mistakes and failings come from. God loves us through it all, offers forgiveness as a gift, and shows us how to extend it to others, and shows us how to extend it to ourselves.

The Lord’s Prayer is not meant to be prayed once and then left behind. It is how Jesus teaches his followers to pray. In it, the one praying asks for “daily bread” for today. Tomorrow, we will ask for daily bread for tomorrow. And just like daily bread, receiving forgiveness from God and forgiving others, and forgiving ourselves is something we need over and over again. It is a process, not a magic moment. It requires practice. And ultimately, it defines how we live out our lives!

My first job as a teenager was at a local McDonald’s. I had been working there part time less than a year (maybe about 7 months) when there was a change in managers. The manager who hired me, who I really liked a lot was fired, and they brought in a new manager. The first time I worked after this happened, I was still angry that the manager I liked had been fired, and I didn’t have the maturity to deal with the emotions I was feeling. I felt like I was betraying the other manager by working for the new one. I was a 15-year-old kid after all!

So, in the middle of my shift during a busy lunch rush on a Saturday afternoon, I walked up to the new manager and I quit. I walked out. It was stupid. It was stupid. It was stupid. But hey, I was a 15-year-old kid. What did I know?

I went down the street and I found another job at a different place and I started working the other job and that’s when I learned the value of the phrase “The grass is always greener…” I found out how good I’d had it at the McDonald’s down the street.

So one day, about a month after that happened, I went down to the McDonald’s, I found the new manager and asked if I could speak to him. I apologized. I told him how sorry I was and I asked if I could come back. He thanked me for apologizing, he forgave me, and welcomed me with open arms. He didn’t have to do that. He could have just said that they don’t need me. I’m sure that he didn’t lose a wink of sleep over some 15 year old kid quitting in the middle of a shift, but he allowed me the grace of reconciliation. I’ve always remembered that simple act and I hope that I am able to model that grace to others… although I know I’m not always successful.

I want to invite you to reflect on where you need forgiveness in your life… whether you need forgiveness, or you need to forgive someone. It doesn’t have to be something you’re ready or able to do right this minute, but perhaps now is the time to begin to take that first cautious step. Perhaps it can start with praying for the person you’re thinking about. Committing a person with whom you have an unresolved conflict to prayer can be deeply healing for yourself.

None of us are perfect. We all require forgiveness, and we will all find ourselves in a position to forgive at one time or another. How different might the world be – think about the realization of those words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” if we were all better able to both receive and extend the kind of forgiveness that Jesus extends to us, If we were mindful of other peoples’ backstories and gave grace as readily as God gives it to us.

Let’s put forgiveness into our daily practice and find within us the answers we seek, and the hope that God promises.

To God be the glory.