Forgiveness is Complex and Complicated

A sermon on John 8: 1-11.

We have been learning about forgiveness… We learned why we should forgive—because resentment is like eating rat poison and hoping the rat will die. And we forgive because we are commanded by God to do so, that in doing so we build a world of forgiveness.

And the best reason to forgive is that we, ourselves, need forgiveness.

We learned how to forgive (according to The Book of Forgiving by Desmond and Mpho Tutu): tell the story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness, and release or renew the relationship.

We also learned about creating a world of forgiveness, and that it starts with “seeing them as the child they were,” as Sydney Harris put it.

But forgiveness is not easy, it is complicated and complex. Complicated because it has a high level of difficulty. Complex because it has many components. Forgiveness is complicated and complex.

Let’s look at one story of complicated forgiveness: the shooting at Mother Emmanuel, which took place four years ago on June 17.  You remember that two days after the shooting, some of the relatives of the people killed there stood in a courtroom and said, “I forgive you.”

Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance said, “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Myra Thompson’s relative said, “I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”

Mother of Tywanza Sanders said, “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son…May God have mercy on you.

Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

The sister of Depayne Middleton Doctor said, “That was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family… is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

Five relatives of those whose lives were lost on June 17, 2015 and five very different responses—all forgiving—but all that show how complicated and complex forgiveness is.

I wonder… what do you think are the complexities of forgiveness? I think they are:

  1. the relationship
  2. the situation
  3. the amount of harm
  4. whether justice was achieved or is attainable.

Our text this morning is complicated and complex. A woman is caught “in the very act of adultery.” The relationship? Note that we don’t know who this woman is—whether the religious people knew her, and note that we have no idea who the other person in the affair was either!

The situation is a trap set for Jesus by some religious people.  If Jesus agreed that the woman should be stoned, he’d be breaking Roman law. If Jesus decided that she shouldn’t be stoned, he’d be breaking Jewish law.

Doesn’t that mean that’s she’s really a pawn in someone’s game?

Then let’s think about the amount of harm…she was not only committing adultery, she was likely breaking Sabbath…Definitely a no-no.

But see how Jesus handles the harm? He bends down and writes something in the sand that the religious dudes understood. One guess is that it was something like “picking up a stone on the Sabbath is prohibited.” And then Jesus looks up at the men around him—with stones in their hands—and says, “You who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

Isn’t that the be-all-end-all in forgiveness? A refusal to forgive is a refusal to look into our own hearts and know that we, too, have sinned.

Finally, what would justice look like?  Would it actually look like the woman dying? No… Justice, in this case, would certainly require two people, wouldn’t it? And justice can’t be done with a pawn, can it?

And then what’s so complicated about forgiveness? Forgive, don’t forgive. It’s complicated (hard) because it’s about feelings, but not just feelings about other people, it’s feelings inside.

Sigurd Grindheim, a New Testament theologian who teaches and writes at Trinity Evangelical School of Divinity, tells a story of himself as a young man. He lived in a dorm where there was a young woman who liked to have people over for good food. She often invited him, and he always accepted. Later in the year, on his birthday he decided that I wanted to invite some people myself. So he invited a few friends, but not this young woman whose hospitality he had enjoyed. When she found out she was upset.

The young man wondered realized why he had not invited her: he did not think she was good enough to be at his table. He’d never doubted that he was good enough to be at hers, but she was not good enough for his company.

What became clear was that in passing judgment on this hospitable young woman, the young man really condemned himself: he was egocentric and self-righteous.

So… relationship (a young woman who invited Sigurd over, and offered hospitality). Situation: the hospitality is not reciprocated. The amount of harm? Not severe, but certainly hurting the woman’s feelings. And justice? At the least, would be an apology. Then perhaps amends by inviting her over to dinner, and quit being so self-centered.

It’s like today’s scripture. Those who were interested in passing a judgment on someone else were the ones who were condemned. 

Whew! Complex and complicated. Am I right?

In this midst of this sermon series, I was approached with several question. The first was “How do you forgive someone who keeps doing the same thing to you?”

Maybe it’s your mother-in-law who keeps insulting you over and over.  Maybe it’s a co-worker who never pulls their weight.  Maybe it’s a your spouse or your ex-spouse…

Those folks keep insulting you, or ignoring you, or even not showing up when they say they will.

Let’s examine the complexities:  It’s someone you’re clearly in an ongoing relationship with—and someone who matters. Right? And generally, it’s someone who is tangled up with someone else are in relationships with—the parent of your partner, a coworker who is valuable to your company, the co-parent of your child.

You can’t just walk away from the relationship, devil-be-damned.

The situation is ongoing, because of that relationship. And usually these types of situations are untenable because the person will not change. You have tried in the past to talk with them, to ask them not to insult you, to hold up their part of the job, or to show up when they say they are going to… but to no avail.

And the amount of harm?  Well, it depends. Sometimes, it’s just an insult. which causes you to doubt yourself, and it’s frustrating. Or if it’s work related? Maybe you work a bit more, or  share credit with someone who didn’t do their work.

But sometimes it’s a bit more complicated, because it’s not just you that the person is harming. Often times harming someone you loveis worse than harming you. Like your child…Right?

Finally, is there justice? (See, I think the idea that someone will get justice is pretty important). The Bible says, “You reap what you sow,” and I believe that people generally do.

Your mother-in-law’s insults probably already come from low self-esteem.

Your co-worker’s lack of ability will eventually result in them not getting raises and promotions.

And your ex-partners’ continued harm in the life of your child? They will never have a relationship where your child will not remember that harm. They harm the future relationship, too.

So how do we forgive? First, we recognize the emotional process that is happening between you. Honor it. See it for what it is and how important it is.

Your mother-in-law only comes around three times a year. Find some compassion for her. Know that she’s going to do it, and that it’s really not about you. Forgive, don’t forget, but don’t pick it up anymore.

Your co-worker? You see them everyday. Maneuver your bosses and the workload in such a way that you’re responsible for your work, and not theirs. Set boundaries. Keep notes.

Find a way to not let their lack of engagement affect yours. Or find a new job! But forgive them because you don’t do your best work when you’re angry. And remember that they are not worth the space in your head—their job performance is not your responsibility. But forgive them.

Finally, the parent who doesn’t show up for your kid? The only way I can suggest you get through is to lower your expectations, and help your child do the same. Remind your kid that it says way more about the parent than it does them.

And find some compassion for that broken parent, that something must have gone really wrong in the relationship with their own parents. Forgive them.

So I was asked another question, too. How do you forgive someone who is dead?

You have to examine those same things: relationship, situation, the amount of harm, and whether justice was ever done.

It’s hardest if justice was never done.

Remember that forgiveness is complicated (hard) because it’s about feelings, but not just feelings about the person who has died, it’s about your feelings inside.

Write your story, and imagine telling it to the dead person. Tell them, in your mind, that you’re angry with them. And then tell them that you forgive them.

You may have to do this four hundred times. But each time you do, the burden of anger and sadness will get lighter. And remember to face your own feelings about yourself in these situations.

Our own failings are seen most clearly in those relationships  where we most desperately need to forgive.

The other thing that I have found is to pray it out. To say to God, “I want to forgive, help me to forgive.” God will come alongside you and empower you to forgive the unforgiveable.

And especially, God will heal that part inside of you that is still wounded by that person, whether alive or dead, still harming or long gone. Because where we are weak, God is strong. Where we are hardened, God is new life.

Where we are broken, God is healing.

You can do this. You can do it for you.  But remember that your forgiving is for others—if you heal, you will be a healthier spouse, a healthier co-worker, a healthier parent.

And if you heal, your capacity to feel other things besides anger will make your life, and the life of those around you better—you’ll feel more compassion, more energy, more love.

Let us pray.

Creator God, you made the world with complicated and complex relationships, and we need your help to navigate forgiveness. We want to forgive, help us to forgive.

Liberating Jesus, you taught us to pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” As we do the work of forgiving, we uncover the places where we need forgiveness. Help us to forgive, and to find forgiveness.

Sustaining Holy Spirit, stay with us. Guide us. And keep us from creating harm in other’s lives, help us to live into forgiveness.