What word or phrase would you most like to hear sincerely uttered to you?
Many years ago now, I heard author and theologian Leonard Sweet share that question in a sermon. Apparently, a Gallup poll posed that question to a representative sample of the United States population. The results, according to Sweet, were clear.
The runaway winner was “I love you.” No surprise there. That is probably the single most powerful phrase in the English language. We long to hear those words from our spouse, from our parents, from our children, even from our friends. It is that phrase that makes us aware that we are alright; we are valued; we matter deeply to someone else; we are accepted, validated. It lifts us up when we are down, and can give us the strength to continue even in difficult times.
It is no surprise that most people said that the phrase they would most like to hear sincerely uttered to them is “I love you.”
But it is also a phrase we long to say, a sentiment we long to share. Those of us who are married probably remember where we were when we first heard our now spouse say that they loved us, and/or when we said it for the very first time. Saying and hearing that you love someone or are loved by someone is a very powerful exchange.
The second place answer is one that is a little more surprising. After “I love you,” the phrase most people want to hear sincerely uttered to them is “I forgive you.”
Ernest Hemingway opens his short story “The Capital of the World” with these words:
Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is the diminutive of the name Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal [a newspaper] which said: “Paco, meet me at Hotel Montana noon Tuesday. All is forgiven, Papa” and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.
Hemingway used this story to illustrate how common the name Paco is in Madrid. But maybe he better illustrated why “I forgive you” was the second place answer to the question of “what word or phrase would you most like to have sincerely uttered to you.” His “joke” is a reminder just how common our longing is to be forgiven is. “All is forgiven,” this Papa wrote, and 800 people showed up hoping they were the Paco to whom it was addressed. We long for forgiveness.
Not only that, but when there is strife, like that Papa, we long for the restoration of broken relationships. We yearn to say, “I forgive you” and we are aware that our lack of forgiveness causes discomfort in ourselves. To forgive and to be forgiven are two deep desires in our hearts, and so we long to speak and to hear that second most wanted phrase “I forgive you.”
The reason for this is that you and I were designed from the very beginning to be connected in relationships with one another.
The Creation Stories of Genesis 1 & 2, which set the tone for the entirety of the Scriptures, tell us that we were created to live in community. Often we read this story when we want to talk about marriage, the relationship of husband and wife. This story though can be applied to all areas of life and how we are wired to live in connection.
Earlier in the passage, before that which was read for us this morning, God plants a garden in a place called Eden. There he drops the man, adam in Hebrew, that he formed in the previous verses. In the Garden Adam has everything he needs. We read of a river flowing through the garden for water, and that God had provided food for the man – “Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (2:9), and God tells him that he may eat from every tree in the Garden except one.
Then God says something peculiar, “It is not good that the man [or could be translated Adam] should be alone” (2:18). There is Adam who has everything he needs provided, but is alone, and God notices. He is not at his best, there is something missing. So God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (2:18). So God then creates…
No, not woman, but animals. God’s first shot at making a partner for Adam is, in the words of Genesis, “every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and [the Lord God] brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name…but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner” (2:19-20). Apparently a dog is not “man’s best friend.” We were not designed to leave in deep community with animals – there is connection there, but not sufficient.
That is when God puts the man, Adam, into a deep sleep, performs some rib removal surgery, and from that rib creates one to walk beside the man whom Adam calls a woman.
This story, when applied more broadly then just to marriage, reminds us that we were not created to go it alone. We were designed to have others walk beside us. We were created to live in community. We were created to be in relationship with the earth, the animals, but most importantly with one another.
I believe this is why “I forgive you” is the second most frequent response to that question “What word or phrase would you most like to hear sincerely uttered to you?” We know that from time to time we say and/or do things that cause brokenness in our relationships, and it pains us because we were made to be together, we long for community. So when there is brokenness in our relationships, it causes within us a conflict for which we long for resolution. We long to forgive and to be forgiven.
Evil and Forgiveness
My recent interest in this sermon series began back in January, when we were doing our series on Questions Thinking People Ask About the Bible and Christian Faith. If you remember, I drew the sermon on “The Problem of Evil” and my research started me on this journey toward delving deeper into the idea of forgiveness.
Preparing for that message I watched a DVD of a BBC produced television special called Evil that aired on English television as a response, I believe to 9/11, and the resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the special, theologian N. T. Wright (one of my favorites) addressed the issue of the problem of evil. How do we understand evil in the midst of a world that was created good by God? How can God and evil co-exist? Where did it come from and what can we do about it?
N. T. Wright shared that while he could not confidently answer all of those questions, he did say that was assured of a way to combat evil. Evil, he said, cannot be defeated with more evil – fighting fire with fire makes things worse. Rather, he said that the power to overcome evil is the opposite of evil, which is not more evil, nor is it good. Wright says, the opposite of evil, that which has the power to defeat evil is forgiveness.
To illustrate his point Wright used the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu following the collapse of apartheid in South Africa in the last decade of the 20th century. When I began researching to learn more about that Commission, I found that Tutu wrote a book about the process he followed called No Future Without Forgiveness. It is a powerful book.
Tutu reports that when Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned from 1962 until February 11, 1990, – more than 27 years – for his opposition to the apartheid regime, was then elected president, the nation of South Africa had several ways to proceed. Those who had been oppressed were now in power. They needed to decide how they would proceed, how they would make best use of this new power.
One option was to follow the model of the Nuremberg trials following World War II to bring “to trial all perpetrators of gross violations of human rights” (19) during the apartheid regime. This option was rejected because part of what was necessary in South Africa was for those who had benefitted from apartheid to live together going forward with those who were the former victims of apartheid. Trials would continue this “us vs. them” mentality, causing those who used to be in power to bide “their time, waiting and conspiring to return to power” (22). This could lead to constant escalation of conflict as there is a swapping of power based on who is elected to lead the nation. We win; we rule over them. They win; they rule over us. Not a good, long-term solution.
This is true in our everyday lives as well. Retaliation begets retaliation. Before long, a minor incident between two people, is escalated into a broken relationship. I have often told this to my children that retaliation never settles anything. Rather that is how wars get started.
A second option, Tutu reports, was “suggested rather glibly that we let bygones be bygones” (27). This was a call for blanket or general amnesty which Tutu says would have amounted to “national amnesia” (29). The proponents of this approach wanted to allow it all to go away. Tutu writes a very telling statement that applies to us all:
Our common experience in fact is the opposite — that the past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately. Unless we look the beast in the eye we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage. (28)
We know this to be true in our lives as well. When someone hurts us we write that person out of our lives, vote them off the island, vow to never see them again. Then months, even years later, we bump into them at a family reunion or King Soopers, and we are surprised by the immediate reaction we have when in their presence. Our heart rate increases, our anxiety is raised, and the anger we felt at the infraction comes back in full-force if not stronger. We are then forced to recognize that the beast has returned, and all this time we have been held hostage by the anger, the resentment, the grudge, the hurt. When we try to bury the hatchet, as the saying goes, we have a tendency to leave the handle sticking out.
The fear in South Africa was that if they were to go the route of general amnesty, the nation would be more likely to repeat this history which their “national amnesia” had caused them to forget. For as the saying goes, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Not confronting the beast of apartheid might cause the blacks who were once oppressed but now in power, to act very much like their apartheid oppressors.
This, Tutu says, was not a good option. “Our country’s negotiators,” he writes, “rejected the two extremes and opted for a ‘third way,’ a compromise between the extreme of Nuremberg trials and blanket amnesty or national amnesia. And that way was granting amnesty to individuals in exchange for a full disclosure relating to the crime for which amnesty was being sought” (30). Or in other words, forgiveness for those who were willing to confess to the sins which they had committed. This was the birth of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who for more than two years heard story after story of those confessing gross violations of human rights, and being granted amnesty, forgiveness for what they had done. This is radical forgiveness.
“ultimately this third way of amnesty was consistent with a central feature of the African [worldview] — what we know in our languages as ubuntu… Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, … ‘Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life…” (31).
One might say that ubuntu is knowing Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the man [human beings] should be alone.” We were not created to go it alone. It is really not all about you. We were created as part of a whole, to be in relationship with one another. We are caught up in one another, inextricably bound together, members together in a bundle of life.
Jesus certainly taught us this as time and time again he reached out to heal those who were broken and outcast, to accept those who were considered socially unacceptable, and to offer a word of forgiveness to those the religious authorities would have said didn’t deserve it. Jesus taught us about this interconnectedness of us all, bringing us together as siblings under the Fatherhood of God, offering forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation to us all.
The opposite of evil is not good, but forgiveness. That is how Jesus was combatting evil from the cross. He didn’t come at it with might, power, and force as the disciples thought he should. When Peter drew his sword as Jesus was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane on Holy Thursday, Jesus condemned this way of battling evil when he said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53). But Jesus chose not to retaliate and escalate the conflict, but rather to forgive and conquer the very power of evil.
From the cross, Jesus uttered those unbelievable words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He asked for the forgiveness of the very people who had arrested him, tormented him, tortured him, sentenced him to die and were executing him. That is a power like no other.
It was from the cross that Jesus turned to one of the criminals, one who had committed a crime worthy of execution and said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) – words of amnesty, forgiveness. It is from the cross that we receive the freedom in Christ Jesus through the forgiveness of sins.
Evil was not conquered in Christ by his being good. Evil was not defeated through force – power and destruction. Evil was and is conquered by forgiveness.
Those of us old enough may remember that in 1981 Pope John Paul II was shot four times by a would-be assassin. Several months after the shooting, the Pope went to a jail cell to meet with the shooter and to offer forgiveness.
Or more recently you may remember that in 2006 a man came into an Amish school and killed five children and wounded five others before killing himself. The nation watched in utter shock as the Amish community responded with forgiveness. A representative for the killer’s family “said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them” (Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amish_school_shooting), and how the community went out of their way to let the family know that they held no ill will toward them.
How could they do this? They knew that the best way to combat evil is not with more evil. But with forgiveness. Not to escalate, but to diffuse. To overcome the evil with forgiveness.
As people have asked me this week what I would be preaching about today, and I told them I was beginning a series on forgiveness, almost to a person each one said, “Are you preaching this directly to me?” We all seem to understand that there are Pacos in our lives, those who long to hear those words from us – “I forgive you.”
We know that Jesus calls us to forgive. We fill the pit in our stomachs as we recognize that forgiveness is the best way forward. Yet we find it so hard to forgive.
We fear that if we forgive we are somehow giving in. We are not allowing for justice to prevail. We are “letting them get away with it,” as I have so often heard people say when I urge them to forgive.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had to struggle with this issue. Were they, through granting amnesty, letting the perpetrators of “gross violations of human rights” get away with it? Shouldn’t they be punished in the name of justice? Tutu addresses this:
One might go on to say that perhaps justice fails to be done only if the concept we entertain of justice is retributive justice, whose chief goal is to be punitive, so that the wronged party is really the state, something impersonal, which has little consideration for the real victims and almost none for the perpetrator.
We contend that there is another kind of justice, restorative justice… Here the central concern is not retribution or punishment. In the spirit of ubuntu, the central concern is the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he has injured by his offense.
… Thus we would claim that justice, restorative justice, is being served when efforts are being made to work for healing, for forgiving, and for reconciliation (54).
What if there is another way to understand justice? What if justice is not just about punishing those who have done wrong, but is as much about, as one theologian puts it, “setting the world to rights” (NT Wright)? What if the goal of justice is not simply making people pay for the wrong that they have done, but to restore the connection that God imbedded in our DNA in the Garden of Eden.
Please don’t hear me saying that we should do away with our justice system – kind of ironic in this conversation to use that phrase, but that is what we call the punitive wing of our society. That is not what I am saying.
Remember we are talking about a third way – a way that leads to reconciliation, and restoration. We have rejected the path of punishment – the Nuremberg model, as Tutu calls it – knowing that only leads to escalation of the violations. We have also rejected the other extreme of general amnesty, letting bygones be bygones, forgiving and forgetting as it is often said, or what Tutu calls amnesia. That leads us to dealing with the beast in secret.
Rather we are talking about looking the beast in the eye, confronting it, and letting go. You and I both know that holding the grudge, refusing to forgive, does nothing toward either understanding of justice. It does nothing to either restore relationship or punish the perpetrator.
In my years as a pastor, I have counseled so many people who are tormented by their inability to forgive a parent, a spouse, an ex, a friend, a bully, a fellow church member. They just cannot let the injustice go, and usually they are bothered because they believe the other person “got away with it.” That keeps them up at night.
When I urge them to pray for the strength to forgive that one who has hurt them, there is inevitably the push-back of the need for justice, for the other to be punished for what they have done. We think our holding a grudge will punish them. But that’s not what happens, is it? More often than not, the other person doesn’t know or could not care less that you have not forgiven them. The only person still being hurt by the thing of which you cannot let go, that thing you cannot forgive, is YOU. You, the one unwilling to forgive, is the one being held hostage. You holding a grudge allows the offense to continue.
For the most part forgiving is not about benefitting the other person, nor is it about punishing him or her. Forgiving is about you, the victim. It is about letting go of the hurt, releasing it of its power over you, and getting on with the good of life that is ahead for you. It is about coming out from behind those walls of anger and resentment we build and receiving the peace of reconnecting with those around us. It is about moving to the restoration of life and returning to the connection you were designed to enjoy.
Marietta Jaeger was camping in Montana with her husband and five children. On the last night of their vacation, their seven-year-old daughter, Susie, was kidnapped and killed. The man who committed this crime was arrested, and Marietta asked to meet him to tell him that she forgave him. She said this about how she came to that decision:
I had finally come to believe that real justice is not punishment but restoration, not necessarily to how things used to be, but how they really should be. In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures whence my beliefs and values come, the God who rises up from them is a God of mercy and compassion, a God who seeks not to punish, destroy, or put us to death, but a God who works unceasingly to help and heal us, rehabilitate and reconcile us, restore us to the richness and fullness of life for which we have been created. This, now, was the justice I wanted…
I readily admit that initially I wanted to kill this man with my bare hands, [but] by the time of the resolution of his crimes, I was convinced that my best and healthiest option was to forgive… Victim families have every right initially to the normal, valid, human response of rage, but those persons who retain a vindictive mind-set ultimately give the offender another victim. Embittered, tormented, enslaved by the past, their quality of life is diminished. However justified, our unforgiveness undoes us. Anger, hatred, resentment, bitterness, revenge — they are death-dealing spirits, and they will ‘take our lives’ on some level as surely as Susie’s life was taken. I believe the only way we can be whole, healthy, happy persons is to learn to forgive… Though I would never have chosen it so, the first person to receive a gift of life from the death of my daughter…was me” (155f).
What a remarkable statement. Marietta realized that forgiveness is not about punishment, nor is it pretending that the hurt never happened. It is instead about giving yourself the gift of life.
It is about coming out from behind the anger, hatred, resentment, bitterness and rage. It is about reconnecting, restoring relationships, choosing to no longer be alone.
Is there a wound you are holding on to? Is there a death-dealing spirit that you are allowing to continue to victimize you long after the initial wound? Are you being held hostage by a beast? Is there a Paco in your life who needs to hear that you have forgiven them?
This is a battle for life. This is a battle to combat evil. For we do not defeat evil with evil. We do not defeat evil by being nice and ignoring the hurt. We do not defeat evil with power and might. Evil is defeated by it’s opposite – forgiveness. The forgiveness we received from the cross. The forgiveness we need to share. We need to look the beast in the eye, confront it, and let go. And we need to pray for God’s strength to have that happen.
Who do you need to forgive?
Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Image Doubleday, 2009.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.