The Limits of Forgiveness

repentance1-300x223“Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” — Matthew 18:21-22



I have always carried with me a deep sense of God’s love.   While I have encountered many people who have struggled greatly with an image of God as judgmental, strict, demanding, and punishing, that has never been my struggle.   During my sabbatical last summer, as I worked on a writing project to put into words my understanding of God as known in the Christian tradition, I came to a realization that was really an expansion of this deep sense of God’s love that I have always had.  And that was that God is One who always moves toward us in a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.   I have come to see how clearly this shape of divine love is revealed and  known in Jesus.

And Jesus invites us into an imitation of this shape of divine love.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  The term “father” (or, more accurately, “daddy”) is the primary term Jesus uses to talk about God, especially in John’s Gospel.  A little later in this same passage, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (see John 14:8-17).   Here, John seeks to make clear that what Jesus enacts in his own life and ministry is an enactment of the divine love, revealing the shape of that love.  We, who are meant to do even greater things than Jesus, are called to similarly enact the divine love in the living of our own lives.   We look to Jesus as the one who reveals this love to us, and we see him constantly moving toward others in this love shaped as forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.

Within this context, then, it is not surprising that, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel that appears at the beginning of this post, Jesus challenges Peter’s attempt to place a limit on one aspect of this love: forgiveness.   How often should I forgive someone who wrongs me?, Peter asks.  Seven times?   No, says Jesus, try seventy times seven (some variants read “seventy-seven times”).   I hope it is clear that Jesus is not saying, “490 times”.  Rather, he is using this mathematical expression to point to the limitlessness of God’s forgiveness and, thus, of our forgiveness.   God’s infinite love is infinitely forgiving, and this is what we are being asked to enact in our own lives, as we live into our call to be conduits of God’s love in the world.

This deepened understanding of the shape of the divine love has shown up quite a bit in my preaching since I returned from my sabbatical last fall.  Some of those who have to listen to my sermons might say it has shown up a bit too often!  Those sermons have always been, one might say, at a high level view.  That is, as we consider how we are to approach our fellow human beings in general, we are called to do so with a love shaped like the divine love.

Of course, people don’t live their lives at a high level.  People live their lives on the ground, within particular contexts, and with very particular people.  And, living life on the ground can include a lot of pain.   And so it was that I was recently reminded, by someone who’s life on the ground has included being the victim of emotional abuse, that this preaching on the need to approach others with limitless forgiveness has not been good news.  Rather, it has felt very much like the opposite.  It has sounded as though I am suggesting that there are no limits, and it has sounded to this person like an invitation to give an abuser a pass — and that feels like asking too much.  It feels like God might be okay with abuse.  It is asking too much, and God is not okay with abuse.

Hearing this very real testimony about very real pain has gotten me to thinking about the limits of forgiveness.   And it has helped me to see how limitless Jesus tends to be in the gospels.  After all, we are told that as Jesus was being crucified by his abusers, he said, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing”  (Luke 23:34).   So what are we to do in the face of those who do genuinely bad things to others?  What are we to do with those who do genuinely bad things to us, things that are simply not okay?  How are we to live forgiveness and preach forgiveness in the face of these painful realities?

I’m not sure I yet have a good answer to these questions.  And, more importantly, I’m not sure that I have the right to do so in any more than a tentative way.  While I have certainly been hurt by others’ actions in the course of my life so far, I have never been victimized by someone else.  I am not a victim of abuse.  And, therefore, I do not think it is for me to say what forgiveness can or should look like in the life of someone who has been victimized.  I can have compassion for those who have been victimized, but I cannot enter into their experience.

One of the things that seems clear to me as I look again at Jesus’ enactment of the divine love is that Jesus does not accept the ethical categories proclaimed by the privileged of his own time and tradition.  Instead, Jesus places himself among those who are the victims of those ethical proclamations, and he empowers them.  He gives them voice.  This pattern suggests to me that when it comes to deciding what is ethical, Jesus does not begin at the center and move outward.  Rather, he begins at the edges, and moves inward.  Ethics are to be informed by the victims, not by the powerful.   One might say that Jesus does theology from the margins.  And, as we seek to imitate his example, we cannot ignore this aspect of his ministry.

So, where does this leave me?  I remain convinced that God’s movement toward us is, indeed, a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.  Jesus’ living out of this in such a limitless way is perhaps meant to challenge the limits that we tend to adopt — and, like Peter, most of us tend to impose a limit too soon and too quickly.  But this does not mean that Jesus does not consider certain kinds of behavior to be wrong. As he goes among the victims of his time, he is clearly saying that whatever happened to make them victims was wrong.  He is not saying that their victimization is okay.  He is not giving the powerful wrong-doers of his society a pass.  Indeed, his ministry among the victims of his time acts as an indictment of those wrong-doers.  We could, perhaps, sum it up this way:  it is never okay to make someone your victim.

It is tempting for those of us who have not been someone’s victim to suggest how those who have been made victims should enact the divine love when it comes to dealing with those who victimized them.  But that, I think, is wrong.  It risks making others into victims again.  Rather, we must be like Jesus, I think, and go among the victims in today’s world.  We must listen to their stories, we must hear their struggles, and we must ask them to take the lead in showing us what the limits of forgiveness are.  We must learn from them how our proclamation of the love of God is heard in the ears of those who have been abused.

God’s forgiveness may indeed be without limit. But to protect the dignity of every human being, there might indeed need to be a limit to our forgiveness.   We could, I think, give that limit a name: justice, which itself is a powerful and recurring biblical theme.  Justice is, of course, not revenge, but it is a clear calling out of wrong-doing as exactly that.  Justice permits no hiding, it does not allow wrong-doing to be justified.  It demands that the making of another person into a victim be acknowledged, and it asks for repentance — which is more than being sorry, but is a deep conversion away from the making of victims and toward a way of living that affirms and preserves the dignity of all the people in one’s life.   It seems to me that perhaps, in situations of injustice, forgiveness cannot truly be given or received until the injustice is acknowledged in the way that justice demands.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:1-3).  This is what justice requires:  a bringing into the light of all that is not light.

The love and forgiveness of God, where it is truly manifest, brings a light that illuminates everything.  If someone is holding on to darkness, if someone is truly refusing to allow the light to shine on the ways in which that person has caused pain to others, can there truly be forgiveness?  Perhaps not. Perhaps the forgiveness must wait until the darkness can be let go of, and the light can shine clearly.  Perhaps forgiveness needs repentance.

The Sound of Sheer Silence

soundofsilenceNow there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.   — 1 Kings 19:11b-13a

Human beings seem to have a kind of natural attraction to power — both the kind of power that is inherent in being able to destroy something or force someone else to do what you want, and the kind of power inherent in both a well-articulated and delivered speech and in an angry rant.  The stories that gain traction in our culture (seen in movies and television shows, for example) are often stories that radiate power as good and evil collide.  The politicians and other sorts of leaders who gain traction in our culture tend to be those who who can rant with power.  Power is currency.   Those who have it want to keep it, and often to have more, and those who don’t want it try to figure out how to get it.

The Christian tradition is not immune to this fascination with power.  Church leadership has historically been very concerned with power.  And, we have imagined God as being the Most Powerful.   The biblical narratives that seek to introduce us to God are often stories of power:  God creating, God destroying, God punishing, God healing.  Religious people have loved these stories of the All Powerful God for centuries, and they reenforce the image of God we often carry with us — of God as the ultimate power-broker, who can do anything and everything.   We often find ourselves wondering about the ways God chooses to use this power — or to not use it — but we seldom seem to question God’s all-powerfulness.

In the midst of these stories of God’s power, then, we have this little scene quoted above, from the First Book of Kings.   It features the prophet Elijah, the “original prophet”, one might say, and one who occupies a special place in the Jewish tradition.  Leading up to this scene, Elijah has gotten fed up with the people of Israel, and has run away, believing that there is nothing to be gained by continuing his prophetic ministry.  He hides out in a cave. In the midst of Elijah’s crisis, God comes to him.   And that brings us to this scene, in which God’s “arrival” is narrated.  There is a list in this narrative of a series of powerful things that one might associate with God:  an immensely strong wind, an earthquake, and a great fire.  But, the story tells us, God was not in any of these things.  Instead, God showed up in the “sound of sheer silence.”

What a different image of God this is compared with the one we seem mostly to carry with us.  The sound of sheer silence suggests a number of things to me.  First, it suggests that silence is not an absence, but a presence.  We don’t normally think of silence as having a sound — instead, we think of it as an absence of sound.  But this text suggests that silence does have a sound.  That is, it has a quality of presence.  It is capable of carrying something to us.  There is something in silence to be discovered.  Second, this silence seems foundational to me.  Before there was anything, there was silence.  The biblical metaphor of creation is of God speaking things into being.  If you think about it, silence is like a canvass for speech — and for music, and for all other sounds.  Silence, then, is the foundation for everything.  And if silence is, in fact, not an absence but a presence — a bearer of the Divine Presence — then it becomes the foundation of creation itself.  Silence appears to be passive, but this text suggests that it has a power of its own — a power that, indeed, enables everything that is.

Mystics within the Christian tradition — and, indeed, within all the world’s spiritual traditions — have long appreciated the power of silence, and its capacity for connecting us  with God.  By plumbing the depths of silence through various spiritual practices, mystics the world over have found something profound and rich within it.  They have found in it the very sort of foundational, enabling power that this text seems to point us toward.

When we look at God’s power from the perspective of this sort of silence, it seems to me that it is revealed as a power that gives rise to life itself, as a power that seeks to anchor that life in the life of God, as the powerful foundation upon which each of us stands, whether we are aware of it or not.  And what the mystics and spiritual explorers down through the ages have tried to tell us is that when we are able to touch this power, we find ourselves drawn more deeply into the divine life.   As Christians, we would speak of this as encountering the Risen Life of Christ.  These same explorers have also spoken about how transformational these encounters are, particularly when we adopt spiritual practices that allow us to regularly encounter God in the way Elijah did — in the sound of silence.

Unfortunately, our modern lives are quite noisy.   As you think about your typical day, how much room for the sound of silence do you have?  Are there moments when you are really able to listen to the silence, to touch its power, and to encounter the divine life that pulses within it?  For most of us, I suspect that there are not very many such moments from day to day.  That means, of course, that we must intentionally create spaces for ourselves when we can listen to the silence.  Sometimes, that might look like it did for Elijah:  going off to a place apart, away from the noise of our lives.  But most of us can’t, of course, do that very often.  So we must look to create smaller spaces in the dailiness of our lives where we can meet God in the silence that is our life’s foundation.

As we create such spaces for ourselves, we might find that the silence is a little disconcerting.   Part to that will be because we not accustomed to spending much time in silence.  But part of that may be that there is some part of ourselves that knows that the silence is powerful, and not being familiar with that power, there is a sense of being unsettled.   In those moments, we should remind ourselves that this sacred silence is where we came from, and it is really the “place” in which we live and move and have our being.  It is the canvass upon which our life is painted.  It is, indeed, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.   If we allow ourselves to sink into it, and it to sink into us, we shall be anchored more and more in God.