How to Practice Grace and Forgiveness

When I was asked to preach this week, the suggested topic was “How to Practice Grace and Forgiveness.” It turns out that this is a great pairing of topics, because we absolutely need Grace to give and receive forgiveness.

So what is Grace? According to Google, “Grace is the spontaneous, unmerited gift of the divine favour ..., and the divine influence operating in individuals for their regeneration and sanctification.”

The important thing to hear in this definition is that Grace is a spontaneous, unearned gift. It is that moment in the middle of your deepest grief or fear, when you see a perfect wildflower, or hear music that goes straight to your heart. It’s when you truly understand the humanity of someone who has caused you pain, or someone you have hurt—AND you see your own humanity.

But—if grace is a gift, how can we talk about “How to Practice Grace”? It’s like saying “How to Practice Being Loved.”

Let’s hear again the second part of the definition. Grace is also “the divine influence operating in individuals.” Grace is being able to perceive beauty, love, forgiveness, connection, even in our worst moments. It is the gift of perception. Nothing else really changes, because beauty, love, connection are always there. And we can develop that perception through conscious practice.

When I was in my 30s, I worked a lot of temporary jobs, mostly downtown, and in summer. After work I’d ride the bus home, standing shoulder to shoulder with other tired, sweaty strangers. And what happens when we’re crowded into too small a space? I was crabby a lot of the time.

And then one day, Grace, the divine influence, happened. God gave me a game to play on the bus. Every person there was actually an undercover angel, and my job was to discern their angelic traits. A friend of mine plays a similar game, where she tells herself that everyone around her was once someone’s beloved baby.

You were someone’s baby, once. You are also an angel in disguise. But over the years, our tender bodies and souls accumulate scars and bruises. One way we protect ourselves from further pain is to keep reminding ourselves of the hurt we’ve experienced, the unkind things that others have done to us. It somehow feels almost comforting to wrap ourselves in those wrongs, to feel innocent and righteous, and it feels like a protection against further harm. But it’s also a heavy burden to carry around.

Grace opens our hearts to the love that is waiting for us when we can lay down that burden of pain. We can practice opening our hearts and keeping them open. There’s a risk in that, though. An open heart, a loving heart, is vulnerable to being broken again. Are you ready to take that risk? Is the reward greater than the risk? If so, here’s another way to open your heart to Grace. This exercise came from a former pastor here at Prospect, Deanna Murray. It goes like this. Choose someone you’re at odds with. This can be an enemy, or someone who had done you harm, or just someone you just can’t stand. Now: every day for a month, pray, on your knees, if you can, or in a prayerful position that works for you. Pray every day, with complete sincerity, that this person receive the best of all things, the greatest blessing. Try it for a month, and see what happens.

The Bible tells us that we are accepted, loved, forgiven seventy times seven, before we were even born. Jesus said to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you,” and that is our mandate: to act out God’s love, for each other. To forgive.

Sometimes we interpret that mandate in ways that seem particularly difficult. One way is for us to see ourselves as failures if we can’t forgive immediately, or even after a long time. There’s an endless loop of failure and unforgiveness.

The other problem is when we believe that forgiveness is all it takes to reconcile. I do you wrong. You forgive me. The problem is over. That leaves the entire responsibility for reconciliation on the one who has been harmed. Part of the answer to this problem lies in Luke 17; in this version of the question and answer, Jesus says that the person who has done wrong must repent. “Repent” means to acknowledge responsibility and turn away from wrongdoing.

Notice that Joseph’s brothers come begging forgiveness for what they did years ago to Joseph. This is how they demonstrate their own repentance—but their actions also show Joseph they’ve reformed: earlier, two of them had offered themselves as slaves in exchange for the freedom of their brother Benjamin, and now they all accept whatever punishment is necessary to reunite their family.

A psychologist named Janis Abrahms Spring offers four possible ways of dealing with harm and blame, in a book called How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To. According to Dr. Spring, these are the four ways: we can choose not to forgive at all. We can forgive quickly and shallowly, which may not actually be forgiveness. We can go through a mutual process of truth-telling and, finally, forgiveness. Or we can choose acceptance.

Well. Choosing not to forgive? Yes, we can. We can make that choice. Sometimes that means we choose to carry around the weight of our ill will toward the offender, concentrating on their badness, long after they have forgotten the incident. Sometimes, though, choosing not to forgive is a gift. About 30 years ago, I was approached by a homeless, disabled man, who asked me for money. I chose not to give it to him—in fact, I lied to him and told him I had none—and about ten minutes later I bought myself a latte. That evening, I told a friend what I’d done, and asked her to help me relieve myself of the guilt of refusing to help him. She said, “No, no I won’t. What you did was selfish and thoughtless.”

I was shocked. And then I realized she had given me the gift of leaving me to experience my own discomfort and guilt, to learn from my mistake, and to feel the consequences of it in my own spirit. She allowed me to change my behavior.

The second kind of forgiveness is the quick-and-easy way—“Sure, I forgive you.” This can work if the harm is small and unintentional. I can probably forgive you pretty easily if you were half an hour late to meet me for lunch.

Full forgiveness is unconditional love and acceptance and reconciliation with the offender, and it is a process of justice, where both parties take part.

Justice means that first, we must tell and hear the truth. Those who bear the hurt must be allowed to tell their story, to describe the damage and how it has affected their lives. And the offender must listen to the story as many times as the injured one needs to tell it.

Justice requires that the offender sincerely affirm the fact of the victim’s pain. Yes, I see that what I did hurt you. Then comes a sincere apology without excuses, and an attempt—if possible—to make right what was damaged, and then take action to insure it won’t happen again—for example, making a commitment to attend twelve-step meetings or anger-management classes.

This is not about revenge. The ultimate goal is reconciliation. And this justice also contains mercy, or “loving kindness.” Both the victim and the offender hold each other’s humanity in their minds and hearts. The offender is not the offense.

Without reconciliation, we are caught in an endless cycle of getting even: blame and counterblame, violence answered by more violence.

But reconciliation gives our broken hearts a chance to heal. It is a way for us to just stop the cycle of vengeance and violence.

Just stop it.

What happens if reconciliation is impossible? What if the abuser refuses to admit to what he or she has done? What if the offender is unavailable or dead? How do you reconcile with people who used the unpaid labor of your ancestors or stole their land—or who left you with a legacy of shame over what they did? How do you make peace with someone apparently born without a conscience? How do you resolve a conflict with someone who has died?

Maybe we never can really reconcile with deniers or the dead. But we can reconcile within ourselves, and with compassionate God. In the absence of face-to-face forgiveness, we can move toward acceptance.

We honor the full range of our own emotions and let ourselves feel the pain. Then we give up the need for revenge, but we continue to work for a just resolution. We stop obsessing about the injury, and move on, and we protect ourselves from further injury. Thus, we free ourselves from the burden of reliving the hurt, and we make sure it doesn’t happen again.

We re-frame the injury in terms of the offender’s own personal struggles. That is, we understand that the offense was not about us. An unloving partner may be a person who is unable to love at all. It does not mean we are unlovable. An abuser may be repeating what was done to him or her. Abuse does not mean we deserved it.

Still, we look at our own contribution to the injury—what part does our own history play in how much we are injured? Again, this does not mean we deserve to be hurt, or that we somehow “asked” for it. And this does not apply to every situation—certainly the attitudes of abused children did not contribute to their pain. But it is useful—and courageous—to challenge our own “official” story as well as our own false assumptions about what happened.

We release the need to hold on to our image of the person as only an offender. We may pray: “God, help me to see [this person] as you do.” We might try saying that prayer every day for a month. We can set down the weight we carry, of this person’s badness.

We then decide, carefully and prayerfully, what kind of relationship we want to have with the person—and that does include those who are no longer living. Finally, we forgive ourselves for our own failings—blind trust, not living up to our own God-given potential, making peace at any cost, staying in a relationship that is clearly destructive.

This path of merciful acceptance can open the way to healthier, loving relationships, because it requires us to do an honest appraisal of ourselves. And it requires that we love ourselves—not in a narcissistic way, but in a recognition that we are all struggling, mistake-making human beings. And in recognition that we are loved—by our Creator and Sustainer, who works in and through the world and through each of us. God’s love gives us the freedom to admit our mistakes, ask for forgiveness from others, step out of the hamster wheel of obsession and revenge and onto the path of reconciliation.

Psalm 85 describes what reconciliation looks like: “Loving-kindness and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”


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