What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t - Reservoir Church
Image Map
Image Map


Loving Our Enemies

What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t

Steve Watson

May 14, 2023

I experienced a trauma in my childhood that was significant enough that I couldn’t reckon with it until I left home. But at 18, I was old enough and had enough space that I could start.

One of the places I started talking about this was with people in the Christian student movement I was part of. They were to me what we call the body of Christ, the hands, the feet, the kind and accepting listening ears of God to me. I’m very grateful I landed in such supportive community. 

But in one case, I told a young staff member in this movement about the trauma I was trying to reckon with, and he made some not so great choices. 

He offered to pray with me, which I appreciated. I appreciate that impulse, that offer still. But looking back, I don’t appreciate what happened when we prayed. He tried to engage the trauma with me too much, in a way he really had no business doing. He was in his mid-20s, not much older than me and had no real training or experience in this. 

His intentions were good, but impact was not. 

There are so many other questions he didn’t ask me.

He didn’t ask me if I needed a therapist.

I had seen one but way too briefly and I really needed to go back. 

He didn’t ask me if I’d reported the crime done to me to the authorities. It had been years, but not too many and I think that might have really helped me at the time. It certainly may have helped some other people. 

There were actually a lot of things he didn’t ask me.

But he did ask me if I felt ready to forgive a perpetrator of the trauma in my life. He was wondering if I wanted to forgive my enemy. 

Again, I get it. Forgiveness – God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others, is a big deal in the way of Jesus. 

But I want to ask:

Was this encouragement to forgive appropriate or not? 

And more broadly, when it comes to what we might expect when we’ve harmed others, and what Jesus wants for us when we’ve been harmed, what is the role of forgiveness? What is it or isn’t it?

Let’s read one of a number of teachings from Jesus that touches on this topic.

Matthew 18:21-35 (Common English Bible)

21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.

23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold.

25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment.

26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’

27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.

28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’

29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’

30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.

31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened.

32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me.

33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’

34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So Jesus is really into forgiveness. Can you see that? Seven times, seventy-seven times… that’s a lot of times to forgive your brother, your sister, your enemy, anyone really.

Jesus is serious about the way of forgiveness, so serious he tells this story that is so weird in at least three ways. 

I mean how does one come to owe 10,000 bags of gold? The term Matthew uses is meant to be obscenely large – it’s something like 160,000 years of wages. That’s even more than a mortgage in Boston these days. Yeah, a lot of money.

And who settles their debts by selling whole households into slavery? Well, it turns out a lot of people do that around the world. We used to do stuff like that in Massachusetts too. But it’s horribly cruel. 

So the first weird thing about this story is that the details are all way over the top.

The second weird thing in Jesus’ story is that the cruel, rich money-lender suddenly has a change of heart and wipes out the whole debt. Paid in full. Someone’s life, their whole household is in ruins, the kind of ruin that is going to curse the fates of multiple generations to come. And, was  canceled.

It’s weird that Jesus would make any kind of comparison between God and this crazy mafia boss figure. But I think the connection is about God’s intentions, to initiate this kind of extravagant transformation in the world, to so release people from ruin and shame and bondage that generations find freedom and blessing because of the power and impact of God’s love. 

That’s an awesome word, that God wants to do something so deep among us. 

But the story doesn’t end here. There’s a third weird part, which is that this first person who’s managed to rack up all that debt runs into an old gambling buddy who owes him maybe a few hundred, maybe a few thousand bucks, and he is after him. He’s like:

If you can’t pay me, you’re getting payback. 

Have you ever had a blessing enter into your life? Unexpected favor or kindness or happiness or good luck or whatever, but find yourself still nursing a grudge, still bitter, still easily provoked? 

Jesus is like:

This is worth interrogating. This is worth paying attention to. 

Then the story ends with a twist. That bitter, ungrateful fool gets arrested by the authorities after all, who go ahead with the original sell-this-man’s-family-into-slavery-for-generations plan, because if he’s gonna be like this, then he’s going pay every last cent of that multi-million dollar debt, no matter how long it takes, no many how many people have to suffer.

Thus sayeth the Lord. Amen. 

Friends, Jesus drew crowds. He was an entertaining and provocative story-teller. He knew how to get people’s attention.

But sometimes, the church has misconstrued Jesus and spun his teachings with a meanness and a rigidity that I don’t think he meant to convey.

So, you get a degraded interpretation of this teaching that goes like this:

Forgiveness is transactional. 

We are so thoroughly evil in God’s eyes, that God’s disappointment in us is like a billion dollar debt. One that merits us an eternity in hell. God, though, is willing to cancel that debt, rescue us from everlasting suffering, if we forgive other people the smaller harms they do us. Don’t go for payback, no revenge, be nice instead. And maybe God’ll be nice to you. 

Now, if the church had followed even that teaching for centuries, we might be better off. There would have been a lot less war, a lot fewer prisons.

But still, it’s a degraded teaching, to treat forgiveness like a transaction and say if you do or don’t do this, then God will or won’t do that. 

We can do better than this. 

I read this teaching more like Jesus is describing a whole economy of forgiveness. There is a way of Jesus. There is a way of Jesus that we can more or less live within, and the way of Jesus is about mercy. 

We get a negative example. The newly debt-relieved servant is like my working class European ancestors who (as soon as they found themselves accessing a little bit of security and standing in American society) joined the people above them in anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-indigenous attitudes and policies. 

And I think Jesus would say:

That’s not the way of grace. That’s not the way of mercy. 

Jesus is announcing an economy of universal spiritual liberation that he puts in terms of debt and status and all to emphasize that everything is spiritual, that the economy of God’s mercy should touch everyone and everything. The way of Jesus has no room for profiting off others’ misery. No room for harshness, bitterness, punching down. Jesus wants to be in the way of mercy, to be vessels of kindness and mercy. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

But Jesus also isn’t teaching isn’t some kind of spiritual obligation that will keep vulnerable people more vulnerable. 

As Lydia preached, forgiveness is not a summons to stay in relationship with someone who harms you.

As Keri preached last week, forgiveness is also not a license to leave injustice or bad behavior alone. 

Forgiveness is not necessarily a change in our feelings, so that we feel warmly and kindly to people and forces that harmed us. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t. 

What is forgiveness? 

In our small, day to day annoyances with each other, forgiveness a lot of the time probably looks like a way of empathy, of understanding, of letting go. Most people don’t mean harm most of the time. Love covers a multitude of evils, the scriptures tell us, so day to day, a lot of forgiveness is probably just letting go.

But in this love our enemies series, we’re talking about the bigger stuff, the stuff we can’t, we should just ignore and let go. 

So what does forgiveness look like with our enemies, with the big debts, the big harms? 

It’s two nos, and one yes. 

No #1. Forgiveness is not seeking payback. It rejects the cheap resolution of retaliation or revenge.

No #2. Forgiveness is also not forgetting or minimizing the harm. In fact, forgiveness is how we deal with the very real hurts we still remember. 

And now the YES: in between retaliation and forgetting is a way of mercy, where we reckon with past hurts we can’t change, and where we hope for a new way forward that is redemptive for us, and maybe in time even for our perpetrator. 

But this reckoning doesn’t start with forgetting or niceness. It doesn’t start with good feelings or reconciliation. It starts with grief.

That campus minister who prayed with me, who wanted to know:

Have you forgiven your abuser? 

This is what he should have asked. He should have asked:

Have you grieved yet? This is such a big hurt. This is such a big hurt. Would you like to grieve some more together? 

One of the surprising aspects of the good news economy of forgiveness is that forgiveness starts with grief. 

My friend Matthew Ichihashi Potts, who’s the minister of Harvard’s chapel, has helped me see this better. He has a fascinating scholarly book about this called Forgiveness: an Alternative Account. 

Minimizing and retaliation are both ways to keep us from the pain of grieving. Minimizing and retaliation pretend on the one hand that it’s not that bad, and on the other hand, that we can make it better by payback.

But the truth is that we can never undo our past hurts. There’s no reverse gear in life. Never. 

We can’t make our childhood traumas, if we have them, not have happened. Impossible.

We can’t take back words said, trusts betrayed, failures to act – whether they were ours, or whether they happened to us. 

What we can do, though, is grieve. And as the scriptures say, we can grieve as people of hope, grieve as people who believe in resurrection.

We’ve been taught there are five stages of grief. A lot of folks in the field have expanded this list. It’s called the Kübler-Ross Change Curve and it talked about seven aspects of grief.

They’re not linear, step by step in a row. They’re not a path or a guide, they’re a reference to recognize what grief looks like.

The eight aspects are:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Anger and frustration
  • Depression
  • Experimentation with how we live in our new situation.
  • Decision to move forward in our new reality.
  • And Integration 

When it came to my childhood trauma, I had plenty of shock and denial as a child, as a teen. When I first faced what was happening, I had some depression too. 

But all this encouragement to forgive and move on for me actually kind of slowed down the grief, slowed down the healing, and so slowed the deeper work of mercy.

A number of years ago, I discovered that decades after that person encouraged me to forgive, there was still a buried well of anger and frustration in me. And a number of years ago, circumstances drew that out, and with the help of God and friends, I was ready to feel it and face it. 

I needed that anger and frustration over a lot of things I’d lost. I needed a lot of it. And friends, I needed some help for that to not eat me up, and I needed some help and some hope to integrate this anger and frustration into my life. 

Only after significantly completing this grief do I have freedom around this trauma. I can’t erase the past. There are still impacts on me. But I feel full and loved and whole, including in those parts of my past. And I don’t always want to be connected to the people involved, but I see their own hurt and weaknesses now, and not only do I wish them no harm, but I wish them wellness if they can find it. You might call that love. 

I would. Now I love the ones who harmed me. I’m not in relationship with them all, but I’m free from them. They don’t define me. And I wish them well. 

That’s what forgiveness looks like. 

Friends, knowing that forgiveness takes grief means I can do it a little faster now, faster than decades at least. Maybe you can too.

And this is the miracle I’ve experienced during this series.

When Ivy preached on making space in our second week, I thought of an old friend with sadness. I thought: too much space, too much space. And I prayed as I have many times:

God, I’d love for that friendship to get better.

But in the moment, as has been true in many other moments, I felt:

There’s nothing for me to do just now but hope and pray and wait.

This is a friend who in some big ways had let me down. I hadn’t been perfect myself by any means myself, but the hurts I experienced were enough to need to recalibrate my expectations of this relationship. 

I had noticed some things that had been true before, would probably always be true. And there wasn’t a way for me to undo that. Again, the way toward mercy, the path of forgiveness was in grief. So I spent some time with this space, where I could work through the the shock and denial, the anger, frustration, and sadness around this deteriorating friendship before deciding what to do next. 

And my decision was: I still wanted the friendship in some form. We all know that you don’t just replace people in your life. Some you need to let go, but some you fight to keep. And I thought, this is a keeper, even if the friendship can never go back to what it was. I want it in some form still. 

So I decided I’d accept friendship back in a different form, and I’d pray for and look for an opportunity. 

A few days after that sermon and that prayer, it came. The person reached out. They didn’t reach out about how they’d let me down. They reached out for other reasons, but we had a warmer, more honest conversation than we have in years.

There was even a window where it was appropriate for me to share one of the ways I’d been hurt. And I found myself able to do that in a way that was real, but also that wasn’t like unloading on my friend. I could share the truth in a way that was also constructive for my friend to hear. And they did. 

And as Jesus says, friends, the truth will set you free.

Something is resurrecting here. I won’t get the old friendship back. But I’ve got something, something that looks like it’ll be different but still pretty good.

And forgiveness, which looked a lot like grief, paved the way for that on my end. 

Friends, here’s the teaching.

Forgiveness for our enemies is a command of Jesus. It’s one part of his way of mercy for us all. No shaking it.

But forgiveness is not a lot of bad things. It’s not forgetting, it’s not minimizing, it’s not necessarily reconciliation, it’s not always good feelings, and it is not changing or undoing the past.

Forgiveness is actually the refusal to minimize and the refusal to retaliate.

Forgiveness is participating with God in God’s great arc of love and redemption and mercy.

It starts and sometimes it ends with grief. 

You can’t rush it.

But when you grieve honestly and well, you find the truth setting you free in all kinds of ways. And one way or another, you make room for resurrection.