Twenty or so years ago, a friend and I went to a local eatery in Twentynine Palms. Ordering was done at a counter. My friend ordered first. While I was ordering my friend sat at a table with another man. After I finished ordering I joined them. My friend introduced me to the stranger. They had some small talk. Then my friend invited his acquaintance to tell me his story. At that time I was a student local pastor to the United Methodist Church of Twentynine Palms. The man’s story was that his adult son had been murdered a few years earlier. His son, a private aircraft salesman, had a prospective buyer that he took on a test flight. The test flight ended with the son landing the plane at a deserted airfield where the prospective buyer, not a prospective buyer at all, but a thief and murderer, killed the man’s son. This was not the first incidence of this scenario that the murderer performed.
At the end of the story I was struck with outrage and a desire for justice. But justice would never be done for this man, his family or his son and his family. I thought about God’s call for forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” as the prayer goes.
How could any human being be expected to forgive this murderer? It would be beyond my ability, even as someone totally unrelated to the circumstance. For some time I ruminated on this dilemma. I talked about it to others. I sat with groups over years in discussion of forgiveness and God’s call to us to give it.
My response over time to the question has been twofold. One, Jesus did not forgive his persecutors from the cross. He asked God to do that. There may be times, I conclude, that forgiveness is beyond human capacity. Two, maybe forgiveness is not always a singular event. Perhaps it could be a path. It may be enough for us to release the burden of forgiveness to God when it is beyond us.
Through experience I have come to understand that the phrase, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” to be false. God, or even just the context of living, will regularly give you more than you can handle. When this happens you are expected, by God and the universe, to do all you can under the circumstances, then to turn what you cannot do over to God to finish. I consider this to be a principle of Christian life, if not a basic principle for anyone who believes in a higher power. It extends from the 3rd step of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Turn your will and your life over to the care of God as you understand God.”
When confronted with the dilemma of how to obey God’s admonishments when they are beyond your ability simply revert to the response, “do what you can do. Ask God to do what you can’t.”
The First Step is to Release (or Bless).
When forgiveness is beyond your ability, ask God to forgive for you. That’s the first step along the path of forgiveness. That may be all you are capable of doing. Releasing your enemy to God’s care is truly the least you can in order to follow Jesus’ instruction, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5.44) Then there is Paul’s directive to the congregation in Rome, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” (Romans 12.14) This action of blessing your persecutor has the benefit of releasing the burden on you of keeping your persecution in your mind. Holding onto past injuries keeps you living in the past and prevents you from advancing into the now and preparing for wholeness in your future.
Another Step is to Repent.
Another step along the path of forgiveness is Repentance. This may be the second or third step on the path. The placement of the step depends on the character of the individuals in conflict. And it comes to me now that, repentance may be a step for both participants, the persecuted as well as the persecutor.
Consider yourself as the persecuted who wants to hate and destroy your persecutor. As a goal it has been placed before your commitment to service to God and before listening to your inner voice from the Holy Spirit. If you consider turning from God or ignoring God as a sin, as I do, then you will reconsider your hatred and turn back to God, which is the simple definition of repent. That is “turn back.”
Certainly, the persecutor has to turn back to God. The ability to hurt intentionally or unintentionally happens when we have turned away from God and decided that something else is more important than God or overrides our service to God. The turning away from God results in our ability to do evil to others, as well as ourselves.
Have you ever considered that the first victim of your persecutor is your persecutor? What evil has a person done to him or herself to come to a place where they can do evil to another? In a particular discussion with church youth I found a school bully among them. He admitted upon my query that his victims had more freedom than he did. He had to adhere to confining actions and behaviors while his victims were free to act in character and with integrity. He mused that he was envious of the freedom those he persecuted had. It was an awakening for him. He was a victim of his own persecution.
In Acts, Peter says to the crowd, “Repent, therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…” (19-20a).
Another Step is to Repay.
Another step is to repay or make amends. This is the third or second step along the path. Only recently, I discovered that God can do the repaying. God can make the amends. In fact, the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans refers to the line in Deuteronomy (32.35) in God’s voice, “vengeance is mine, and recompense.”
In this line God claims possession of collection of debts as well as their repayment. This should have dawned on me years ago. Still, better late than never! There are violations by people that can never be made whole again in this life. Thus, there are acts that can never be fixed by humans. As I mentioned earlier, when we’ve done all we can do then we can faithfully turn over the rest to God to accomplish. God accepts this responsibility. God invites us to pass these humanly impossible things over to God.
Aside from the impossible, there are many violations that can be made whole, that the human persecutor can repay. When that can happen it needs to happen so that forgiveness can be accomplished. Forgiveness is not solely an activity placed on the offended, mind you. Recall that the first victim of a persecutor is the persecutor him or herself. He or she also needs to be able to forgive themselves. They need to be made whole again too. More than repayment by the guilty persecutor is in the offering here. There are circumstances that make offenders. There are social pressures, laws, systemic poverty, violence, oppression, suppression, and a myriad of other influences that design an environment predisposing people to violence and bad behavior. So sometimes, communities need to make amends, sometimes authorities need to make amends, sometimes even the offended need to make amends. Amends do not rest solely on the shoulders of the offender. But the offender must make what repayment he or she can. If the process is working, the offender will want to make the repayment. This repayment aligns with Jesus’ instruction, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3.8).
The Fourth Step is Reconciliation.
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5.23-24)
Reconciliation is made possible by the previous steps along this path of forgiveness. Reconciliation among God’s people is preferred, by God, over reconciliation to God according to this decree. It sounds like Jesus is saying that one cannot be reconciled to God until one is reconciled among his or her neighbors and relatives. Reconciliation, therefore, is a principle of Christian life.
In order to be reconciled, there can be no offending debts. By that I mean to say that there can be debts, but the debts do not stand in the way of peace. The debts would have to be agreeable to both the debtor and donor.
If the persecutor has repented and made what repayment is possible but the persecuted has not offered his or her blessing or forgiveness the persecutor may be the one to seek reconciliation. Here mediation could take place to see what could lead to transformation in the heart of the offended so that reconciliation could take place. This is an important exercise to help the persecuted move on. Even if the persecuted is adamant in his or her rage, reconciliation between the persecutor and persecuted is a necessary step to forgiveness. It may take years of effort. But those years are important on this path.
The Final Step is to Rejoice.
“It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15.32)
Reconciliation is a matter of peace. It is the peace of God’s realm. There can be mourning, hunger and thirst for righteousness, disagreements, and other dysfunctions in God’s realm, but reconciliation is a necessary prerequisite.
Therefore, it is right to celebrate every reconciliation for one leads to two, two to more, and more to all. Reconciliation is the settlement of debts. Reconciliation is the agreement to peaceful coexistence. Reconciliation means accepting differences of opinion, lifestyle, and inequities. As Paul calls upon his Corinthian congregations, do not be plagued by inequities or differences. Be at peace in your circumstances. In a reconciled community, each cares for the welfare of the other. This is not an idealistic vision. I have lived in a community where someone lost his house in a fire. Sufficient neighbors got together and either donated money or ability to restore his home. He was made whole again. In another community: No money for food or prescriptions? It was donated. Negligent parents? Nurture and support by several others.
A reconciled community is the first step toward Heaven on Earth.
I have experienced each of these steps on the path of forgiveness. I have not experienced them together building a path toward perfection in love. This path is theoretical. I have blessed. I have repented. I have made amends. I have forgiven. I have been forgiven. I have reconciled with my brother. And I have rejoiced because of reconciliation. I have not done so as a path though. So this path of forgiveness remains theory. If you have experienced more that one of these steps in order, I’d like to hear about it. I welcome expressions of your experiences in forgiveness and persecution and how you regain wholeness. I’m certain others would too.