What happens when you are denied forgiveness?
“Do you forgive me?”
The question hung in the air between my friend and me. I had just admitted fault and apologized, and I tried not to hold my breath. What if my desire for reconciliation was not returned? What if my attempts to repair the broken relationship were not reciprocated? My four little words were so full of vulnerability, hope and pregnant anticipation.
The roots of this conversation started weeks ago when my friend and I had a misunderstanding and they stopped speaking to me. I did everything I knew to do to make the situation right. I wanted our healing to follow the familiar pattern: contrition, confession, absolution, and reconciliation.
I took the steps I thought I needed to, then I waited to receive some sign, an assurance of forgiveness from my friend. To be very honest, I felt that I needed it. We all need forgiveness. Our flawed selves spill over and hurt the people in our lives, time and time again. As we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” By God’s grace, the ability to pardon one another’s missteps is what holds us together. Without forgiveness, we would be alone.
But forgiveness is as challenging to ask for as it is to accept. In Consolations, a lyrical ode to words themselves, poet and philosopher David Whyte describes forgiveness as nothing short of “heartache.” He writes how difficult it is to practice, for “it not only refuses to eliminate the original wound but actually draws us closer to its source.” The path to forgiveness is painful. It assumes a great deal of risk. It does not deny the damage done but accepts it and looks forward, all while recognizing something has been altered in one’s self and in one’s relationship. Furthermore, forgiveness is painful because sometimes it does not come — or it is delayed.
“[Forgiveness] not only refuses to eliminate the original wound but actually draws us closer to its source.” — David Whyte
As I write this, my friend has not forgiven me. At least, not yet. When I stood in the intersection of our “original wound” with a hand outstretched in apology, my friend did not want to meet me there. I wanted resolution and reconciliation. My friend wanted space.
Dazed by their rejection, I was not sure what to do next until another friend counseled me: “You might have to look elsewhere for closure.” That’s when I heard the assurance of pardon anew. As a pastor, I frequently lead this section of worship. One Sunday after this conversation with my friend, however, I was a participant. The leader opened, “Friends, believe the good news of the gospel.” The congregation responded, “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.”
Something clicked at that moment, and a weight lifted from my shoulders. I was reminded by my community that I was forgiven, and I started to believe it.
I was reminded by my community that I was forgiven, and I started to believe it.
In our Reformed tradition, we don’t wait for absolution to be given by a mortal in a robe or a collar. The business of forgiveness isn’t left to the professionals. Forgiveness comes from Christ, and since Christ’s forgiveness has already been freely given, it can be uttered equally as freely by everyone sitting in the pews: young and old; member and visitor; believer and nonbeliever.
God’s abundant grace demonstrated by Christ’s free gift of forgiveness is a key theme of our theological inheritance. While this thought is certainly good news, it can be hard to grasp. We can easily lean into either passivity or obligation. Forgiveness can easily become a forgone conclusion, regardless of how we act, or a duty.
In my rush to resolve the situation with my friend, I fell into the trap of the latter. I took what I believed to be necessary steps out of duty and obligation to my friend. I expected instant forgiveness and an immediate gesture of reconciliation in return. My friend isn’t ready to forgive me yet, but this doesn’t negate the truth that God’s promise of forgiveness and work of reconciliation is still at work in both of our lives. Perhaps inward efforts were made on behalf of my friend, and I haven’t seen them. Perhaps this will be a process. As David Whyte points out, “The great mercy is that the sincere act of trying to forgive, even if it is not entirely successful, is a form of blessing and forgiveness itself.” I still hold out hope for us, with time.
Through this experience, I have been reminded that our ability to forgive one another is not a duty or obligation. It is a sacred extension of God’s perfectly sufficient act to forgive us through Christ Jesus. Forgiveness is a means of grace. Always. It’s not something we should ever take for granted. Nor is it an obligation that binds us without freedom. If all forgiveness comes from Christ, then the good news is that all relationships are redeemable.
Our ability to forgive one another … is a sacred extension of God’s perfectly sufficient act to forgive us through Christ Jesus.
When we sit with Christ’s free gift, we are prompted to offer our own free gifts to those around us: How can we show understanding and compassion to someone who pulls back their hand from us? If reconciliation in one relationship isn’t possible for a time, can we extend ourselves outward to forgive someone else? Can we locate the “original wound” within us and have compassion for the person we used to be, as someone who has both gotten hurt and has done the hurting?
Share the good news with someone hurting and who needs to hear it. Affirm it in your heart: In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.
Thank you for reading! As always, check out this piece and more at my Presbyterian Outlook author page!