Forgive Those Debtors: And don’t let past interactions freeze your opinions about others

In church I happened to sit down behind a woman who doesn’t like me.  She used to, but then we disagreed in a Sunday school class and her countenance has changed ever since.  It occurred to me during the opening hymn that halfway through the service there was a 50/50 chance we would have to interact at the greeting time.  Of course it was possible that she would chat with the person in front of her and we would both be spared the encounter.

These are the subterranean dramas of which Sunday mornings and Garrison Keillor skits about Minnesota Lutherans are made.  On one level you have the safe and predictable liturgy going on; on the other level the pews are fraught with dangers and simmering axes and alliances.  If angels can read the minds of the faithful in the sanctuary, what do they glean of the state of Christendom?

We tend to live with those unsavory subplots as if they were as inevitable as gingivitis in old age.  But should we?  And what happens to the church when we do settle for any number of half-digested grievances?

One of Jesus’ more uncomfortable commands, because it comes with a daunting  consequence for noncompliance, is that we forgive one another: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).

I interpret the part about “neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses” as meaning “neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.”  Call me a literalist.  In any case, I don’t want to find out what it means at the Judgment if I am found guilty of it.

It is easy to think we have done better with Christ’s command to forgive than we actually have.  This is because of a deficient understanding of forgiveness.  We no longer dwell languidly over fantasies of blowing up our ex-boyfriend’s house, so we are content that we have grown.  We arrive at the place of releasing resentment toward our parents for not having been perfect, and we think the job of forgiveness is done.  We have forgiven everyone, we think—all five people who sinned against us in our lives.

But what of the matter of keeping short accounts in the scores of our daily frictions in the church body?  Somehow, hard feelings generated by these are not seen as having anything to do with the command to forgive.  These are seen as, well, life.  And we have a right to like whom we like, don’t we?

But if human forgiving is supposed to imitate God’s own manner of mentally removing transgression as far as east is from west (Psalm 103:12) and of tossing the offense into  the sea of forgetfulness, then when we forgive-but-don’t-forget, we never give a chance to the other person to change.

Relations become frozen.  You see a person who was a jerk to you 10 years ago, and you think as he  approaches, “Oh, there’s that jerk.”  But he may not be a jerk anymore.  If he has the Holy Spirit in him,  assume that he is not.  Start in with that assumption.  God has been dealing with him in  many ways since you last interacted.  Give your brother a clean slate every day.  You know you want one too.  Christianity should be all about believing in and hoping for change—not only for ourselves but for other people.  “Love believes all things.  Love hopes all things.”  Freezing our opinions based on past interactions gunks up the works and brings the life of the church to a grinding halt.  We  file brothers away in the file of “foolish,” or “proud,” or “liar,” and give them no chance to surprise us with their new growth.

That’s why God takes forgiveness so seriously that he will not forgive us if we do not forgive others.  It is not just about individual petty gripes but the growth of the church at large.  You are changing, sister, so am I.  The Holy Spirit dwells in both our mortal temples.

Andrée Seu Peterson

Used by permission, October 15, 2016, World Magazine website:

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Grace Church Congregational

1055 Williams Street

Pittsfield, MA 01201