Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Homily

I used to belong to a church and was occasionally invited to speak. In 2008 I delivered the following and as life turns out; shortly afterwards, I left that church. As to the material I delivered; re-reading it, it emphesised to me that I really do need to keep taking my own advice.



“As far as the East is from the West; that’s how far He has removed our transgressions from us.”

In our lives, we hurt people and are hurt by them. No one goes through life without causing pain. Sometimes we are the cause, at other times we are the ones who have been hurt. We are not inevitably protected from hurt. The same awful things happen to us as Christians as happen to non-Christians. In David Brent’s terms; sometimes you are the statue, and other times you are the pigeon circling it.

As with so many other things; the key difference between Christians and non-Christians, is not what happens to us, but how we deal with it.

I am going to go over some basics and then I hope to take us on a small new journey. The aim is to open doors and walk through them. To provide spiritual tools for the spiritual toolbox. I never come here to teach like a rich man. I come to share, often my own poverty.

Aren’t you LUCKY. I have come to share my poverty with you.

Unforgiveness means dwelling in the past, it robs us of the present and damages our future. Learning from the past is good. Living in it is not.

Living in the past means we do not see how things are now, we see how they were. When we look at the night sky and see the stars, we are not seeing what is there now, we are seeing into the past. Some of those stars are dead. In our lives are we looking at a dead past?

Forgiveness = Freedom. It was for freedom that Christ set us free, not so we can chain ourselves up in negativity.

Isaiah 62:10
Pass through, pass through the gates!
Prepare the way for the people.
Build up, build up the highway!
Remove the stones.
Raise a banner for the nations.

This is about being dynamic and moving forward and leaving, dropping the baggage. This morning is about one way in which that decision can  operate. Today is a day for some here to get serious about this issue.

Is there anything harder in someone’s life than the stone that develops around a determination not to forgive? Is there any larger obstacle to peace of mind than withholding forgiveness? It is a sure way to stop your progress in your journey with Christ. It grows from a stone into a wall.

1) Why forgiveness?

Because it is what God instructs us to do. Jesus told us very clearly. When he was asked, ‘How should we pray?’ he gave us what we call, The Lord’s Prayer. I am sure we trot through it almost by rote and the words become a generalized blur unless we engage our brain each time. I am guilty on that one…as on so much.

Here are some of the lines…..

Forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.

Notice the order…we forgive others, then God forgives us.

This is not a bribe; it is part of a binding exchange between us and God. If we want to be forgiven, we need to forgive. It is not an option. If we withhold forgiveness, we are blocking our own forgiveness. If we hold things against someone, we are unable really at a fundamental level to accept forgiveness from anyone else. We might not think it through in those terms, but we are left with an unquiet spirit, or if you prefer, our subconscious gnaws away at us.

Matthew 18 v21 to 22  

Forgive 77 times, some translations say 70 times 7. But really, the actual number is not at issue, Jesus was the least legalistic man. He was not suggesting a diary of forgiveness be kept until the spaces were completed. He was saying…..times without number.

We are being instructed to forgive, without counting…without counting the number OR the cost.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but I will inject a couple of thoughts that I will unpack later. I am not suggesting that forgiveness is easy, nor is it given like a speak your weight machine. Also, we all process it differently and find different ways to it. Nor am I saying I have it cracked.

So, we are being instructed to forgive, without counting…without counting the number OR the cost. To do it generously, lavishly in the way God forgives us.

Really, when you look at it that way,
A) We have no option, because God tells us to do it.
B) It is for our own good.
C) It is in fact a great gift to be able to forgive; it is like being able to bestow love. It is a form of love.

2) What is forgiveness

It is an act of will. It is a decision. It is active, not passive. It does not happen just because time has gone by. It is about taking responsibility for who we are; instead of blaming it on someone else. When God forgives, he decides to forget our sin, wipe it out and the relationship goes back to how it was, or is possibly improved.
Down here; how do we manage that? It depends what was done. Some acts we are simply unable to forget.
If you loose a partner, how do you forget that?
If you loose a child, how would you forget that?
Though there are times our minds protect us by making us forget. Can the relationships be fully restored?
That may depend on whether or not the issue causing the problem is continuing.

I am not standing here suggesting that any wife who is being abused should stick with it; daily forgive and offer herself up for more of the same.

We may need to remove ourselves from a situation. That is a separate issue from forgiveness. God does not ask us to destroy ourselves to gratify the wanton needs of another person.

 3)  What happens when we don’t forgive?

I am not suggesting forgiveness is an exclusively Christian concept. It operates out there in the big wide world without ‘religion’. People who are not aware of God forgive and are forgiven and it benefits all. But here…we….have a specific fix on this.

I have often been in counselling situations where the person is utterly miserable because they cannot let go of what someone has done to them. The other person may have moved on, may be dead, but the individual sitting in front of me is STUCK…and often ill.

This problem can manifest itself physically, in signs of stress, lack of sound sleep, bad dreams leaving people physically drained, a general feeling of being unwell, of actual physical illnesses. It can lead to full blown depression. It can be the cause of mental breakdown.

If we do not forgive we are being controlled by the person we cannot forgive. It means to walk into a room, see the person you have something against, have your stomach turn over, or harden your face and your heart.

You loose the benefit of the meeting because you have this corner of yourself that is elsewhere, you are hampered by anger and resentment. The other person may be blissfully unaware, but they are still controlling you.

I don’t like people controlling me. I know….because I let it happen to me. I would have difficulty breathing because I was so angry; especially because the situation went on and on. I went there with bad sleeping patterns, preoccupation, being irritable, being very stressed. All because I felt I was being made a victim and being branded a liar. The people doing it, I had to deal with on an almost daily basis. That was my reaction, I caused the stress to myself, it was a bad outcome and that was my fault.

Let’s move on……….

Oscar Wilde wrote: “When we are children we love our parents. When we grow up, we judge them, sometimes we forgive them.”

How true, and how long some of us take to get there with the forgiveness. We look back at a closed door; instead of forward to new opportunities. We play the blame game.

The dynamics between children and parents are so complex, it is difficult, none of us get it absolutely right. Usually parents find it easier to forgive their own children than to forgive their own parents.

Parents….we probably most of us feel we have been sorely tried, used, even perhaps abused by our children. Here is a small comfort I hold onto when I get near to despair with my family situation. I heard it on a radio one day when I was driving, a programme was on, I was not listening; rather I was deep in both anger and worry. Out of the radio I heard one single phrase.

“Children need our love most when they deserve it least.” God was communicating with me and what I heard made a profound impact on me. 

At one point I accused my son of making me ill with his behaviour. I had gone to the Doctor with raised blood pressure. But in reality, it was not my son that did it to me; it was my reaction that produced that outcome. I had made myself ill. At some point as adults, we need to take responsibility for our outcomes, not blame others. We have little control over events, but our reactions dictate whether our outcome is as good as it could be.

I throw that in as; usually, forgiving your child is something we do without too much trouble. The more intractable dynamics are forgiving our parents, forgiving those who have undermined us as children or as adults, partners, husbands, wives, ex-husbands, ex-wives, friends who have at a fundamental level betrayed us or let us down.

You know…..people will ALWAYS let you down. It is in their nature. Please stand up if you have never let anyone down…I want to learn from you. In counselling I am very careful not to allow someone to become dependent upon me. I even spell it out. Depend on me up to a point, but assume that somewhere along the line I will let you down, even if it is because I happen to be away on holiday when you are in need. I will let you down. We let one another down.

A lack of forgiveness is often the sticking point in counselling. We deal with the lack of self worth, identity, practical problems, then a brick wall with forgiveness and if the person cannot breach that wall, they remain in chains. THE JOB IS UNCOMPLETE. Their emotional and spiritual progress is halted. We observe the permafrost of unforgiveness.

Unforgiveness damages our other relationships, it makes people reluctant to commit themselves to other people, it makes them hesitant about trusting people, they become cynical. There is a hardness of heart. Perhaps you are thinking I am suggesting this is the worst thing that can befall you. Well, it just about is! It is a spiritual cancer.

So many times I have heard….I just cannot forgive him, or I just cannot forgive her. This, always from sad, bitter people. A happy person is not one who harbours unforgiveness. It is so much in our own interests to get this issue nailed.

It affects you physically, mentally, it alters your behaviour, it can isolate you from relationships. Also, it damages your spiritual life. It divides you from God, if it is revelled in, it is a sin. It prevents you from receiving fundamental forgiveness from God.

Now….is there anyone still not convinced it is a bad thing? Shall I move on? It is not a doom and gloom situation. Today I have a message of hope, but to grasp the hope we need to understand the pit that we live in with unforgiveness.

4) Who and what do we forgive?

We need to forgive ourselves. Remember, if God forgives us, then we need to forgive ourselves. That is a vital issue that needs to be addressed on its own, a subject for another talk. But primarily, today is about our interaction with others.

Well, in counseling, I have listened to some really awful stories. Hearing about a parent’s acquiesce in your abuse by your step father is a distinct and terrible betrayal by that mother. To have that happen to you again with a second step father is profoundly shocking. Years ago in a long running counseling situation, this emerged the individual was not a Christian, but found a way to forgive that mother, and a way out of a shadow life and is now high-functioning and successful.

I tell you, the things people have taught me through their strength of character, their sheer humanity. It is humbling.
When someone can forgive so very much, then why would I be stuck in my own place of un-forgiveness, which in comparison was a walk in the park?

Some Holocaust survivors have forgiven their torturers. On TV I have heard the grief stricken mother of a murdered child forgive the murderer.

These are extreme examples; but if these actions can be forgiven, then what cannot be forgiven?
Should Hitler be forgiven….well, it is an individual choice.
But if God can forgive all things, will we set ourselves above God? If our Christian life is about praising God and living in his blessings; unforgiveness is about ‘ME’ and living selfishly.

Carrying someone else’s offence as a burden is also wrong. I have done it. I was completely offended by how someone was being dealt with; the other person had reconciled himself to it and moved on; but no, I was wrestling with it. It had to be pointed out to me. I was wrong and really, we have more than enough to do just dealing with our own ‘stuff’, rather than adding in someone else’s.

5) How do we forgive?

Matthew 18 V23 to V35
Now at the end of that parable, Jesus again emphasizes what happens if we refuse to forgive. But how do we do it? People often feel stuck. They say to me, I desperately want to forgive, but I don’t know how.

In my own situation I kept thinking I had forgiven, then the issue was brought out of the cupboard again and examined again and I was almost back to square one.

Forgiving is NOT a mutual transaction. It is not about waiting for someone to say sorry to you first. Again, if that is your issue, that other person is controlling you and may even be doing it deliberately. Forgiveness is often a one sided decision and the other person may not know about it. Indeed if the other person is dead, it has to be one sided.

Reconciliation and forgiveness are two separate processes, though they might be connected in specific circumstances. Reconciliation may follow on, but need not and should not be bolted onto forgiveness artificially. Forgiveness stands alone. 

As a parent we often say we refuse to forgive our young children until they have said sorry, that is really about discipline rather than forgiveness. It is not really the issue I am addressing here. Though we might want to rethink that technique; too late for me.

Let’s look at that parable, it gives one way of dealing with the issue. The King demanded an account of what is owed. What he did not do was act on vague feelings about what his servant owed to him. He asked for an account. He knew and understood EXACTLY what he was forgiving.

So, one method is to look seriously at the issue, examine it, write it down perhaps. Then having evaluated it, make a decision to forgive and then do it. Know exactly what it is you are forgiving. Which is not the same as dwelling on it. Dwelling on it is to be stuck passively in the past, examining it is active and progressive, it implies willingness to move forward.

Writing it down can be a good way of getting it out of you. Perhaps it has been internalized for a long time. Writing it out can allow you to use the paper like a rubbish bin, then when you have spewed it out….destroy the paper. Forgive.

I found a switch within myself in a specific situation. I basically utterly disliked someone.  I saw this person as destructive. Then one day, I had real insight into the fear and terror that consumed her. I had a rush of compassion, pity. At that moment that person lost all power to upset me, as I saw her as being such a poor wounded, pathetic person. It was a kind of epiphany; I was released. From that point on my life got better, though it was a long time until the situation was resolved. And an even longer time before I recovered. But that was because of my reaction and the outcome I allowed, not the events themselves.

I have a friend who rages the issue out. He externalizes the hurt by getting furious. This is done in private as part of prayer. He rages, and I really mean boils with rage, he lets loose his anger….and then when it is burned out, he finds peace. He then forgives.

Here is an image, perhaps it will help some. In your mind’s eye, take the issue, place it in a paper boat and gently place that boat into a darkened lake, watch as that boat floats away into the gloom and releases you as it disappears. Forgive.

Another idea, liken the unforgiveness to a heavy coat, allow it to slip from you and step into a shower and wash the burden away in prayer. Come out of the shower…and forgive.

There are other ways, they all involve prayer. Ask for God’s help. Ask for his forgiveness for taking perhaps a long time to find the resolve. But work your way towards it. Don’t stop along the way. Don’t pick the stone back up and swallow it again. WALK THROUGH THE GATE. THIS IS THE TIME.

There is the issue of whether we discuss it with or tell the person we have the problem with. That depends on circumstances. It might be a nasty surprise to breeze up to someone in Church and say…..I need to get straight with God. I have never forgiven you for not asking me to your daughter’s wedding. I thought we were friends, I was clearly wrong….but I forgive you.

That does not sound like forgiveness; it is an attempt at dumping and of making the other feel guilty.
Let the other person have God convict them, not you.
There are occasions where for healing, you may need to confront someone and if the hurt was serious, get help to ensure this is dealt with the best way it can be. If the other person rejects the offer or will not in turn forgive you; that is their problem, leave them with it, you have no power to affect their outcome, only your own.

Where it is possible do this is in generosity, not having it dragged through clenched teeth. Turn and walk through the gateway lightened by having dropped the burden. Walk through, don’t stand in stasis, stuck at the gateway any longer. Release yourself and release the other person.

6) When do we forgive?

As to when….well, I don’t think God expects us to deal with deep hurt straight off. What was done to us helps form who we are. It may be some time before we can bring ourselves to the brink where it is right to fall off that cliff of tension and release it. If you are an adult and what happened lies in your childhood, don’t waste further time, no more locust years, locust years you will not get back.

Some people may have been standing at this gate for a long time, looking backwards and not forwards. Perhaps today is time for you to release the stone, forgive and, walk forwards.

A minor issue can grow, so keep short accounts. If it is petty, see it as petty and forgive quickly. If it is petty, try to see the funny side of it. Also consider whether it is you who is perhaps too sensitive rather than lots of other people who are trying to hurt you.


Make a decision to do the business. Act on that decision quickly. It will make things better, I promise you.
We have been forgiven so much…..will we act like the unforgiving servant? Will we damage ourselves and those we love because we are not free?
Mother Teresa: “In the final analysis, it was never between you and them.”


We have no option if we intend to obey God.
It is for our own good.
It is in fact a great gift to be able to forgive; it is like being able to bestow love.

The year of the Gate: walk through, remove the stone, destroy the obstructing wall.

Do we want to bestow love, feel good….or remain in a dark tense corner. Choose LIFE and LIVE IT.

Feb 08

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