Forgiveness is basic. Forgiveness lies at the heart of Jesus and his mission. Just like there is no car you can buy without a steering wheel (not optional), so there is no truly Jesus-kind of life without the practice of forgiveness. My wise father -- who knows a few things about life -- often referred to forgiveness as God’s sewer system. Forgiveness, he would say, was the way our failings and hurts could be carried away from us. Then he would say, rather plainly, that perhaps it was time to flush the toilet. I have never forgotten that image. It carries a kind of earthy usability. God’s sewer system. Basic, and necessary.
We all need to be forgiven; we all need to forgive. It is by walking the pathway of forgiveness that we learn its power and wisdom. To be sure, there are circumstances and situations where we wonder how this way is possible at all. A thousand qualifications and questions emerge. But we push along a little further only to find that there is a deep reasonableness to forgiveness that was not evident at first. Sure, forgiveness is messy, often confusing, likely challenging, and sometimes painful; but forgiveness is also liberating, an immersion in love itself, and ultimately life-giving. Forgiveness is how we follow Jesus into his new life.
Corrie Ten Boom, the famous survivor of Ravensbruck prison camp and subject of The Hiding Place, talked a lot about the practice and power of forgiveness. Despite living through some of history’s darkest days, despite being the victim of incredible injustice, her life in Christ was so joyously real. How could that be possible?
There is an unsourced story about Corrie that I particularly love for it practical wisdom. She was struggling with an issue of forgiveness that made her unable to sleep. She would lie awake at night, tormented, trying to make sense of the senseless. Her feelings overwhelmed her. She prayed and asked for help.
Help came, she said, in a simple picture provided by a local Lutheran pastor. He drew her attention to the church bell. As long as the rope was pulled, the bell would ring, he said. To silence the bell one must take one’s hand off of the rope. But, he noted, the bell will ring for a little while still. Chose to let go of the rope and be patient.
This, said the Lutheran pastor, was what happens we forgive: we effectively take our hand off the rope. But, if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we shouldn’t be surprised if angry thoughts keep coming for a while. The choice to forgive doesn’t automatically cure our hurt. That can continue for a while, like the sounds of the bell slowing down.
Corrie Ten Boom said that it was this simple image that helped her understand the practice of forgiveness as a choice versus the feelings which may go on for a little while. She chose that day to let go of her grievance and refused to rehearse her hurt. There were a few more sleepless nights, a few more angry thoughts, but the force had gone out of the hurt. The hurt emotions came less and less often and finally quieted altogether. She had taken her hand off the rope.
This past Sunday, as we took time to consider forgiveness as a practice, as something we do, this is the story that came to mind. And I thought about some of the past episodes of hurt in my life and how they had lost their power to control my emotions. I remembered that moment in the Chapters bookstore when I grabbed a copy of Lewis Smedes readable little book, The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How. It was the counsel I needed for that moment in my life. I needed to take my hand off the rope.
Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is a choice. It isn’t something we fully understand but it is something we must believe in. Forgiveness is the way forward for all of us. It is something we do. We take our hand off the rope.
Let me recommend Smedes’ little book to you. I usually keep a few copies in my office to give away. This is a guide for those who want to forgive, need to forgive, but someone how feel stalled as to how they should go about it. Often those persons are allowing their emotions to rule their choices. I tell them Corrie’s little story.