Forgiveness: Counting the Cost

Jesus teaches us to be merciful like the Father, to forgive from our heart. The “Our Father” is a daily reminder that we must seek to forgive if we ourselves desire to be forgiven. Easier said than done!

Sometimes we just don’t want to forgive. The hurt can be so deep. The damage can be so lasting – or perhaps ongoing.

Even those determined to forgive can feel stuck. Just when we think we have finally let it go, some little event of daily life sets off a reaction in us, exposing new layers of bitterness and resentment. Will it never end?

Today I suggest a shocking concept: in order to forgive, we must learn to count the cost, yes, even when counting the cost involves feeling angry. Allow me to explain.

The Bible often describes forgiveness in terms of writing off a debt. In the Old Testament, God instructed the Jews to observe a Year of Jubilee every 50 years. It was to be a year of liberation and consolation, a year of setting slaves free and writing off old debts.

In Matthew 18, Jesus offers us the parable of the unforgiving servant. He owes his master a vast sum of money, impossible to pay back, and his master writes off the entire debt. The same servant goes out and throttles a fellow servant who owes him a mere pittance. Jesus offers the moral of the story: that we who are forgiven so much by God must go forth and forgive from our heart.

But let’s not lose the image of writing off a debt. To write off a debt, I must name what is owed. Then I can declare that I release the other person from the debt.

This is where so many of us get stuck in our unforgiveness. When it comes to serious betrayal, cruelty, abuse, or neglect, the wound can be so deep and painful that we prefer to ignore it. It’s so much easier to turn to a cliché like “forgive and forget” or “move on with life” or “water under a bridge.” But if we minimize or deny just how serious the pain is, we leave ourselves unfree to write off the debt. Part of us will hold on to the resentment and bitterness. It will keep leaking out until we finally face it. If we are obstinate, it may even lead us to harden our heart and block ourselves from ever receiving or giving love again.

“Counting the cost” means giving ourselves permission to feel deeply angry at those who have hurt us and (-gasp-) even at God himself. He can handle it! If a flawed parent can handle the anger of an unruly child, surely our heavenly Father will love us tenderly when we come to him upset and in pain. If you don’t believe me, I urge you to read the Book of Job or to pray some of the Psalms. God delighted in Job and David precisely because they came to him with an open heart: no wearing of masks, no pretending or protecting. God healed their hearts.

Unfortunately, in the name of being Christian, many make the mistake of viewing anger as a bad thing, a shameful thing, an unacceptable thing. It is not uncommon for Christian families to train their children that they must never express anger. So the children learn from their parents to minimize or deny, to pretend like they’re not actually angry. Their anger turns to passive aggression and breeds toxic relationships that never seem happy.

Yes, there are destructive ways of expressing anger that we should avoid. Lashing out at others physically or verbally is a bad thing. Damaging people or property is a bad thing. Stubbornly holding a lifelong grudge is a bad thing.

But anger can also be a healthy emotion, an important part of the human experience. Like it or not, it is often there – and will stay there – until we finally face it and resolve it. The same holds true for even more painful emotions such as shame or fear, which often lurk beneath our anger and fuel it.

It is so much easier to avoid our wounds – especially for those of us who pretend that we are in control.  If we have been hurt, and hurt badly, we instinctively resist and avoid the prospect of going toward the painful emotions. We fear that once we start feeling them we may never stop. We will lose control. The pain will never end. And so forth.

That is why it is so important to draw close to God and others in our pain – not just anyone, but those who are truly trustworthy – those who will empathize and encourage and accompany, challenging us without trying to “fix” us. With communal support, our wounds will not be too much for us. We can face them. We can name them. We can claim them. Then we can call upon Jesus to heal us and set us free.

All too often, our Christian communities have been dysfunctional, not seeking to heal the whole person. Instead of showing empathy and accompaniment to the broken-hearted, instead of weeping with those who weep, we try to fix them with rule-following. We tell them what they should feel and think. Or we help them numb their pain with more socially acceptable drugs like busyness or volunteering. Like Job, they just need someone to acknowledge their pain and be with them. God will provide the healing. But we are saved as a believing community, not as isolated individuals.

When we find authentic community with others and with God, we can probe the depths of our wounds. We can “count the cost.” And then – calling on Jesus – we can truly release it all. We can forgive from our heart.

The Communion of Saints

As most of you know, “Hallowe’en” is short for All Hallows’ Eve. Tonight is the vigil of All Saints. On this day, we rejoice in the victory that God has already won in the lives of the holy men and women who have gone before us in faith. They are now fully alive in the heavenly Body of Christ. Their triumph in Him gives us hope amidst our difficulties.

They also give us comfort and support. We are not alone in our struggle. We are united with them in love. For Christ’s Body is one.

You may recall the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. He heard the voice of Jesus questioning him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Not “Why are you persecuting my followers?” But “Why are you persecuting me?” Christ and his members are one. Many parts but one living body. Branches abiding on the vine. Living stones in the temple. Bride and bridegroom united as one flesh.

Paul’s encounter was not simply a one-on-one personal encounter with Jesus. It was an encounter with the whole mystical reality that is the Church. The encounter changed Paul’s life was forever. His old self died, along with his desperate striving for self-righteousness. He took on a completely new existence “in Christ” – a phrase that he went on to use 165 times in his letters! He understood our existence “in Christ” as a totally new identity, now no longer in isolation, but in an abiding communion with God and neighbor. In Romans 6 he described faith and baptism as causing us to die with Christ and rise with him to new life.

We are united in Christ in a living communion of love that far transcends the here and now. Saint Augustine offers a panoramic view of the Church as the whole Christ united in love:

“His Body is the Church, not this or that church, but the one that is spread throughout the world, not only that which exists now in the men and women of this present life, but includes also those members who existed before us and those who will exist after us – all the way to the end of the world.  For the whole Church, made up of all the faithful (for all the faithful are members of Christ) has in heaven that head placed over her that guides his body. Though separated in vision, she is united as one in love.”

The Apostles’ Creed is a prayer treasured by Catholics and Protestants alike. In it, we profess our belief in the “communion of saints.” The Latin phrase is sanctorum communio, words that are delightfully ambiguous. They can mean “fellowship of holy people” as well as “sharing of holy things.” In fact, “communion of saints” means both. When one member of the Body suffers, all suffer. When one is exalted, all are exalted. Christ and his Bride are truly one flesh. They share everything together.

In our present days of darkness and division, this heavenly communion should give us great hope and encouragement. We are not alone. We are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). They have already conquered in Christ. They are now cheering us on as we run the race and fight the good fight.

Their triumph and their love also nurtures our deepest and holiest desires – which often lie dormant and forgotten, buried beneath the stress and chaos of our lives. Chief among those desires is the virtue of hope. Christian hope is a deep and intense longing for our true heavenly homeland.

There are many counterfeit versions of “hope” these days – political ideologies, fantasy escapes, worldly success, or the promise that technology can solve all our problems. These false hopes promise much but deliver little. They leave us disappointed, as the thing-hoped-for proves not to be the answer to our heart’s deepest questions.

True hope does not disappoint. We are destined to be perfected in the love of Christ. If we freely cooperate with his free gift, we will one day be strong enough and pure enough and holy enough to see God in the face and live. Mind you, He already loves us dearly. But we are not yet ready to receive all that love in all the ways he would love to share it. He prepares us step by step. Our capacity to receive needs to be stretched. Our desire needs to grow and grow. The more intense our longing for the Lord, the more capable we become of receiving true holiness.

Often, it is precisely through the painful trials of life that God blesses and strengthens us the most. In the moment they are cause for misery, but over time they emerge as part of a larger and beautiful story. Jesus compares the experience to a mother in labor, who finally gives birth. Paul compares it to athletes in training, with their eyes on the prize. Scripture frequently speaks of gold or silver plunged into the furnace, purified of all dross so that God’s glory can shine forth.

In this life or the next, all of us are destined to be purified by the fire of God’s love and come to shine with the saints in heaven. I have never heard that encounter described more beautifully than in the words of Pope Benedict XVI:

“…the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw … and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of His heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of His love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.”

May we all draw inspiration from the holiness of the saints. May we be unafraid of the intensity of God’s love, which is indeed an all-consuming fire. Rather, may we be filled with true hope, abiding in God’s love until all his promises are fulfilled.