The heart of forgiveness (wordy version)


The inspiration for my poster, The Heart of Forgiveness, was this Sunday's reading from Isaiah 43:
Thus says the LORD: Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!...It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.
I should have been paying attention to the homily, I know, but I got to thinking about forgiveness. Like a lot of religious terminology, it's not always easy to connect the term to real life. I often need to concretize terms to make them sensible.

But, lo! An image came to me, grounded in my own experience of seeking forgiveness.

When I want to apologize for doing something hurtful, I inwardly lower myself in the eyes of the person I hurt. I am saying in effect, "I am not so grand or important that I can treat you unkindly -- as though you were below me." I find myself giving up the heightened status that I wrongly took on, and abase myself -- literally, bring myself toward my base. Believe me, this can go against the grain, especially when having to apologize to my own kids, as I have had to do more than once. But during a sincere apology, for that moment, I empty myself of my parental prerogatives and place myself below the other.

But here's where it gets interesting. In a family or a community, the abasement of an apology should be only half the story. Because in a family or community, when an offender lowers himself, the offended has the opportunity to raise up the offender. To take them off their knees and set them on their feet again. To restore them to full status, to full personhood, to full rank.

That's what it means in my poster to bring a sinner to "I" level. It means that in forgiveness, I bring the sinner up from his abasement to my own level. We are again eye-to-eye. But it means more. When I bring you to "I" level, I am returning your personal value -- your "I-ness" in my eyes and in your own. I am telling you that you are again worthwhile to me.

When Isaiah speaks of God forgetting our sins, he may be speaking the literal truth -- the Lord of all Creation may well wipe from his mind the memory of our misdeeds. But we needn't settle for the metaphor of forgetting. When we are forgiven by God, we are raised up again to our full status as sons and daughters. We again have permission  to look God in the eye, as it were.

This may seem like a strange privilege for a Creator to allow for his created, but it is true. God raises our heads, and gazes at us lovingly, fully in the face.

Some challenges:

Allowing ourselves to be seen as God sees us is not easy. It's more likely that we continue seeing ourselves as shameful and unworthy. There is no easy trick to seeing ourselves otherwise, and there are many who benefit when we see ourselves as dirty and no good. But the realization that God has raised us from our lowliness may be the first step toward regaining the full worth that we have already been granted by our loving God.

Second, it is a rare gift to be able to forgive. As far as I know, true forgiveness may be nearly out of reach for most human beings. Forgiveness means a willingness to restore a person fully to their favored place in our hearts, in our homes and in our lives.

But doesn't it seem too easy, after some horrific event, for people say that they forgive the offender?

I know a man who recently lost his wife. She was killed while buying donuts for Sunday Mass by a drunk driver at 5 in the morning. The woman bled to death, on the street, in the arms of her distraught husband. The next day, the husband (a saintly man, without a doubt) told reporters that he forgave the driver. I will not pass judgment on whether the man was capable of this or not. But I know that I would be unable to forgive that quickly. Forgiveness, if it came, would be a long process. I would have to come to it by stages, if at all, over a long period.

But forgiveness must at least be an option. It was Isaiah's insight that God needs to move on, to clear the decks, to do something new. And God will not be distracted or delayed by his people's insistence in their own unworthiness. Everything must go! Even the memory of our violence, rottenness and smallness.

For this, we thank the Lord -- that though slogging ever unwillingly, we follow the lead of One who gives us new life and 222nd chances.