When Jesus taught us how to pray, he included a petition that we learn how to forgive: Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. The word here translated as debts is sometimes translated as trespasses, a pretty heavy word for our contemporary culture, and sometimes it is even translated as sins, and nobody likes that word. No matter how the word is translated, it points out that we are all flawed, and we all need to learn how to forgive the flaws of others, because we absolutely want everyone to forgive us our own flaws.
I began thinking about this prayer after a recent conversation with my brother. He was talking about a particularly miserable time in his life due to deep conflict with our parents. His story brought to mind any number of parallel issues in my own relationship with them. We both have some very painful memories about our upbringing. In fact, some of the fractures persisted and splintered into our adult lives. Yet both of us agreed that our parents never actually intended to hurt us at all. They devoutly wanted the best for us. Their idea of the best and our ideas simply did not mesh.
We would both be basket cases, I believe, but for a decision somewhere along the way. I don’t know the details of my brother’s thought processes, but I know mine. I made a decision to forgive them. For both of us forgiveness would have been impossible when we were teens. We could hardly do it in adulthood, because the issues continued. Because our parents moved to a very distant location in retirement, we seldom saw them in person during those years, but on my last visit with my mother, about 3 months before her death, she was still trying to instruct me to undo a decision she had opposed years before. It was extremely hard to learn how to forgive my parents for hurting me in so many ways, even though my mind knew that injury was not their purpose.
Even though I chewed over the problem for years, I might never have been motivated to put that issue at the top of my priorities but for a sermon on Ash Wednesday. Lent is a penitential season, and any Ash Wednesday sermon points us to self-examination. Most such sermons have led me to focus on personal disobedience. Most such sermons lean toward a legalistic interpretation of my need to repent. One was different. Reflecting on the ashes each of us had received as we entered the sanctuary, the pastor asked us to think about what things in our lives needed to be cast into a sacrificial fire.
It was hard to wrap my mind around that concept. But then he asked us what things in our lives stressed or broke our relationship with God. That hit home. Recognizing the pre-eminence of filial respect in God’s scheme of things, I saw for the first time how my anger and resentment of all the wounds my parents inflicted, intentional or not, kept me from growing in my relationship with God. My inability to properly honor my earthly parents threw a huge barrier in the way of my relationship with my heavenly father. As the pastor developed his point and led us to a deeper understanding of the things that necessitated Christ’s death on the cross, I finally realized that my need to cling to the memory of injustice and pain between me and my parents had destroyed that relationship. My unwillingness to let go of my need for people to sympathize with me at the expense of their respect for my parents was destroying me, it was destroying my memory of my parents, and it was poisoning my life of faith. I needed to forgive them in order to heal, because Christ had died in order that I might be healed.
It was hard to absorb the truth that Christ died because I could not learn to love my parents. I kept saying, “But look at what they did!” I kept reciting my litany of complaints. Over that Lenten season I committed myself to learn how to forgive them, and by Holy Week, I felt I was making progress. It is one of the great blessings of my life that our pastor scheduled a service of healing and reconciliation that week. After all my prayers and tears and prayers and gritted teeth, I needed healing and reconciliation.
I thought I had finally forgiven all the physical and spiritual injuries as I arrived at the service. It was a beautiful and worshipful experience. All who wished to do so were invited to the altar for prayer and anointing. Any who wished to stand in support of those being anointed were invited to stand behind and lay their hands on our shoulders. I knelt at the altar and it was no surprise that my husband came to stand behind me and lay his hand on my shoulder. It was a real surprise that two other women from the congregation, neither of whom could possibly have known my reason for being there, came forward and laid their hands on my shoulder as well. In my hour of deep need, three people touched me and shared themselves to give me courage. When the pastor came to me, he anointed my forehead, and then he prayed for me. I know that it was the power of the Holy Spirit using that setting,and in that moment the dam broke. I wept torrentially. I truly felt released from the grip of a lifetime of pain and anger and resentment. I saw clearly the faces of my parents and the love they intended to express in their own way. I knew that Christ’s death for me and for them was not in vain. I truly forgave them. The poison was finally withdrawn.
It would be wonderful to say that that was the end of it, but it wasn’t. It was only the beginning. A lifetime of pain and poison does not simply vanish like morning fog. The recovery after forgiveness of something so deep is like recovery from major surgery. You start feeling a lot better very quickly, but you don’t completely heal for a long time. Of course, my issues with my parents would never have been so deep and prolonged without the instigation and motivation of Satan who whispered constantly, “That is so unfair. You deserve better!” Satan’s whispering is not shut down by one intense spiritual moment. I find that I am not finished learning to forgive even now. Even now, Satan can still bring some old memory to mind in a weak moment, and once again I start to recite my anger. Fortunately, by the grace and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, I am getting better at donning the spiritual armor Paul wrote about in Ephesians. I am learning that the real problem with my parents was always Satan, not my parents.
But most of all, I am learning the blessing of forgiveness. By learning to forgive, I open up my memories. I can remember my childhood as a time of light, not darkness. I can remember all the wonderful things my parents did for me and with me, and those hateful, miserable moments can be put in their proper perspective.
In light of the kinds of things reported regularly in the news, I must hasten to assure you that my brother and I were neither sexually assaulted nor physically beaten as children. We were simply reared by two people whose idea of the right way to rear children was to keep them children until the magic moment,that never really came, when the parents declared them to be adults. The details of our upbringing are irrelevant except to say that we were reared more in the admonition than the nurture of the Lord. Their strict rules and punishments were the outgrowth of what I believe to be a horror that we might turn out bad.
When apartheid came to an end in South Africa, Bishop Tutu worked with a Truth Commission seeking to pull the poison of that horror by structuring opportunities for forgiveness. He documented his work in a book entitled, No Future Without Forgiveness. I think he is right. It is a cosmic truth that we need to forgive. Jesus tells us this truth and invites us to take it into our hearts in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”