Forgiveness: the necessary miracle

The Gospel according to Matthew records a story that Jesus shares in response to Peter‘s question about the number of times he needs to forgive someone. Like many of Jesus’ stories that we call parables, this one is filled with outrageous characters given to even more outrageous actions. A servant who is forgiven a massive, incomprehensible debt by his master immediately goes out and demands repayment of a small amount from someone else on the household staff. The question hits us like a ton of bricks: how is it possible that this man who had been forgiven so much found it impossible to forgive someone else? Jesus makes forgiveness seem so simple, so straightforward. And indeed, as Jesus teaches, forgiveness is straightforward. When he teaches his disciples how to pray, Jesus embeds this forgiveness transaction right in the middle of the prayer. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, we pray.

And yet when it comes to our lives as we live them, forgiveness is sometimes very hard. Some things are easy to forgive, an unintended bump, a small inconvenience. These sorts of things are easy to move past, even to overlook. The big damages in our lives, those things that happen between us and others that have the power to destroy relationships are in real need of forgiveness work. This kind of work is hard. It’s hard because it goes against our sense of justice and fairness. People who do wrong by us need to pay. It just seems right that they should suffer as we have.

In what might be described as a relationship memoir, the late Walt Wangerin Jr. describes forgiveness as a divine absurdity and a necessary miracle. He writes,

Forgiveness is a sort of divine absurdity. It is irrational, as the world reasons things, and unwise. But “has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” It is a miracle maker, because it causes things to be that, logically, empirically, have no right to be. For-give-ness is a holy, complete, unqualified giving.1

Walter Wangerin Jr., As for Me and My House

He goes on to outline this “for-give-ness” in three “givings” — Giving up, giving notice, and giving gifts.

Giving Up: Forgiveness is a willing relinquishment of certain rights. The one sinned against chooses not to demand her rights of redress for the hurt she has suffered. …in this way (please note this carefully) she steps outside the systems of law; she steps into the world of mercy. She makes possible a whole new economy for their relationship: not the cold-blooded and killing machinery of rules, rights, and privileges, but the tender and nourishing care of mercy, which always rejoices in the growth, not the guilt or the pain, of the other. This is sacrifice. To give up one’s rights is to sacrifice something of one’s self–something hard-fought-for in the world.

Walter Wangerin Jr.

To this he adds giving notice.

…forgiveness must at the same time be clear communication …the one who was sinned against must speak. “Giving notice” means that she will reveal to [the other], as clearly as be can, what he has done…not to accuse [but] to impart information. With love and not with bitterness she explains both his act and its consequences, remembering always that this communication is for his sake…This, too, is sacrifice. 

Walter Wangerin Jr.

Finally, Wangerin describes the giving of gifts.

Forgiveness is, at the same time, a pure, supernal giving the receiver doesn’t deserve it; the giver wants nothing for it. It’s not a thanksgiving, because that’s the return of one goodness for another. It’s not a purchasing price…because that is hoping to buy one goodness with another Forgiveness is not a good work that expects some reward in the end, because that motive focuses upon the giver, while kind of giving must focus completely upon the [other]…Rather, forgiveness is giving love when there is no reasons love and no guarantee that love will be returned. 

Walter Wangerin Jr.

To these three, we might add a fourth as a prelude: “Give glory to God.” This acknowledges God’s overwhelming forgiveness for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This acknowledges our place in Jesus’ story, as the one who has been forgiven much and uses that knowledge of that gift of grace as the fuel by which we engage our own forgiveness work of others.

If you are having trouble with forgiveness either giving it or receiving it and would like to talk through the situation with a forgiveness coach, Pastor Kate and I are happy to schedule time to speak with you regardless of whether you are a student or a member of the faculty, staff or someone reading this.

In the name of Jesus

Pastor Jim

Nov. 9, 2022

Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as university pastor at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions with University Pastor Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay.

1 Wangerin, As for Me and My House. 79ff