2019 February 24 " As Long As It takes"

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38

A father and his daughter are having a conversation, about 12 months after a martial separation between the young woman?s parents. The father, who was seen as largely responsible for the break-up, did not doubt that his daughter still loved him, but she was taking every opportunity to make him pay emotionally for all of the hurt and the suffering that the family was going through because of his decisions and actions. As the two sat in a coffee shop, and she once again laid into him for his shortcomings, the father said in exasperation, "How long is this hostility going to go on for?? "For as long as it takes? was the instant reply.

The words of Jesus about "loving our enemies? seem to imply that an attitude of generous forgiveness is just a spontaneous act of the will, overriding any difficult emotions engendered by the enmity. There almost seems to be an expectation of what a follower of Jesus would normally and instinctively do when faced with exploitation or violence at the hands of those with agendas of ill-will. Just love them. Simply forgive them! And occasionally, we witness this extraordinary generosity of spirit on the news, where someone who has had great loss inflicted on them by the carelessness or aggression of another, says "I forgive them?. It might be towards the under-the-influence driver who ran a red light and killed their partner or child, or even some more deliberate crime.

I confess that when I see things like that I wonder at the person?s amazing ability to forgive such inflicted pain. I also wonder if it is not all too soon. Would it not be better for the person to hold their generosity until they have processed their loss a bit further? Have they really come to terms with the enormity of the situation, or is this forgiveness coming out of a heart still in denial over the true extent of what they have lost? Who knows?

I am almost sure that, if pressed, Jesus would have acknowledged that between the crime and the offer of forgiveness, there are processes that need to take place before the enormous generosity of spirit he is calling for in the words ?love your enemies? can be expressed. Just as it takes time to bake a loaf of bread, so it takes time, and, indeed, much emotional work, to come to the place where love and forgiveness can flow from a position of full acceptance. It is not through any diminishing of the enormity of the crime or the carelessness of the other. That is what it is, and remains so. We all need to take responsibility for our actions. It is rather from a place of healing, a place of acceptance, and a place of a renewed heart and mind, that true love of enemies, real forgiveness of deliberate or unintended hurt, can truly flow.

This came home strongly to me when I was working as a counsellor in Sydney?s western suburbs. Domestic violence there was something of an epidemic, and part of our training was in how to deal with the situation where a victim, or sometimes even the couple, presented looking for help. The new insight that was developing among those who ran the counselling services was that it was no longer best practice to see the couple together, at least, not after the initial diagnostic interview. The reason for this was that the victim, usually the woman, was in a position of weakness, where, if she disclosed too much to the counsellor, she might beaten up again when she got home. So the couple counselling situation actually put the victim at further risk. The new approach was to try and get the perpetrator to separately attend a group specifically for perpetrators. There they would learn about the cycle of violence, and hopefully get insight into what was driving their abusive behaviour. The victim, in their counselling, needed to learn that to just forgive the perpetrator for their violent outburst, even though they might be truly sorry, and buy her flowers, would only lead to a new round of the violent cycle of violence. Somehow the pattern had to be broken, and that was not going to happen by a turning of the other cheek.

The point is that forgiveness, if and when it happens, needs to be from a position of strength rather than weakness. When given from a position of weakness, the victim is only giving away more of their power to the perpetrator. (repeat)

Take Joseph for example. When his brothers, in their jealous rage, throw him into a pit, then sell him to the Ishmaelite traders, there is nothing in the text to indicate that he forgives them for perpetrating violence against him. It is only when his life has come full circle; when he is in a position of strength in the dynasty of Egypt, when he has been able to reflect on how God?s purposes have worked out in the bigger picture, that he is able to be generous to his brothers as they look to him for help. They are now in fact at hismercy, and mercy is precisely what he is able to give to them. He offers love and forgiveness to his former enemies from a position of strength.

The same process was at work in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place in South Africa after the end of Apartheid. I can tell you from personal experience and observation that it would have been very difficult if not impossible for those who were having their lives destroyed under this wicked regime to be forgiving at the time. It is only later, when the wheel has turned, that the huge generosity of spirit offered through people like Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu could bring about at least a measure of healing and reconciliation for both victims, and those who perpetrated violence upon them. And there is no point in being starry-eyed about the outcome. At best, I am sure that forgiveness was often partial, or at least conditional. In spite of the apparent idealism of Jesus? teaching, we continue to live in an imperfect world where human beings are driven by their needs in ways that seem incredible in what is supposed to be a civilised society.

Loving our enemies, forgiving the damage they inflict on us, is not so much a spontaneous act of the will as the outcome of a process where we do the inner work required to bring us to the place of something approaching wholeness. In her book "Women who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Estes outlines with deep insight what she calls "The Four Stages of Forgiveness?. They are in summary, as follows:

1. To forego- to detatch from the issue, allow it to drop away for a while, and deal with it later. I would call that "waiting?

2. To forebear. That means to give a bit of grace to the situation, have patience, channel emotion into safe areas. Refrain from punitive muttering, from acting resentfully and with hostility. Simply to not strike back is an act of generosity and compassion

3. To forget, which means to refuse to dwell, to dredge up, to work oneself up by repetitive thought and emotion. Lay the emotion surrounding the memory to rest.

4. Forgive (note, this comes last). Final forgiveness is not surrender, it is a conscious decision to cease to harbour resentment. It does not mean giving up protection, but giving up coldness. We know that we have forgiven when we feel sorrow about the issue instead of rage. When we feel sorry for the person rather than anger, then we are free to let go.

This was the point to which Joseph had come when his brothers arrived seeking food in the time of famine.

And while I have no idea how he could have come to this point in the midst of all his intense suffering, when Jesus is reported as saying from the Cross "Father forgive them- the do not know what they are doing?, those words sound as if they are spoken more in sorrow than in anger.

I remain in deep admiration for the response of that daughter who said to her father, in response to his frustration and hurt and need of forgiveness, "IT WILL TAKE AS LONG AS IT TAKES.? While that response sounds somewhat heartless, it actually carried within a message of hope. It said, in effect, "There is a process going on here. Do not expect me to short-circuit it with words of forgiveness that I do not feel or even want to feel right now.? I am not suggesting that this was a conscious thought of the daughter, but it revealed courage and a willingness to be authentic with the person in her life who held a lot of power in relation to her. Hope is in there somewhere. At least she is not saying "I can never everforgive you for what you have done to us.?

Finally, back to Clarissa Estes for the words that sum it up:

"Many people have a problem with forgiveness because they have been taught it is a singular act to be completed in one sitting. However, forgiveness has many layers and many seasons. In our culture, there is (also) the idea that forgiveness is a 100% proposition. All or nothing. This is not true either. 75% forgiving and 25% forgiving- I am not sure what is the norm. 60-40 is fine too. The important part of forgiveness is to begin and to continue. The finishing of it all is a life?s work.?


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