The Hardest Blessing

The image and words below were done by author and artist Jan Richardson and inspired by Matthew 18:21-35, which is this Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  They were first published as part of a reflection at The Painted Prayerbook.

Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” – Matthew 18:22 NIV

As I’ve been pondering this parable of Jesus—one of his most challenging, which is really saying something—I have found myself wondering how many of us have absorbed any of these beliefs about forgiveness. This writing does NOT recommend any of these 4 italicized beliefs.

– Forgiveness means excusing or overlooking the harm that has been done to us and saying that everything is okay.

– Forgiveness means allowing those who have hurt us to persist in their behavior.

– Forgiving requires forgetting what has happened.

– Forgiveness is something we can do at will, and always all at once.

If we have absorbed any of these distorted beliefs about forgiveness, it can come as both a shock and a relief to learn that such ideas would be foreign to Jesus. Clearly he expects us—requires us—to forgive. Yet in his teaching about forgiveness, nowhere does Jesus lay upon us the kinds of burdens we have often placed upon ourselves—burdens that can make one of the most difficult spiritual practices nearly impossible.

The heart of forgiveness is not to be found in excusing harm or allowing it to go unchecked. It is to be found, rather, in choosing to say that although our wounds will change us, we will not allow them to forever define us. Forgiveness does not ask us to forget the wrong done to us but instead to resist the ways it seeks to get its poisonous hooks in us. Forgiveness asks us to acknowledge and reckon with the damage so that we will not live forever in its grip.

Sometimes we are given the grace to forgive quickly. Sometimes the grace to forgive takes a long, long time to receive. And so forgiveness often requires practice. It takes choosing to work at it. We might have to chip away at it again and again and again. Seventy-seven times, at least, as Jesus says in this passage.

Forgiveness might well be the hardest blessing we will ever offer—or receive. As with any difficult practice, it’s important to ask not only for the strength we will need for it, but also the grace: the grace that will, as we practice again and again, begin to shimmer through our wounds, drawing us toward the healing and freedom we could hardly have imagined at the outset.

Is there some forgiveness you are being asked to practice? Are there any ideas about forgiveness that you might need to release—or take on—in order to enter this practice? How might it be to ask not only for the strength but also for the grace you need to forgive another—or yourself?

THE HARDEST BLESSING

If we cannot
lay aside the wound,
then let us say
it will not always
bind us.

Let us say
the damage
will not eternally
determine our path.

Let us say
the line of our life
will not always travel
along the places
we are torn.

Let us say
that forgiveness
can take some practice,
can take some patience,
can take a long
and struggling time.

Let us say
that to offer
the hardest blessing,
we will need
the deepest grace;
that to forgive
the sharpest pain,
we will need
the fiercest love;
that to release
the ancient ache,
we will need
new strength
for every day.

Let us say
the wound
will not be
our final home—

that through it
runs a road,
a way we would not
have chosen
but on which
we will finally see
forgiveness,
so long practiced,
coming toward us,
shining with the joy
so well deserved.