“Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. If a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?” I heard of someone who said he had no enemies and didn’t know people who avoided him, didn’t like him. I was impressed. What a wonderful thing to be able to say that about yourself! But this was only part of his statement, the other part was: “because I survived them all”. It is difficult not to have so-called enemies, those people who do not like us and whom we do not like. It is also difficult not to be injured. Mocked at school, uninvited to important parties, unappreciated at work, naively abused and so on…. We were told: “Forgive and forget”. If only we could forget, forgiveness would come easily to us. Scars from old wounds often refuse to heal. Past wrongs do not want to be past.
The closer the friendships, the greater the disappointment, the deeper the pain when nothing is left of the friendship. Often the only forgiveness we can muster is reserved for strangers. It is easier to show it to strangers. “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” Sheila Cassidy, an English doctor known for her work in the hospice movement, and a writer, drew attention to abused human rights in Chile in the Nineteen Seventy’s by publishing her story as a tortured victim , also worked at Plymouth General Hospital . She wrote: “I would never say to anyone ‘you must forgive’. I dare not. Who am I to tell a woman who has been abused by her father or to tell a mother whose daughter has been raped that she must forgive? All I can say is: ‘No matter how much we have been hurt, however justified our hatred, if we develop it in ourselves, nurture it, it will poison us. We must pray for the power of forgiveness, as through forgiveness we are healed.”
By not forgiving, we hurt ourselves more than anyone else who hurts us. Perhaps this is what Jesus has in mind when he tells us in the parable how the unforgiving servant was thrown into prison when he refused to forgive a fellow servant. I don’t think Jesus is suggesting that God withdraws from his mercy. A man’s attitude towards lacking forgiveness creates its own prison. It builds walls of bitterness, perpetuates resentment and there is no escape from it until it reaches out for forgiveness. Forgiveness and giving is not easy, especially when the wound is very deep. There is another person waiting for forgiveness. We must learn to forgive ourselves. Maybe you are responsible for something very serious. How do you forgive yourself? Is it permissible to forgive yourself? While not everyone, many of us have something from the past, some event that hurts, some ‘skeleton in the cupboard’.
How much we believe that there is at least one more chance for forgiveness, not necessarily seventy-seven chances. The Psalmist reminds us today: ” The Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.” The Word of God, drawing out the ideals, the challenges before us, reminds us that our mistakes are not eternal, do not extend through life, that time and grace purify us, that nothing or almost nothing is unchangeable.