A survey of church members at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., prompted the Rev. Adam Hamilton to present a sermon series on the topic of forgiveness. That led to a new book, recently published by Abingdon Press, entitled Forgiveness: Finding Peace Though Letting Go. In it, Mr. Hamilton explores forgiveness in relationships with parents, siblings, spouses and others, as well as our relationship with God. He spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.
Why a book on forgiveness?
Every year, I send a survey to our congregation, where we ask: “What are the key issues you are wrestling with?” For the past two years, the number one topic of concern was forgiveness. After I did the sermon series, many people told me how it had helped them to be able to ask for or receive forgiveness from God. So that’s how it started. I thought, if 8,000 people at the Church of the Resurrection felt a need for this, there would probably be a need in other congregations. Also, this is the place where the gospel really shines. We all need forgiveness.
Most of us understand, intellectually, the importance of forgiveness, but forgiving in one’s heart is another matter. How do you address that?
There are different levels of grievance. I use the metaphor of stones. There are a lot of “pebbles” — people who cut in front of you at a stoplight, hurt your feelings a little bit. For those, we just let them go. We say, “I’m not going to worry about that.” We remember our own errors, the number of times we’ve tossed pebbles other people’s way. It becomes a rhythm of our life. We try to assume the best of the other person.
I was on a flight recently, and the flight attendant was just being very unpleasant. My first reaction was to bristle. Then I stopped and thought about the times I’d been in a bad mood, and began trying to imagine why she might be irritable. Maybe she had a child sick at home. Maybe there were people who’d been mean to her on a previous flight. So I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. I said to her, “I want to thank you for taking care of us. It must be thankless at times.” All the irritation on her face just melted away. She said, “Thank you for noticing. You’re the first person who’s thanked me in a long time.”
So, for the small pebbles, you apply RAP: Remember your own shortcomings, assume the best of the other person, and then pray for them. We’re not necessarily praying for God to change them or for God to bless them. We’re praying that God changes our own hearts.
What about for bigger issues?
There’s a healing process that I talked about with the really big stones. We’ve had several people in our congregation whose children or spouses have been murdered. One congregation member whose son was murdered told me the process he’d been through. He tells me, you chip away at it a little at a time. You’re going to try to understand the other person as a fallen human being, then you pray some more. All of those things helped him, little by little, to be able to let go of the anger and the pain, but it’s still a daily issue. He said, “After years, I’m still working at this.”
You devoted an entire chapter to the subject of forgiveness in marriage. Why?
There’s no marriage that doesn’t need these six words: “I am sorry. I forgive you.” We are going to hurt each other. This is without a doubt going to happen. Forgiveness is going to be a regular part of our life. With the little stones, you’re going to let it go. In a marriage, you have to do that a lot. There’s a ton I do that irritates LaVonn. We have to accept what we cannot change. Certain things that are never going to change and I love her anyway; and vice versa.
One of the things that I do is, five times a day, I pray for LaVonn. When I go to bed, I thank God for the day and I listen to her breathe. I pray, “Please bless her and make me a blessing to her and help me to be the blessing she needs me to be.” This attitude of thanksgiving, it takes away a lot of the sense of irritation.
Why is that?
It focuses you on the things you’re grateful for. We tend to keep track of errors. We say, “It’s been so long since you did this for me.” But 1 Corinthians tells us, love doesn’t keep track of wrongdoings. When you’re grateful, then, instead of the wrongs, you keep track of the things you did well. That’s a huge issue in making marriage work.
When it comes to the more serious issues, like infidelity, part of what needs to happen is awareness, regret, confession and change. For a marriage to work, both people are going to have to repent from time to time. Now you’re not dealing with pebbles; it’s boulders. It takes longer, and it involves rebuilding trust. But even there, it’s possible to forgive. It’s amazing how many people walk through a true forgiveness process, and who can make a marriage work after a breach of trust. But if you’ve committed the sin, you have to help the other person bear that burden. You have to understand the weight of the boulder you’ve placed on the other person.
Is there an area of confusion or misunderstanding that’s common around the subject of forgiveness?
First, forgiving is not condoning. It’s choosing to let go of the right to retribution. When I forgive, I’m choosing to let go of the right to get even. It doesn’t dismiss the consequences.
There are two dimensions: in your heart you let go; the other dimension is, you extend mercy to tell them they’re forgiven. Those are two different steps. They’re not always meant to be lived at the same time. In the book I share the example of a school shooting. A couple of students who were there came out the next day and said, “We forgive you” to the young man who’d killed students at their school. But they weren’t the ones who were wronged. It wasn’t their place, to be offering forgiveness. And forgiveness before repentance isn’t always redemptive. Yes, there are times when you extend forgiveness even if the other person hasn’t repented. But God wants people who’ve committed a sin to see, to say, “I should not have done this. Here’s the pain that that caused.” Extending forgiveness to that person may actually stunt their own redemption. Consequences are redemptive. If one of my daughters makes a mistake, and asks if I’ve forgiven her, I’ll say, yes, I forgive you but you’re still going to be grounded for two weeks. Grounding is for their redemption.