The Spirit in Forgiveness

by Rev. Ellie Barrington - June 9, 2013 A reflection on Matthew 18:21-2 and Mark 11:4-6 Listen to the audio recording

So, is there anybody in your life you’ve had to forgive 549 times? Maybe for the same transgression? Someone who seems to be using up all of those 7 x 77 times – at least in your head? Is there a person out there capable of so preoccupying your mind with recollections of their wrongdoing and fears of what they might yet do, that – if you are honest with yourself – 549 times may actually be a low estimate?

Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said we need to forgive 7 x 77 times.

In Meditation group, sharing about our perennial need to work on forgiving, someone mentioned that she wonders if she’ll ever be done with forgiving one particular individual, who has trespassed against her. She keeps thinking she’s forgiven that person, and then the old resentment will surface again…perhaps without so much intensity, but it’s still there. Forgiving doesn’t seem to be a ‘do it and its done’ act of will or moment of grace.

I appreciated this candid admission, because I recognize it in myself. Do you? Sometimes our resentments and anger, born of old hurts, seem like a rock we just chip away at. We know that we need to forgive, for our own spiritual health more than theirs. We know that our judgement doesn’t protect us or help them to change. We keep trying, praying, meditating, but we can’t fully let them go free.

Sometimes forgiveness work is like water on stone. When a person’s sharp broken edges have cut us deep, it can take a lot of persistent spiritual practice to smooth our image of them into curves we may eventually be able to embrace.

Forgiveness can happen in a single moment of Spirit healing, in a miracle of letting go that is like a mountain of hurt sliding into the sea of love. Forgiveness can come like an avalanche of unexpected compassion – but this usually occurs in response to a heartfelt apology from the one who has hurt us, when they take responsibility for their actions. Or it dawns with our sudden insight into the woundedness of the one who has hurt us. There are these miraculous moments of genuine reconciliation.

I had a keen moment like that years ago, sitting outside a Toronto courtroom, where a man was being tried for molesting my then 10 year old son in a swimming pool change room. On that very trying day, I saw an older woman, sitting on the opposite bench in a collapsed pose that spoke despair. The perpetrator was a man with schizophrenia. This was his mother. She was suffering, at least as much as me, I realized. Suffering lifelong I suspect, with her suffering son. The man who had traumatized my boy was her boy. I felt like the Spirit turned my eyes to her, for me to truly see.

Not that I will ever hug that man. But my anger dissipated in a flow of compassion for her – and by extension, for her son. She was a mother suffering by her cross, as much as me. He was a man whose severe mental brokenness was surely not being healed by a society that sentenced him first to the streets and then to prison.

My attention was turned from judging him with a mother’s fury for hurting my son, to supporting my son’s healing through his speaking out in court that day. Eventually, my anger at that perpetrator, re-directed, held seeds of compassion for all those we abandon to the agonies of mental isolation. The hurting will hurt themselves, or others. The wounded will wound, until they are healed. They often cannot help themselves, without our help. And only love can heal them into taking responsibility, and stopping the cycles of abuse.

In that moment, at our day in court, the Spirit of compassion conquered the anger born of hurt and fear in me. But I have to admit it didn’t grow enough love in me to liquidate my resentment of someone in my own family. That relationship proves to be one of those long-term forgiveness projects…Am I up to 549 times, I wonder? And yet the hurt I still resurrect from time to time is decades old. Every time I catch myself nursing that old grudge again, I have to forgive myself for that…and try to be simply aware that I am adding to the count. 7 times 78?

These past weeks, Bob and I have been reading bestselling spiritual author Marianne Williamson’s book “A Return to Love,” in which she writes this, about the workings of the Holy Spirit in forgiveness.

“Our perceptions of other people often become a battle ground between the ego’s desire to judge and the Holy Spirit’s desire to accept people as they are. The ego is the great fault finder. It seeks out the faults in ourselves and others. The Holy Spirit seeks out our innocence, seeing all of us as we really are, the perfect creations of God…

The places in our personality where we deviate from love are not our faults, but our wounds. God doesn’t want to punish us, but to heal us. And that is how God wishes us to view the wounds in other people.”

We forgive by repeatedly offering the Holy Spirit the upper hand over our fearful ego. We practice forgiving to free our self of the bonds of fear, to loose all that tangled energy for loving instead. Loving our self and life and God and others and Creation. As Williamson writes: “Forgiveness is the key to inner peace, because it is the mental technique by which our thoughts are transformed from fear to love.”

So one more time, let us submit our ego’s unforgiveness to the love the Holy Spirit brings. Seven times 77 times, if necessary. As Jesus suggested.

May the Master of forgiveness lead us beyond the temptation to judge and deliver us from the evil generated by our fearful egos.

For there lies the kingdom of the power of love and glory. For us and forever.




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