Learning To Forgive Ourselves
Mark 2:1-12; John 8:2-11
One of the hardest things in the world to do is to forgive another person when that one has wronged you. I can think of only one thing harder, and that is to forgive yourself when you have miserably failed or grievously sinned. Every adult I know carries around a burden of guilt in some form, a sense of regret for things he or she has done or is doing or has not done. And such feelings of heaviness and dissatisfaction can have a powerful impact on our lives. They can distort and mis-shape us forever if we allow it.
I can recall quite vividly one of my first experiences of this sort. I was in high school and was playing football. Like most American boys, I had dreamed of being a great athletic hero, but I was not fast enough to be a halfback and wound up playing center on offense and linebacker on defense. One night, just before the first half ended, I managed to intercept a pass and found myself streaking up the sidelines headed for a sure touchdown. Suddenly all my dreams of being a hero were about to come true. And then, right in front of the bleachers on our side of the field, for reasons that I still cannot explain, that football somehow got away from me. I can still see the image of that ball dribbling out of my hands and bouncing onto the ground. Back in those days, it was against the rules to pick up a fumble and run with it, and thus, to my great humiliation, there in the open field, with no opposing player within twenty yards, I had to recover my own fumble, and with that the half ended. Needless to say, I became the brunt of unmerciful kidding for days to come. I became known as "glue fingered Claypool," the guy who let success "go to his head," and I tried good-naturedly to take all this ribbing. But inside I died a thousand deaths. You see, I did not want to be a clown out on that field. I wanted to be a star! And it was literally years after this episode before I was able to forgive myself for that mistake. I cannot begin to number the times I relived that sequence of events right up to the awful moment and then burned with chagrin at being the kind of person who "goofed up" a grand moment and was not able "to pull it off" in the clutch.
I imagine every adult here can reach back into your memory and recall a similar trauma—when you ignobly failed and were humiliated. And the question becomes: what do we do with these experiences of regret and remorse? How does one handle the mistakes of the past, and even more seriously, the sins that we have committed against God and others and ourselves? Where do you go with the self you do not like and with the feelings of dissatisfaction that grow out of what you have done and what you are? This is the question that I want us to ponder this morning and make no mistake about it, it is a truly significant one. Call it by any name you will—imperfection, failure, guilt, sin, regret—the question is: how do we handle it? Where do we go with the dark underside of our lives and find creative relief?
This morning I want us to look at this question in the light of the Christian religion, for the Bible is no stranger to feelings such as this. Its pages are filled with people who knew what it was to fail and to sin, and there is to be found here a genuine solution to this problem if we are willing to accept it. Therefore, let us look closely at the scriptures that were read this morning in the New Testament lesson. I had purposely set side by side two events in the life of Jesus that have great bearing on this matter of dealing with human imperfection.
The first of these episodes is found in Mark's Gospel and concerns a man who was totally paralyzed and brought to Jesus on a cot by four of his friends. When these men arrived in Capernaum, they found the house where Jesus was teaching overflowing with people, and so they went up on the roof and proceeded to open up the tiles and let down the man's cot right in front of where Jesus was sitting. As soon as He saw the man, He recognized the nature of his problem and moved directly to it. Without another word He said: "My son, your sins are forgiven....Rise, pick up your bed and walk." And this is exactly what happened.
The other episode is found in John's Gospel and centers on some scribes and Pharisees who had caught a woman in the very act of adultery and brought her to Jesus asking whether or not she should be stoned. Jesus made no response at first to their inquiry, choosing rather to stoop over and write something in the dust. But then as they pressed Him, He answered softly: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." These words utterly transformed the whole atmosphere. Suddenly, like a block of ice in a July sun, the crowd of accusers began to melt away, until only the woman remained. Jesus asked: "Is there no one to condemn you?" And she answered: "No one. Lord." Then He s:iid: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."
I have intentionally set these two stories side by side, for I think they dramatically illustrate how the problem of guilt is often handled and what Jesus Christ can do as an alternative. Actually, here are two basic ways that people down through history have attempted to cope with imperfection. One way has been to internalize the dissatisfaction; that is. literally "to take to heart" the failures of the past and begin to ridicule one's self for being such a person. The result of this way of coping is always some form of paralysis—illustrated vividly in the figure of this man who could no longer even move the parts of his body. This is the logical end of what happens when one fails and makes that failure the measure of his whole being. Such a one will become unsure of himself, begin to lose confidence, and finally get to the place that he is so filled with self doubt and self despising that he becomes incapable of acting at all. What begins with uneasiness and depression snowballs into a full blown self contempt, and when this occurs one's ability to act is undermined and the whole personality locks. Jesus must have realized that this is what had happened to the man on the cot, because He addressed Himself directly to this issue of utter despair by saying: "Your sin is forgiven you." Internalizing does lead eventually to immobilization, and the helpless paralytic is a vivid example of what happens when one "swallows" failure and allows it to grow into total self contempt.
But there is another way of dealing with dissatisfaction, and it is the opposite of internalizing. This is the attempt to externalize the problem; that is, project it on others, and this is illustrated in the Scribes and Pharisees who came to Jesus accusing the adulterous woman. Here, instead of taking imperfection to heart, one "takes to the streets," so to speak. This means one attempts to deal with the evil in himself or herself by blaming it on others or projecting it outside the self. This approach is a desperate effort to avoid implication with evil. It attempts to account for all that is wrong in terms of the fault of others rather than admitting that part of the problem is within one's self. And this explains in part why there has always been so much hostility and criticism between human beings. The scapegoat is as old as evil itself, and whenever one is confronted with a situation of guilt, a common reaction is to refuse responsibility for it and project it on someone else.
It appears to me that this is what Jesus' parents did on the occasion of His first pilgrimage to Jerusalem. You may recall that as the company from Nazareth started back home, Jesus was not with the group, but had remained behind in the Temple, absorbed in the teaching of the elders. On the evening of the first day's journey, Mary and Joseph discovered His absence, and along with concern that something might have happened to Him, they must have also felt uneasy about their neglect to see to it that He was with the group when they had left Jerusalem. However, when they finally located Jesus two days later, none of their own neglectfulness was acknowledged. They rather put all the blame on Jesus, berating Him for not having been more thoughtful and acting as if the whole problem were totally His fault.
This is an age old strategy for coping with imperfection. Just as Adam pointed to Eve and Eve to the snake, so history is filled with pointed fingers and accusing voices, for one way of dealing with guilt is attempting to externalize it and keep it all on the outside. This is precisely what the Scribes and Pharisees were doing that day as they brought this woman to Jesus. Her act of immorality had not just offended their piety. In all likelihood, it had made them aware of their own tendencies in this direction, and they attempted to deal with the darkness within themselves by accusing her. Remember, we are always most critical of others at the very points where we are most uneasy about ourselves. We "hunt witches" for the simple reason that they make us aware of the "witchiness" in our own selves, and we hope somehow by destroying them that we can eliminate our own shadow problem. I am guessing that the angry accusers that day were men who were having trouble with adultery themselves, and back of their shouts and stones aimed at this woman was a desperate attempt to get away from their own imperfections.
Here, then, in these two stories are classic illustrations of how human beings have tried to cope with the problem of guilt, and in light of this, we need to look very carefully at how Christ handled these situations. In effect, He rejected both of these approaches as inadequate and substituted in their place a radically different process—the reality of forgiveness which, when freely accepted and acted upon, can do what internalizing and externalizing can never do! Paul Tournier has described Jesus' approach here as "The Great Reversal," for in both cases He did the opposite of what conventional wisdom might have expected. To those accused; that is, to the man and the woman who made no attempt to evade their guilt. He spoke a word of mercy and hope. He did not condemn them, as one might have expected, nor did He ask them first to repent and then offer forgiveness as a reward for their efforts. The astonishing thing was that Jesus reversed these two processes and said that the gift of forgiveness is what powers repentance rather than the act of repentance powering forgiveness. This was a startlingly new idea in a world that had "fallen" from the gracious order of things that inhered in the very beginning, but Jesus came to reinstate that Original Order, which means He came saying: "Just as God gave you your first chance to live apart from your deserving it, He is willing now to give you a second chance on the same terms." Listen, God's love is gift love, not reward love. What human perfection did not create in the first place, human imperfection cannot destroy. This is so hard for us to comprehend. We are so conditioned to think of love as something we earn by our goodness and forfeit by our badness that we can hardly fathom a love that works on a different basis. But this is what Jesus came to proclaim and embody. He maintained that there was nothing we could do to make God love us any more than He does right now. That issue is determined by wha
t He is, not by what we are. And, He maintained there was nothing we could do to stop God from loving us. His affection was eternal. This is why Jesus arranged forgiveness and repentance as He did. Instead of saying to the man: "First, pick up your bed and walk and show me you have really repented, and then I will forgive you." Rather He said: "I forgive you. God is now giving you another chance on the very same basis as He gave you your first chance. You did not earn or deserve that, but it came as a gift. Accept this gift love once again, only this time, act differently. You can. It is possible. God has not given up on you. A new future is utterly possible." This is the same thing He said to the woman who was caught in adultery, and do you not see the wonder and power of it? If forgiveness is something I have to earn, and I am the one who had already so ignominiously failed again and again, what hope is there? This is what leads to despair, which is at the bottom of all the efforts of internalize or externalize. They are based on the absence of hope which either gives up and quits like the paralytic or seeks to evade the darkness within by blaming and accusing. But what if forgiveness is a gift—something God gives anew the way He gave us life in the beginning? That would provide the hope and the energy to do life differently—to make of the future something other than the past, which is what repentance is all about—the "turning" that picks up a bed and walks and heads into the future liberated to sin no more.
I repeat: The miracle of Jesus is that He reversed the sequence of repentance and forgiveness. For centuries people had come to believe that "the turning" of repentance is what made forgiveness possible. But Jesus came saying: "God's love is not reward love at all; it is gift love. And He who gave you your first chance to live apart from your deserving it is willing to give you another chance on the same terms." Accepting this gift is what enables us to repent: that is, to become something different in the future than what we have been in the past. And this really is a solution to the problem of sin and guilt and remorse and regret—to have the past lifted off of us and a whole new future opened up before us.
Therefore, I repeat—what internalizing and externalizing can never do, forgiveness can, but only forgiveness understood as Jesus practiced it. He did not say to that paralytic or that fallen woman. "Repent and then I will reward your efforts with forgiveness." That would be only to deepen the problem. Rather He said: "Your sins are forgiven you. I do not condemn you. Therefore, pick up your bed and walk...Go and sin no more." The gift of forgiveness is what makes the work of repentance possible, not the other way around. And this is finally how we learn to forgive that most difficult of all persons, ourselves—by allowing ourselves to be forgiven, by first accepting the gift of forgiveness and then out of that, finding the strength to repent, or to say it another way, to do the future differently than we have the past.
Believe me, there is only one unforgivable sin—only one—and that is the refusal to be forgiven. I do not care what you have done or failed to do—it can be forgiven if you will give it to the god of gift-love, and receive from Him another chance on the same basis as you received your first one; namely, apart from your deserving. There is nothing God cannot and will not forgive—except our refusal to let Him. What we give to Him, He will receive and forgive!
Will you receive the gift of forgiveness from God? If so, you can forgive yourself.
Dr. John R. Claypool