The Forgiveness of Sins
The Forgiveness of Sins
by Rev. Chuck Blair
Brother, sister, mother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter, friend, colleague, neighbor….our relationships contain many people with the potential to hurt us, very often in small ongoing ways. Sometimes in trying to be good people, we brush these hurts aside, thinking “I am not a vindictive or overly sensitive person, these things shouldn’t bother me.” But they do. They do because our egos are like magnets, and resentments are attracted to them. What is the impact of holding onto these resentments? Do we hold back in our lives? Do we argue with people? Do we gossip? What does the Bible teach about this?
Jesus taught the art of forgiveness. “’Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22.) Does this mean we are to forgive 539 times exactly? Yes. And more. The writings of Emanuel Swedenborg explore depth in the biblical message and say that “By this [Matthew 18:21-22] He meant that they were to forgive as often as he sinned. Their forgiveness was to know no limits, that is, was to be eternal and timeless, which is holy” (Secrets of Heaven 433).
The Lord promises that forgiveness is possible. Even when hurt seems too great to repair, God tells us “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). We experience a heart of stone when we are too angry, too selfish, or too frozen by the pain others have caused us. A heart of flesh, while it may be vulnerable, it is compassionate. A heart of flesh sees that while we are feeling pain, the other person may also be hurting for that pain they caused us. We can get so caught up in ourselves that we do not even notice another is struggling from the offense. It is true that people need to be held accountable for their actions. But these people also need patience from us. As it was said: “Be patient with me” (Matthew 18:26). Practicing patience with another, holding onto the hope and vision for our relationship with them, is a true act of compassion. We need to invite the Lord into the journey and ask for the courage it takes for us to be patient with another and the understanding needed to see that they too are working through the pain that needs forgiveness.
The idea that forgiveness means that sins are washed away is one of the reasons why we sometime shy away from forgiveness. We sometimes think that forgiveness means forgetting and that feels wrong. Sometimes we feel we need our resentments to educate us about the people in the world around us and guide us in the ways we should act towards them. We feel like we need our memory of past hurts so that we can maintain boundaries with people. But the Lord is all-knowing and mercy itself—therefore there must be a way for knowing and forgiveness to exist together, a clear-headed forgiveness that forgets nothing and forgives all. Here’s one way of thinking about it: how might it feel to look at someone who has hurt us and not feel anger? Is this even possible? This is how the angels are described “those who have charity hardly notice the evil in another person, but instead notice all the goods and truths that are his; and on his evils and falsities they place a good interpretation. Of such a nature are all angels, it being something they have from the Lord, who bends everything evil into good” (Secrets of Heaven 1079).
Now this doesn’t negate the fact that we do need to protect ourselves from people who make a habit of hurting us. The key is to invite the Lord in to the process. It is the Lord who will keep us separated from our resentments, if we let him. We must be rigorous and disciplined in our endeavors to forgive. We must get used to naming each hurt and then putting it away and asking the Lord to keep the resentment from us. He is the only one with the power to do this. And it must be done 70 x 7 times, which means all the time, without limit.
When we forgive others there is a freedom where we are no longer shackled by our own anger. It moves us from our selfish illusions to a beautiful reality. It is hard work. But letting go of the fantasies that we can change the past, that we can change others, or even that we are the ones who can change ourselves opens room for God to help us ward off the resentment we feel. Each time we forgive, it paves the way for the next time we need to forgive. Practicing the courage and patience, and letting the Lord into the process of forgiveness becomes like exercising a muscle, it grows stronger and stronger. Together with Him we can come to a point where forgiveness is intuitive, a blessed way to live!
Rev. Charles Blair is pastor of NewChurchLIVE in Bryn Athyn, PA. To learn more visit http://www.newchurchlive.tv/.
“All things are blessings when a person is in the order of Heaven. ”
Arcana Coelestia 9184
Being religious seems to be going out of fashion.
However, although recession may be true for much of the Western world, one growth area is the new spiritual self-help industry said to be a commercial filling of the gap left by the decline of Christianity. These days you can pay for any amount of books, courses, residential retreats, audio tapes, videos and conferences, all offering to guide you along a journey beyond yourself, by freeing your soul embracing who you really are, awakening to your life’s purpose, and finding the fulfillment of your dreams.
If Christianity in Britain these days is a dead duck, can this new industry replace it? Can spiritual self-help really help you find a sense of meaning and purpose not to mention personal well-being and development? Is it no longer necessary to believe in a supernatural reality or a transcendent divine being in order for you to find patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, and a concern for others? Do you no longer have to be religious to be spiritual?
In my view, Christianity, as a religious culture, is in its death throes because it hasn’t always been fostering the spiritual life. Too often it has had a limited understanding of the deeper meaning of the Bible and taking it as literally true regardless of scientific and historical research. Too often Christians have been seen to be hypocritically failing to abide by their own professed standards of charity and family values. Too often have those who believe in a God of love, clung to the notion of an eternal punishment of those who fail to do or believe the right things. Too often Christians have worshipped an immoral god who required the suffering and death of Christ.
We need something much better than this, but is the new spiritual self-help industry the answer?
One of the characteristics of the new ethos is the principle that different valid spiritual paths exist. This is an emphasis on finding one’s own individual way to spirituality. If there is no longer one absolute truth then what is true for me may not be true for you and so what is right for me to do may not be right for you. My point is that adopting different spiritual practices, picking and mixing different beliefs, pursuing different life styles, and travelling to meet up with others for brief encounters, all adds up to ‘bowling alone’, doing your own thing.
Yet having a sense of belonging to a family and community with shared values and beliefs helps a person to experience companionship and acceptance. You feel as if you are a part of something bigger and more important than yourself.
And so I would ask whether an individual self-help spirituality can provide that same vital sense of belonging?
The religious attitude is that only through learning to forget oneself can one find oneself — only by focusing on the needs of others can you find a new you — a more tolerant, generous and kindly you. Thus there is a strong ethical dimension to religion; a focus on duty and obligation, doing what is right, and resisting temptation to do what is wrong. Loving your neighbour as yourself and the ten commandments come to mind — do not steal, murder, commit adultery etc. According to the Bible, Christ challenged us to take up our cross and follow him.
In urban anonymous life, it is only seldom that you are stimulated to pull together with other people, like helping the neighbours during local shortages or contributing time towards a well publicised social project. However, spending regular time within a community means often being confronted by the needs of others.
One can ask whether the new non-religious angle on spiritual life — with its individualised approach to personal improvement — can fill the gap left by religion when it comes to this test of social conscience without the context of religious community to provide a shared social consciousness of charitable action? Is meditation, spiritual counselling and personal reflection sufficient for spiritual growth without encouragement for altruistic action provided by social acceptance of the principles behind ethical conduct expressed in sacred writing?
The spiritual self-help industry has a lot to offer. But I feel something more is needed. By itself inner psychological examination can just end in self-indulgent contemplation of your navel. In other words you can’t develop spiritually in isolation. Don’t you also need shared social norms to support ethical learning? It is not easy to respond to the challenge of other people and their needs. When religion works well it is when for example a religious group regularly prays together genuinely seeking help to grapple with the real challenges of community.
I would suggest you also need a clearer sense of your destiny beyond the brief physical life of the body. When things gets really tough, don’t you need something in which to put your hope, a higher power that can deliver you from what is bad in your life and provide you with the transforming gift of new character?
Three centuries ago, Emanuel Swedenborg’s expressed his notion of a New Church using Christian language. But the essence of his insight is that he clearly foretold that the age of religious dogmatic culture would pass away and a new religious spirit would replace the old religion: not a new organisation but a new state of human society able to recognise what is genuinely deeply true. His idea was that this developing inner state of humanity would enable each of us to experience and understand our true relationship with the divine “Christ within”.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
I suppose it is natural for us to feel resentful when others demean us, frustrate us or do us harm. I feel resentful about how Sharon spoke to me. Not what she said, but how she said it – shouting and slamming the phone down. It’s not as if this were a one-off: there have been several angry outbursts lately. I keep thinking about how unfair she is being.
Yet people say how wonderful she is. It seems as if no-one but myself knows what she is really like. I have started to imagine her making a fool of herself and showing herself up – then others will see her poor self-control and feel about her the same way as I do. Perhaps she’ll get the boot. Part of me thinks ‘Let’s hope so, I don’t want to see her again.’
At the same time another part of me seem to dimly realize that it is unhealthy to allow my hurt feelings to smart for too long.
Do you recognise this kind of resentful feeling in yourself? Do you ever find yourself occasionally imagining getting your own back on someone who has offended you? Such feelings can fester for a long time and start to eat away at a relaxed and composed state of mind.
It all starts when you feel upset about what someone says or does. Maybe you are uncomfortable about directly complaining to that individual or perhaps you have had little chance to do so. From a spiritual perspective, I would suggest that if you open yourself to an unforgiving spirit then you will entertain resentful blaming thoughts which stew and spoil future communication.
You may find yourself engaging in private resentful thoughts that even end up turning into vindictive fantasy. And before you know it, you are feeling so tense and irritated with someone that your relationship goes from bad to worse.
The question arises how can you stop feeling so resentful?
Surely if you start to retaliate this will damage your chances of putting aside resentful feeling?
The film Tit for Tat featuring Laurel and Hardy comes to mind. The two heroes open an electrical goods shop next door to Charlie’ grocery store. The comedy develops in the way the characters involved respond to each other. Charlie mistakenly thinks that Ollie is making advances towards his wife and damages a few items in Stan and Ollie’s shop. Resentfully, Stan and Ollie respond by destroying Charlie’s things and the confrontations continue eventually wreaking havoc in both stores.
This comic picture sadly mirrors the tragic events of history where reconciliation is prevented by the violence of retaliation.
At the time of writing we are in the middle of another nightmarish escalation of bloodshed in the Middle East with rockets sent into Israel aiming at indiscriminate killing of civilians and Israeli forces bombing buildings packed with civilians thought to harbour Hamas fighters. These are disproportionate responses to what preceded. Neither side seem interested in working towards a permanent peace. Israel wants security but is creating more enemies. We can only feel great sorrow for the despairing people in each community led by those who want to vent their resentful fury with no spirit of forgiveness in their hearts.
Finding a way out of this kind of mess is of course easier said than done. Stopping the retaliation can only be part of the answer.
It is very difficult not to allow anger to rule one’s thoughts when you have been hurt. But I wonder whether another part of the answer is for those involved in conflict to take a step back from their resentful thoughts and search for new ways of thinking. Ways that don’t involve jumping to conclusions and seeing things in black and white.
I strongly believe that if you turn yourself towards a spirit of forgiveness then you can discover fairer and calmer ways of seeing a situation: a spirit that helps you try to see things from the point of view of those who have caused offence to you and that focuses on their good points and well-being as well as your own.
Don’t we all do something wrong at some time or another in our lives? I would suggest that it is easier to see the misdeeds of others, than face up to your own failings.
‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ (Jesus Christ)
Isn’t getting irritated about someone else’s behaviour a way of turning a blind eye to one’s own faults?
It is uncomfortable examining one’s own weaknesses and mistakes – probably because we play the blame game; easier to accuse someone else than point the finger at oneself. But why look for blame anywhere? Why be judgmental about anyone including yourself?
When we see the need for forgiveness for our own blunders then I would suggest it is easier for us to accept that the enemy also needs forgiveness. If we ask for our own misconduct to be set aside and forgotten then does it not become possible to have a forgiving attitude towards others?
If you cannot pardon your our own wrongdoing then what chance have you of believing it is possible for you to excuse your foe?
From a religious angle, in holding a grudge we are cut off from sensing the divine spirit of compassion. As the Christian prayer says
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Getting angry isn’t the problem. Holding the anger and acting on it are the problems. When we start to consider the well-being of those who have angered us then our resentful feeling has no room within our hearts. I believe then we can swallow our injured pride and can ‘forgive and forget’.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
Spiritual healing can be needed for guilty feelings. Not all that is going on in our mind is the working of a true conscience. Some of us find ourselves at times on a guilt trip. Even if we have a sound mind, we may sometimes feel guilty over the smallest thing – without rhyme or reason painstakingly worried about something we have done that really is unimportant.
One example is children who, having been trained by their parents to follow certain rules, like never putting one’s elbows on the table at meal times – feel guilty when they have grown into adulthood feeling guilty if they ever break this rule. Other examples of illogical guilt are saying `sorry’ a lot of the time and unfairly criticising ourselves. Trying too hard to get friends to like us, feeling easily embarrassed when asking for favours or doing anything that might displease them.
Many hopelessly sick people feel constantly guilty. This may result from the suspicion that their sickness and fate are self-inflicted and their own fault. Alternatively, they may assume, more or less, the role of the utterly dependent child. Some consciously apologize for the trouble and fuss they are causing. (Our Western culture fosters a sense of guilt in most of us when illness places us in the dependent role). If we are dying, we may even feel as if we are forcing the living to face the necessity of their own deaths for which we suppose they will not be thankful.
Psychoanalysis is interested in throwing light on our unconscious emotional impulses, and the conflicts between these and the demands of the real world around us. Feeling frequently guilt-ridden comes about from our worldly concerns – like wanting to be well thought of and desiring popularity. According to Sigmund Freud, neurotic guilt should be approached by working through the sense of badness and the unconscious wish for punishment. People tend in varying amounts to be troubled by all manner of false guilt feelings resulting from a distorted perhaps puritanical viewpoint of human reality – and I would say that in the uncovering of such false guilt feelings, the Freudian psychotherapists have done a good service to the general psychological health of modern people.
We can start to feel a little less uptight about our behaviour when we see the unreasonableness of some of these guilt-laden habits of thought and learn how to face up to them. For example realising that looking after oneself does not necessarily make us selfish. If we did not spend money on food and clothes for ourselves, we would not be able to do useful work. If we do not have any respect for ourselves, how can we hope to respect anyone else? If we do not look after ourselves how can we expect to look after anyone else? As I have earlier suggested, if we can better accept ourselves for what we are – warts and all – then we will depend less on being looked upon well by those who know us.
If we can learn to notice our strengths as well as our failings, we will feel less bad about our mistakes. We can let go of some unpleasant guilt feelings and illusory ideas they tend to generate.
Our True Conscience
Our true conscience is more than mere knowledge in the head – it also involves the heart. It is different from unconscious fear of the ingrained experience of parental displeasure or disappointment in childhood that psychoanalysts point to in the notion of `superego’. It is not the same as the feelings of shame triggered by social pressures about which some other psychologists talk.
Sometimes we act against a heartfelt and deep awareness of what we feel to be right – against a true conscience. We rightly feel bad about it even if sometimes we act in error on impulse without thinking.
“Anger, intoxication, obstinacy, bigotry, deceit, envy, grandiloquence, pride and conceit, intimacy with the unjust, this is what defiles one.”
(Sutta-Nipata, ii, 2,7. – Buddhist tradition)
In other words sooner or later we all do foolish things. The existential psychotherapists have pointed out that one cannot reason away those guilt feelings which come from an awareness of actual transgressions against true conscience and unfulfilled potentials. The important thing is to try to disentangle feelings of guilt arising because of a true conscience from feelings of guilt arising from other causes. For example, it may be reasonable and fair to accept guilt about the avoidable bad things that we have done. No longer can the individual comfortably rely on such alibis as `I didn’t mean it’, `It was an accident’, `I couldn’t help it’, and `I followed an irresistible impulse. Such acknowledgment of guilt arising from a true conscience is helpful if it can lead to a change of behaviour. It is easier to feel a sense of being forgiven when we change our actions for the better.
We may be being unduly hard on ourselves when we castigate ourselves for past wasted time, or unfinished tasks when we have been in a situation where we have been beset with difficult problems. It is easy to look back with hindsight and notice lost opportunities not seen at the time. The chronically sick person who blames him or herself for talents withering in disuse is listening to a mistaken conscience for no one can be expected to lead an active and full working life whilst struck down with illness beyond their control. How can one forgive oneself for such past behaviour when there is nothing one can do to make amends?
A couple had recently fallen in love and got married. They were sublimely happy. But tragically within weeks of the wedding, the woman was given a diagnosis of cancer and soon found herself needing a mastectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. She became bald due to hair loss, developed mouth sores and painful bowel movements and had to face the devastating likelihood of an early death with no chance of having a child. In order to be with his wife through her ordeal, her husband, who was a writer of world renown in his field, chose to stop writing and generally turned his life over to her fight against cancer. This was an emotionally draining responsibility. He assumed he could not voice his own needs because of her suffering. Not surprisingly she came to take his support for granted.
In the middle of this, he himself went down with a medium-term debilitating illness of unknown origin. Due to exhaustion he even stopped his daily meditation – a spiritual practice that had previously given him huge benefit. For over a year he completely submerged his own interests, his own work, his own life. Up to that period, writing had been his life-blood. He defined himself by his writing and when that suddenly stopped he was suspended in mid-air, so to speak. In other words, his mistaken conscience was dictating altruistic but psychologically unhealthy behaviour that could not last indefinitely.
He was to say that he would have done all this again unhesitatingly under the same circumstances but would have done it differently with more of a support system for himself in place. The grinding role of a full-time carer takes a devastating toll unless this is available.
The need for one to find a balance between one’s own needs and the needs of one’s family or one’s work is quite a challenge these days with so many pressures to withstand – let alone the extra pressure of being a full-time carer. It is a mistaken conscience that gets us to perform our useful caring roles without setting aside any time for ourselves – for our recreation and other personal needs.
Although caring for oneself may be important, sometimes underneath our actions are mixed motives. We may do things ostensibly for others when our real motivation is also looking for what we gain in the situation for example the good regard of others or an escape from criticism. This is a phoney conscience at work. Cynics call this `enlightened self-interest’. Spiritual teachers instead urge that we do not act wisely and well from the thought of reward and concern only for ourselves.
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.”
“Let right deeds be your motive, not the fruit which comes from them.”
(Krishna. Bhagavad-Gita, ii, 47. – Hindu tradition)
There even comes a point when self-love amounts to vanity and narcissism. Are we worried about not shopping for the latest cosmetic? Perhaps a false conscience is at work. A true conscience would encourage us to care for ourselves – doing our own thing – as long as this does not totally ignore the needs of loved ones, or the values that give our life deeper meaning.
We may try hard to put the past behind us and forget about what we feel ashamed. However, the past keeps coming back to haunt us so that we may end up feeling miserable. This can happen especially when throughout our upbringing we have been repeatedly blamed for any sign of self-centredness and pleasure seeking. Freud has shown the damaging impact of those traditional religious doctrines that support an account of God in terms of a persecutory superego that looks down upon mortals, judging and often condemning their behaviour. Instead of finding a sense of self-acceptance that enables us to move on putting the past behind us, we may instead feel we deserve condemnation or even punishment before this can happen.
Sometimes we may want to be punished in the hope that this will put things right. Perhaps we yearn for God’s forgiveness but cannot experience this because we believe we deserve only his judgment. Many people hold – what I believe to be a mistaken view – that he is keeping a little book totting up our sins as well as our good actions so that we can be rewarded with paradise or be punished with hell-fire depending on which list is longer. They believe that they and others deserve to be blamed when they are bad. Instead, I believe our destiny depends – not on past behaviour but rather on our future character. Those who become considerate, compassionate and kind-hearted – no matter what terrible things they may have previously done – are destined to continue enjoying underlying heavenly peace and joy despite any circumstantial trials and problems. On the other hand those who never progress beyond a self-orientated self-serving attitude are destined to continue suffering underlying miserable states of mind despite any enjoyment of the pleasures of the moment.
We need to make a distinction between the experiencing of temptation and whether or not we succumb to it. After all, good and bad impulses and thoughts arise from what we see and hear on a daily basis from television and radio, from what those around as at work and home say in our hearing and from what we read in newspapers, books and magazines. They stir up associations in our memory. Without realising it, although inspiring or alluring images and ideas may stir us up, nevertheless we can take no responsibility for their rising up within us.
We should not take the credit for any originality they may inspire – only perhaps for the effort and work we put in to turning them into something worthwhile. Neither should we take the blame for any shameful desires they excite in us; unless we dwell on their fantasies, act them out and then justify to ourselves our indulgence in them.
“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ”
(Matt 15, 11)
In other words, it is not the having of bad ideas and impulses arise in us, but how we respond to them that begins to shape our character.
Swedenborg says that anything that is genuinely good comes from God and heaven and so we can claim no merit in ourselves for it. This is at the centre of the correct religious attitude. The trouble is this idea has been misused to justify the notion we should focus on our religious belief rather than try to do good and useful work. Actually although I believe God is the power of goodness itself and the source of all virtues such as patience, tolerance, and kindness, nevertheless we human beings should do our best to take on board these divinely inspired qualities. Leave us to our own ways of doing things, and we would not act well. However, divinely inspired goodness and light can shine through our actions. Turning in the right direction towards God, we act as a channel for heavenly influence on earth and we become suitable vessels to receive spiritual gifts that enrich our lives and help us to gradually grow in love and faith. What many Christians call being reborn. The religious person is saying that the motivation for all that he or she does that is good comes from heaven.
Some of us tend to feel guilty believing all the bad things we think come from ourselves. Yet, only extremely vain conceited individuals make a mistake in claiming credit for every good idea they happen to have. Surely if it is mistaken to attribute all virtuous impulses to oneself it is also an error to believe that we are responsible for all bad things we think? Can we really be blamed for all the shameful desires that pop into our hearts if we neither entertain them for long nor fall for their tempting allure?
For me the answer is simple. Is not the hidden influence of hell the source of all vice such as malice, cruelty or condemnation? All we can do is try to avoid hells way. If we do not, then what is bad will stick fast to us and we will find it rather difficult to wash ourselves clean from all the dirt.
Swedenborg taught that God is the source of pure compassion. Loving us as he does, he puts aside our faults and blemishes. Such a picture of the divine is one that accepts us fully regardless of any of our past flawed actions. Although God never condones our wrongdoing, it is an image of a forgiveness. For our experience of living is one of temptation to put self before other people and bodily pleasure before principles of what is right and good e.g. to act greedily, deceitfully, or unfairly. God is just as much concerned for the cruel and evil-minded person as he is for the good person. In giving honest criticism to those in the gospel accounts who behaved badly, Jesus Christ encouraged them to change their ways and he revealed an inner attitude not one of contempt, but rather of concern and forgiveness. For example in speaking to the woman caught in an act of adultery – a crime punishable by death in her culture – he explicitly said that he did not condemn her. (John 6:11). Likewise to the Samaritan woman he met at the well, who was living with a man not her husband (John 4:10), instead of criticism he offered living water.
He wants us all to be able to freely choose good over bad, sense over foolishness, rather than becoming or remaining enslaved to the powers of darkness. For this reason God entered into the material plane of life to overcome the forces of ill-will and malice by responding with love and forbearance. By his doing this, he preserved our inner freedom.
Ideally, we would always adopt good impulses and illuminating ideas. Nevertheless, there are many times, when we abuse these spiritual gifts, by indulging in the bad desires and illusory notions that keep impinging on our hearts and minds. In other words, it is we at times who often distance ourselves from the divine by acting out base urges and following mistaken or self-centred notions. One example is when we continue to hold a grievance or feel resentful towards someone who has wronged us rather than adopting a forgiving heart. How can we expect to experience the forgiveness of others or to be able to forgive ourselves – let alone the forgiveness of God for our own wrongdoing, if we do not develop a forgiving heart towards those who do us ill. It is we and not God who creates our resulting unhappiness.
What is bad in our behaviour brings it own reward. If we drink too much alcohol, we suffer cirrhosis of the liver and may lose our livelihood. If we go round, being nasty to people we soon will not have any friends and will become a social outcast. Bad behaviour results in bad consequences. It is we who tend to guiltily condemn ourselves for any wrongdoing. A God of love and wisdom cannot condemn anyone but only continually try to help us in the predicaments we create for ourselves.
Only by responding to the still small voice of our inner conscience can we hope to resolve to change. Swedenborg concludes that what is needed is acknowledgement of error, heartfelt repentance and sincere resolve not to repeat the error. We can experience a guilt-free state of peace and contentment if we, like little children, innocently allow God to lead us in all we do instead of primarily following our own agenda and own misguided self-interests.
“There is divine, that is, infinite love; and there is divine, that is, infinite mercy… (that) continually excuses, and continually forgives.”
(Swedenborg. Arcana Coelestia section 8573 2)
Extracted from the book Heart, Head and Hands by Stephen Russell-Lacy
Posted on13th December 2010
A Sermon by Rev. Frederick M. ChapinPreached in Phoenix, Arizona July 29, 1990
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
The words of our text are familiar to nearly every member of the New Church. For the Lord’s Prayer is recited in nearly all formal gatherings, and the words “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is a plea central to the Lord’s Prayer. Now in order to appreciate this prayer and every plea that it contains, it is important to note that it is contained in the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount sets the tone for the rest of the New Testament; it is providentially set at the beginning of it, which provides for us the basis to read and study the Word in the New Testament. This famous sermon is full of wonderful teachings concerning what a life of charity is and how we may receive it.
One of the essentials of charity that we are to practice, that is taught in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer, is forgiveness. Indeed, our text showed that as we pray to the Lord to forgive our sins or debts, we at the same time must be willing to forgive others who may have hurt us in some way. Now the word “debts” in the Greek has the idea to be under obligation, or to be bound. It is our evils which we choose to delight in that bind us or make us spiritual slaves. Therefore, as we pray to the Lord to release us from our debts or bonds, we should at the same time be willing to release others from their bonds toward us. We should never seek retribution on another who has offended us with the idea of revenge or to get even. Rather, we should try to help the wrongdoer to enter into a higher state of love and wisdom. For after the Lord’s Prayer the Lord said, “If you forgive men their trespasses [which means errors or transgressions], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14,15). Therefore, the Lord teaches us that we are forgiven by the Lord only to the degree that we are willing to forgive others.
We can see the vital importance of forgiving others in the powerful parable of the unforgiving servant (see Matt. 18:21-35). Peter asked the Lord how often he should forgive his brother (expecting a definite number). In answer the Lord told a parable of a servant who owed his master ten thousand talents. A talent weighed about ninety-four pounds. From this we can see the enormous debt this servant owed his master. In fact, he probably could not pay it off within his lifetime. Nevertheless, the master was prepared to mercifully wipe the debt clean so that the servant would owe him nothing. But when the servant departed, he immediately demanded that another servant pay his debt of one hundred denarii, which probably could have been paid in three months’ time. But the servant wanted the money immediately, and he threw his fellow servant into prison. Of course, when the master heard of this, he was very angry and demanded payment of the original debt of ten thousand talents from the unforgiving servant. From this we can see the powerful lesson for us that the Lord is ever willing to forgive far more in us than what we are called to forgive in others. However, it is only by our forgiving others that the Lord can forgive our myriads of evils.
The Writings certainly confirm this teaching that we must seek to forgive if we are to have genuine charity in us. For they beautifully define forgiveness as “not to regard anyone from evil but from good” (AC 7697). Thus the Writings urge us not to concentrate on the bad things or the weaknesses of others, but to look for their good points. Even if it seems as if we can see no good in the person, we are still reminded that the Lord is with everyone, striving for his salvation. Therefore, we can still be of help to him by doing what we can to put him in situations where the Lord can stir up his remains. If we look at others in this way, then it will be a great deal easier to tolerate their flaws and forgive their errors or wrongdoings.
But can we really look for the good in others while we remain in our hereditary or actual evils? Can we look beyond the disorders of another and look at him as one who is infinitely loved by the Lord and might be saved, while we have hatred, contempt, and selfishness in our hearts? Can we truly love our enemies while we seek to do good only to those who honor us? The Writings emphatically say no! For they clearly teach that we can truly forgive only when our internals are opened to the Lord (see AC 6561). The only way we can have a spirit of forgiveness is from the Lord. For what is from ourselves is entirely incapable of genuine forgiveness. It can come only when we are willing to allow the Lord’s love and wisdom to enter into our internals and therefrom into our externals. Only if we shun evils as sins against God can the Lord replace our evil and selfish loves with the genuine love of charity and forgiveness. Let us always be careful not to believe that the ability to look for the good in others is from ourselves. It is only from the Lord’s inflowing into us, and is received only in the measure that its hellish opposite is shunned by us.
However, when we seek to apply the spirit of forgiveness in our everyday lives, must we ignore or excuse the evils of others? Should we pretend the evils are not there as we look for the person’s good? Certainly not! We must fight the evils that are both within and outside of us, but we should approach the person with a spirit of reconciliation. We should urge and help our brother to put away his evil practices, yet without interfering with his internal freedom. The Lord certainly did not ignore the deceit and hypocrisy of the Pharisees while He was on the earth, yet He loved them and desired that they would change their ways so that they could find eternal happiness and peace. So too must we be willing to stand up firmly against the evils of others. But let us judge the evils, not the person. Let us desire that the evils will be put away, but not the man with them. If we have this love and attitude in our hearts and minds, then we can have sympathy toward evil men and not hate them. For angels have sympathy even toward those who are in hell (see CL 415).
Nevertheless, the spirit of forgiveness is not fully ultimated until there is a reciprocal (see AC 9014:2,3). This applies both in our relationship with the Lord and with others. It applies in our relationship with the Lord in that the Lord is willing to forgive all of our evils. He never desires that we suffer because of our evils. However, His mercy and forgiveness are not manifested or perceived in us until we repent. Until we shun evils as sins against the Lord and obey His Word in our daily lives, the Lord will always appear to be a God of wrath and judgment. But in reality He punishes no one; we punish ourselves by choosing to turn away from the Lord. We refuse to allow His forgiveness to be effective in us.
It is the same in our relationship with others. We may have the spirit of forgiveness toward another and truly desire that he genuinely be happy. But if he does not affirmatively respond to our love from the Lord, then we may appear to him to be angry and harsh. For example, a child may do something wrong for which the parent will punish him. Hopefully the parent has already forgiven him in his heart, but outwardly he may appear to be angry toward the child. It is similar with the Lord’s love and forgiveness. It will not be made effective and made known to us until we affirmatively respond to His Word. And it is the same with our dealings with others in that we may not be regarded as a forgiving person until they provide the reciprocal by turning away from evil and turning toward the Lord.
However, must we be constantly in the company of the evil to demonstrate a forgiving spirit? The answer is no! For the Lord taught in the New Testament that if one refuses to be reconciled with us, then we may externally regard him as an adversary (see Matt. 18:17). As long as the man continues in his evil ways, we must disassociate ourselves from his evil acts. This does not mean that we are to be unconcerned about his spiritual welfare, but it does mean that we are not able to be as close to him as if he had changed his ways. This is both for his sake (by not encouraging or excusing his evils) and for our sake (by not being influenced to indulge his evils). Nevertheless, the Lord also taught that we are to agree with our adversary quickly (see Matt. 5:24). We should always be ready to forgive so that once our adversary does mend his ways, we will be able to receive him with open arms.
Not only should we want reconciliation, we should also strive to be reconciled to our brother. For we cannot be in a true state of charity until we take some action to try to clear up the ill feelings we may have toward another. If this means that we must go through the difficult process of apologizing to another, or accepting his apology, we should still pursue it, so that the obstacles to a genuine state of charity and friendship are removed. For the act of forgiving is really an act of purifying (see AC 8393, 10042:5). When we repent and so accept the Lord’s forgiveness in our hearts, He mercifully removes our evils to the outermost regions of our spirit and replaces them with good loves. Likewise, when we forgive another for an evil act and he repents, our relationship is also purified by removing or forgetting that evil and no longer making our brother responsible for it. And just as the Lord forgives us and forgets our shortcomings and disorders over and over again without number, so too must we be willing to forgive our brother’s shortcomings over and over again, without number (see Matt. 18:22). Once again, this does not mean that we need to be naive toward evil, but we should never reach a state where we are unwilling to take another back if there is sincere repentance. Instead, we should be continually ready, when there is repentance, to receive back into the fold a brother who has gone astray.
Therefore, if we do not strive to develop a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, how can we find delight in being of use to others? Will we not despise them if they stand in the way of what we want? How can we be willing to forgive another and take him back if we inwardly hold him in contempt? It is only by allowing the Lord to change our lives that we are able to forgive. It is only by the Lord that we can look for the good in another and not concentrate or delight in his evils. Unless we are first willing to love our neighbor and forgive his faults, and be willing to take him back after genuine repentance, the Lord cannot make known His love toward us and forgive us our sins.
Instead, let us follow the wonderful examples of forgiveness that the Lord gave us while He was on the earth. Let us respond to a brother who has done wrong but who desires to return to us as the Lord said to a woman taken in adultery. “I do not condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Let us always look to the Lord to implant in us a love for the eternal welfare of those who do not wish to come back. Let us pray for them as the Lord prayed for those who crucified Him when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And when the Lord removes our hatred and our delight in revenge and gives us a genuine love of forgiving others, and the wisdom to recognize when we should forgive and in what manner, then we can have the confidence and joy that the Lord is forgiving our sins and preparing us for His kingdom. It is while we are in this state that we can pray with sincerity, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Amen.
Lessons: Genesis 50:15-21; Matt. 18:21-35; AC 9014:3
Arcana Coelestia 9014:3
It is believed by many within the church that the forgiveness of sins is the wiping out and washing away thereof, as of filth by water; and that after forgiveness they go on their way clean and pure. Such an opinion prevails especially with those who ascribe everything of salvation to faith alone. But be it known that the case with the forgiveness of sins is quite different. The Lord forgives everyone his sins, because He is mercy itself. Nevertheless, they are not thereby forgiven unless the man performs serious repentance, and desists from evils, and afterward lives a life of faith and charity, and this even to the end of his life. When this is done, the man receives from the Lord spiritual life, which is called new life. When from this new life the man views the evils of his former life and turns away from them and regards them with horror, then for the first time are the evils forgiven, for then the man is held in truths and goods by the Lord, and is withheld from evils. From this it is plain what is the forgiveness of sins, and that it cannot be granted within an hour, nor within a year. That this is so the church knows, for it is said to those who come to the Holy Supper that their sins are forgiven if they begin a new life by abstaining from evils and abhorring them.