"Virtues for Vicissitudes: Forgiveness"

Nehemiah 9:9-21


Romans 3:21-26

After Senator John McCain died back in August, he was remembered, in part, for his famous lack of patience. He had little patience for incompetence, carelessness or selfishness. He was known for unleashing a verbal barrage on an ill-prepared staffer, a weak-minded reporter, or a self-aggrandizing colleague in the Senate.

Patience is one of the ten virtues we’ve considered in this sermon series—and, well, Senator McCain did not have it. That’s OK. I hope you’ve seen that having virtue is not the same as being perfect. At our best we grow in virtue, we move toward new strengths.

But if McCain was remembered for being short on patience, even more he was remembered as one who possessed the virtue of forgiveness.

His colleague, Senator Jeff Flake was asked in an interview: “What was the greatest lesson you learned from John McCain?”

“Oh, to forgive,” Flake said. “You know, his people talk about [how] he had a temper…That was certainly the case, but he would quickly forgive and move on.”

McCain, of course, was human and also knew the challenge that forgiveness presents to us—especially when we have been deeply harmed.

Visiting Vietnam in 2000, he said at the time that he could not yet forgive his captors, admitting: “I still bear them ill will,” and clarifying: “Not because of what they did to me, but because of what they did to some of my friends.”

He wasn’t perfect; but over time he grew in the virtue of forgiveness. He worked to normalize relations with Vietnam and made over twenty trips to that country.

Alain de Botton, the philosopher who suggested the ten contemporary virtues that we have been considering this fall, says that forgiveness means a long memory of all the times when we wouldn’t have gotten through life without someone cutting us some slack. It’s recognizing that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

This is true, as far as it goes.

I worry, however, about defining forgiveness down. By describing forgiveness as simply cutting some slack and excusing errors, he misses both the great difficulty and the redeeming possibility of true forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not always easy. It doesn’t always come quickly.

As people of faith, we might start to develop the virtue of human forgiveness by opening ourselves to the forgiving love of God.

Jesus teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our debts. . .” And we do pray for such forgiveness—at least once a week, whether we need to or not!

Karl Barth explained it this way: “We are God’s debtors. We owe God not something . . .but, quite simply, our person in its totality; we owe God ourselves, since we are creatures sustained and nourished by God’s goodness.”

Barth concludes: “Even while we live as Christians, we increase our debt, we aggravate the ‘mess’ of our situation. It grows from day to day. Matters go from bad to worse.”[i]

They do, don’t they.

At the beginning of the last century many people weren’t so sure about this. Everything seemed to be getting better and better. “Progress” was eliminating the concept of sin. And Congregationalists were not just jumping onto that bandwagon. We’d pretty much built the whole cart and were driving it as well. We seemed to be developing to the point that we wouldn’t need to talk about sin and sinners much longer.

Congregationalists then—and maybe even some of us today—would agree with the tongue-in-cheek comment of Krister Stendahl, the late dean at Harvard Divinity School. In talking about the theological belief that Christians are all sinners, he added, with his characteristic wit, “Of course, we are only honorary sinners.”[ii]

World events and a fresh look at scripture helped us see ourselves and our condition in a more realistic light.

We listened as Ezra spoke to the people after the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt. He reminded the people about what they were like: stiff necked, disobedient, walking around with their eyes closed to the goodness of God.

But even more, we heard Ezra’s affirmation that God is “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

We recognized as well that Paul identified an enduring reality when he wrote to the early church in Rome: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”


The evidence from the past hundred years is pretty clear: Paul was right.

To say that we are sinners is to acknowledge that our lives are not in our control, that, as one person put it, “We have gotten into the grips of powers which we cannot handle, which control us.” We are caught up in the destructive chaos of political, economic, and social forces no longer subject to our will.

In the face of all of this, to affirm with Ezra that “God forgives” is to confess that at the heart of the universe is a power that understands that human beings are imperfect, limited in our abilities, finite—fallen, to speak theologically—and even more to confess that this power will allow us to continue, will offer us the opportunity to stumble and get up and try again, to stumble and get up and try again.

And yet, let us be honest: Forgiveness is one of the more disturbing characteristics of God.

I once preached a sermon in another church that spoke about God’s great, loving forgiveness. As I greeted people after worship, several of them said things like: “Nice sermon.”

But Eunice, dear Eunice, came up, looked me straight in the eye and said: “How can you say something like that?” I think she wanted to know what kind of bone-headed, hard-hearted insensitivity could lead a minister to talk like that from the pulpit.

“How can you say that?”

It was a wonderful question. It was that rare kind of response that I appreciate far more than nodding approval—and don’t get me wrong: I really like nodding approval.

When ministers get up and start saying that God forgives everyone, the trouble begins.

We imagine that it must be pretty easy, really, for God to forgive someone like us. But when we start thinking of the sins of others, well, that's a different question.

You will say it isn’t fair for God to forgive those who are cruel and hateful, abusive and murderous, those whose crimes are great, who have caused so much suffering for so many people. And I will agree with you.

You will ask what becomes of God’s justice, God’s judgment, if everyone is let off the hook. And I will wonder with you.

You will say if God is so forgiving, what’s to keep us from doing whatever we want, no matter how sinful, how hurtful. And I will worry that the answer is: “nothing at all.”

A forgiving God disturbs us. Doesn't it make you shiver to watch the news and think: “God's forgiveness is offered there as well?”

One of the more disturbing characteristics of God is forgiveness.

At the same time, it is a gift that empowers us. So Barth could say: when we receive the pardon of God, we find the grace to forgive.[iii]

There is a connection between our being forgiven and our being able to forgive.

The demand of the Gospel is the call to be ready to extend forgiveness because we have received God's forgiving love. Calvin said that our forgiveness is connected to our being willing to set aside hatred and the desire for revenge, to banish the memory of the wrong.[iv] We find the ability to do this, not because our own hearts are so big, but out of a sense that we ourselves have been forgiven so much by God.

The French philosopher, Vladimir Jankélévitch, in his thin yet very dense book, Forgiveness, arrives at a troubling conclusion: “In one sense, forgiveness extends to infinity. Forgiveness does not ask if the crime is worthy of being forgiven, if the atonement has been sufficient, or if the rancor has continued long enough…Which amounts to saying: there is an inexcusable, but there is not an unforgiveable. Forgiveness is there to forgive precisely what no excuse would know how to excuse.[v]

There is an inexcusable, but there is not an unforgiveable.

So Desmond Tutu tells us: “Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly. It is opening the door for the other person to have a chance to begin again.”[vi]

Let us not confuse forgiveness with sentimental toleration of hurtful behavior or limit it to simply excusing error. When we truly forgive we are not saying that what the other person did was “all right” or that it didn’t matter. In fact, Miroslav Volf says that “to forgive is to blame.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells of a woman in his congregation coming to see him. She was single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. “Since my husband walked out on us,” she said, “Every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”

Kushner’s answer? “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter, angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”[vii]

Yes, we can forgive too much and too quickly. A premature forgiveness does little to help those involved or to heal a damaged relationship.

Forgiveness of others in hard situations is made harder by the erroneous conviction that God is about to cut us off if we do not instantly forgive. And forgiveness is perhaps made easier by the knowledge that we do not have to be perfect for God to love us, of for the universe to have a place for us.”[viii]us.”

Person to person, nation to nation, group to group, religion to religion. Forgiveness is needed and requested and given on many different levels. The freedom to create ourselves and our relationships anew in every moment is a powerful reason for forgiveness.[ix]

Jesus taught us to pray that we might be agents of this new creation.

Human forgiveness is a beautiful thing—an almost physical necessity. Almost every day we must request and grant forgiveness. Yes, most of the offenses are trivial and unintentional and can be dealt with by just cutting some slack, excusing errors. Forgiveness becomes a challenge—and a much-needed virtue—when the trespasses are more serious, when they are intentional, and especially when they are repeated.

The virtue of forgiveness brings us into new territory: as sure and certain as the sunrise, the very powers that control us are being defeated so that we might be more fully alive, so that we might take part in the abundance that surrounds us, so that we, too, might know and exhibit in our own lives the love that is the outgrowth of forgiveness.


[i] Karl Barth, Prayer, pg. 74 ff.

Page: 3
Stendahl, quoted by Marcus Borg in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, pg. 64, note 18.

[iii].Barth, ibid.

[iv].Calvin, Institutes, section on forgiveness

[v] Vladimir Jankélévitch, Forgiveness, pg. 157.

[vi] Quoted in spirituality and health, winter 1999, pg. 29.

[vii] Harold Kushner, quoted in Wiesnthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, in Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, pg. 34.

[viii] Roberta Bondi, A Place to Pray, pg. 93.

[ix] Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, pg. 34.