The Science of Forgiveness

Let’s start at the beginning of the New Testament, before Jesus was born. John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah the Priest, composed this poem about John when he was born:
"And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins..."

What exactly did Zechariah mean, "to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins..."?

That's what we're going to explore today. The science of Salvation, or Peace through forgiveness. Science? Yes. Jesus gave a series of science lectures and science labs in the Middle East a couple of thousand years ago. And many of his lectures were about forgiveness. Forgiveness is the most central idea in Christianity. We usually think of Love as the central idea. We have a tough time, though, explaining what love is. I think we have hard time explaining or experiencing Love because we haven't understood forgiveness. Forgiveness has to precede love. Here's what I mean by that. We can't love if we haven't forgiven. If we harbor smoking grudges against our enemies, if we wish dark and horrible disasters to fall on the miserable so and so who did this awful thing to us, if we wish God would open up a pit and swallow our enemies, it's hard to be compassionate to our enemies. If we are plotting vengeance is not possible to even think about loving our enemies.

In the same vein, if we are angry with ourselves for things we didn't do or didn't say when we should have, or if we are living with the stuffed down impact of things we did or said that we shouldn't have, we have not yet forgiven ourselves. And if we haven't forgiven ourselves, there is no way we are ready to Love ourselves, never mind Love other people as our self.

So let’s explore forgiveness. How do we forgive others – particularly when what they did is “unforgivable”? How do we get forgiveness ourselves? And for what?

Jesus suggests that we begin by forgiving others. In the Lord’s Prayer, He teaches us the sequence “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”

I think Jesus suggests we start by forgiving others because it’s actually easier to identify those who have wronged us and forgive them, then it is to acknowledge to ourselves the wrongs we have committed and ask forgiveness for those sins.

Modern Science -- Psychiatry -- is beginning to address the role of self-forgiveness in depression. For ordinary psychological reasons it is often difficult to identify, never mind come to grips with, transgressions we have committed. The “self” or ego thinks it is doing us a favor by hiding these things from our conscious awareness. But it is not. We can pay a terrible price in emotional and physical pain and debilitation for what we carry around. I think it is with this in mind that our Lord suggests we begin by forgiving others. Wrongs against us are not only easy to call to mind, they are also buried deep in our bodies where emotional hurts hide in our muscle and tissue memory. We are often walking wounded, maimed emotionally and even physically by the impact of unforgiven and undealt with wrongs committed against us – and, by the lingering impact of unrecognized, undealt with knowledge of wrongs we have committed against others. We are often in as much trouble and need of healing as those poor souls in Israel Jesus healed.

Think back to Jesus’ ministry. The first actions Jesus took were to heal physical illnesses and set people free from demons who were tearing them and their families apart. Jesus associated these healings with forgiveness. First he assured the suffering their sins were forgiven. Then he commanded them to stand up, to walk, to stretch out their hands, to open their eyes. Jesus lifts the weight off by forgiving and allowing us to feel forgiven. In this act of forgiveness is great release.

So, how do we do what Jesus suggests? How do we start? First, we bring the hurts to mind. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it takes reflection. Let’s take that miserable so and so who hurt you so badly so long ago. Why should I forgive her? Then, how do I forgive her, particularly when she has never even asked for forgiveness? The first thing to remember about forgiveness is forgiveness does not mean approval. It doesn’t erase or explain a wrong. Jesus knew that there would be sins and wrongs in the world, and his teaching was pretty clear: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” We’re taught to forgive even when we’re the ones who are in the right. This is a hard one. Righteousness is often the obstacle to forgiveness. There are some who say this is a peculiarly Presbyterian challenge.

So again, forgiveness does not mean approving or explaining a wrong. Forgiveness is not about absolving the perpetrator. Forgiveness is not even about the perpetrator. Forgiveness is about you. The perp may not even have been aware of the harm she did – or may have forgotten it. But even if she is aware of it and lord’s it over you because of it, so what? That’s about her. It’s you we are concerned with. Your health. Your spiritual well-being and wholeness.

Bad things happen when you don't forgive. Bitterness, anger, and hurt just to name a few. Being in an unforgiving mind causes us tremendous physical, mental and emotional damage. And it all happens to you, not to the person who hurt you. You're the one who has to walk around with all that stuff inside you, eating you up. The payoff is that forgiveness is mostly for you ... your health ... your peace of mind ... and mostly, your relationship with God.

And forgiveness is hard work. It takes work and prayer to make the decision to forgive, to release yourself from a wrong committed or endured. Then it takes repeated effort and vigilance and prayer to work through enough of the forgiveness layers to free ourselves. Jesus knew this and taught us to expect it. ‘Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”’ There’s no sudden flash of lightness and ease; it’s a process that takes time and effort and grace.

I’ll talk a bit about some prayer tools later, but first, I want to take a scientific look at forgiveness this morning. Why a scientific look? Because Jesus was a scientist. Jesus was a scientist before there was even concept of physical science, and certainly no vocabulary for scientific ideas. “Science” did not yet exist. Even the long dead Greeks weren’t scientists. They were philosophers discussing philosophy, not science. Today’s high school students understand more about the mechanics of genetics, DNA and RNA, neurons, atomic structures, molecular biology and physics than was even conceived by the wisest scholars five hundred years before or even a thousand years after the time of Jesus.

Yet, Jesus taught Science. Many think he taught ethics, or morality, how to lead a good life. I don't think his teaching was that limited. I think Jesus taught Science without jargon or technical language. Although scientific language didn’t exist yet, Jesus taught Science comprehensively. Jesus explained the mysteries of life, death, sociology, psychology and mental health. He explained it to simple fishermen and farmers. He used the simple language of everyday life to communicate these scientific mysteries of existence, of life, of the mind and the emotions.

Take an example from physics; motion. We learn that Sir Isaac Newton was the first to describe the Laws of Motion more than 1,600 years after Jesus. Newton described motion as it applied to physical objects and measurable forces. I believe that Jesus explained the second law of motion as it applies not only to the matter and energy of moving bodies - apples and cannons and swords, but also how the law applies to emotional energy, mental energy, to human interactions of all types. Unlike Newton, Jesus described the Laws of Motion of ALL energy, not just physical interactions.

To remind you, the second law of motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If you bring a powerful rifle to your shoulder and fire the rifle, the explosion that sends the bullet through the barrel also bangs you in the shoulder. The recoil is the same kind of force - but force going in the opposite direction. The reaction isn't opposite in nature, it is the same in nature. It just goes in the opposite direction from whence it came.

Another way of describing this law of motion is that every action has an equal reaction that is reflected on the perpetrator. Or said more simply, as Jesus said it, "By whatever measure you measure, you will be measured." Whatever you dish out, you will get.

This begins to put a special point on his words, "Do to others what you want done to you." Since, by the rule of the universe Jesus just laid out, whatever you do to the other person will certainly be done to you. Unwrapping this teaching, we can begin to see why it is better to show kindness rather than severity, charity rather than mercilessness, forgiveness rather than vengeance. It’s science, it’s the Second law of motion. Whatever you dish out, you will get back in full measure.

Whatever we do is reflected back to us. You push, you are met with equal resistance back against you. You sneer, you are met with equal scorn directly or indirectly reflected back to you. You spread gossip, you are gossiped about. This law of reaction, or opposition, is active whether the action is a physical movement, or a thought, a desire, a scathing glance.

Humans by nature want to exaggerate the pushback or payback. "Slam me, you’ll get back double!" The Old Testament law of "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" was not an "okay" to take revenge. It was a limiter of vengeance. Before this new Law, people would kill for an insult, maim for a minor theft. The Torah limited human revenge to proportional payback.

We're taught from the cradle, "Give as good as you get! Stand up and fight like a Man!" This cycle of opposition leads to an escalating warfare of everything against everything. The British philosopher Hobbes coined the phrase "War of all against all!" to describe nature and us within it.

Now for the good news! We are the first beings ever created able to counteract this iron law of opposition. We can’t break the scientific law of opposition, but we can use it to stop the escalation of harm. Jesus first taught us the science, then taught us to stop this eternal escalation of hurt. Through forgiveness. And, how to reverse the negative impact! Through forgiveness. Let's take some examples from Luke's gospel. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. What could be farther from human nature! Worse, more directly, Jesus teaches if you are struck on one cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your jacket, offer him your shirt as well.

I think Jesus was showing us how to become true human beings through forgiveness. Humans are different from other animals - different from all the rest of creation - different because we have a unique capability. Although 99% of our genomes map with other animals, humans can decide to act contrary to their natures. This is the meaning of free will. Free will is more than freedom of choice. Animals all have freedom of choice, but inevitably, animals choose according to their natures. Humans can, and occasionally do, act against their natures. And when any one human does act against his nature, that person changes the world in ways we don’t even realize.

Jesus taught this not as Science, but as Truth presented in parables. With Jesus' teaching comes great responsibility. We are responsible for changing the world. Until now, the war of all against all heads us to a bad end. But God has something else in mind. He created us to stop - and unwind - the harm of opposition. We know the phrase "Charity covers a multitude of sins." I think that means that the act of using the law of reaction with love unwinds many, many acts of payback and revenge – Charity compensates for sin.

This changes the direction of the energy of the universe. By exercising forgiveness and LOVE we become catalytic converters. We do this through an act of WILL to forgive and to love as Jesus taught.

Forgiveness can change our scripts of woe, our recipes for misery, our perpetually depressed states, our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Forgiveness can release us from victimization, can give us a fresh start - a rebirth. When we forgive, we physically feel the easing of tension, the dissolving of misery. Vengeance is heavy, anger is debilitating. Who knows what disorders can be released through easing stress on body and mind and emotion. Let it go. Let it go and it will be gone. Don’t worry about payback. God has arranged things to take care of that. As Paul teaches the Romans; 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. He will do a better job than you.

This is the lesson of the gospels. When you are asked to go one mile out of your way, go two. No problem. You want my coat? Here is my shirt as well. Your greed and your power-plays are your problem, not mine. I am at perfect peace. I understand the unfulfilled needs that drive you to wrong me. I am compassionate to those needs. I wish you were able to resolve them for your own sake, but I am willing to forgive the wrong you commit against me not only at the moment you committed the wrong, but now, even many years later. It is never too late to forgive.

Now, what about your own secret – or not so secret sins? How do we get at those? First, by forgiving others you have opened the door to forgive yourself of the previously unforgivable. But there’s still forgiveness work to do.

Therapy, Psychotherapy, Psychology, counseling - all are good science and modern tools in forgiveness work. Jesus taught this same science straight and jargon-free. People claim science and religion are in different spheres. I believe they operate in the same sphere, except faith is broader than science.

Psychiatry is a modern tool to work on forgiving yourself -- among other issues. But our religion, based on Jesus’ science lessons, has its own tools as well. There’s no conflict between the modern tools and the Christian learning about forgiveness. The contemplative tradition has several techniques for working on forgiveness. We only have a few minutes left, so I will sketch just one technique. It’s called the welcoming prayer, and it is a powerful, prayerful tool in this work of forgiveness. In this prayer, we relax and become aware of our body. We search it from tip of toe to top of head, slowly, looking for spots of pain. And they are always there. When we locate a point of pain, we focus on the pain, and we welcome it. We develop a friendly, accepting and welcoming attitude towards the pain. We are thankful for it. In so doing, many find the pain eases. Then, having practiced this, we imagine going inside our body into our center, to our heart. There we sit down and wait for a visitor. And one will come. You will be surprised at who the visitor is. No, it will not be Christ. It will likely be someone you have harmed or who has harmed you.

Don’t be shocked, be welcoming. Develop a friendly, welcoming, accepting attitude towards the visitor. It doesn’t matter who did what to whom, this will be a person with whom there is a powerful tie.

Share any hurts that need to be shared with the visitor. The visitor will listen, then you say, “I forgive you.” You may need to say it a couple of times. But it will come easier. Then, invite the visitor, your guest, to share how we may have hurt them. As you wait and listen, you will realize you already know some of what your guest will say, but the guest may surprise you. When the guest has finished, say, “Forgive me.” And say “Forgive me” as many times as needed. Then, it is likely in the warmth and friendliness of this intimate exchange in the security of your heart, the visitor may forgive you. Sometimes you may discover the visitor may be yourself.

Another approach is centering prayer – or contemplative prayer. I just got back from my annual contemplative retreat at a monastery in the Rocky Mountains. Every retreat seems to have a different theme for me and this one turned out to be forgiveness. The Holy Spirit showed me things I thought I had dealt with years ago – but I really had not. And those things were dragging at my life today. The Spirit helped my recognize, deal with and release a powerful old hurt by bringing it to mind, overcoming years of denial, and helping me to forgive the perp. I am now free from the repressed shame from that old hurt.

As we close, remember, whether you choose psychotherapy or faith, or both, the Lord wants you free from the burdens of feeling unforgiven and not forgiving. Both are harmful burdens. There are good scientific and spiritual techniques available to help. And you know, we are discovering the spirituality Jesus taught is very good Science! So, get rid of the burden of not forgiving. Jesus suggests we take his yoke on instead. His burden is light, his burden is easy. He said so.

Now it’s time for comments and questions...


Q&A: How does forgiveness work?
The knots, the energy stored in our muscles, the patterns of thought and scripts in our minds, the distortions, the repressions resulting from our internal angers or fears or vulnerabilities or resentments or shame or injuries. All these are released when we are forgiven. I don't mean that forgiveness and release will cure cancer, heart disease or diabetes - or even a common cold. I do mean that forgiveness will allow many of the unintentionally self-inflicted wounds we carry around in our bodies to dissipate, to be lifted off.

1. Matthew 6:13-15|
13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.[a] 14For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.15But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
2. Matthew 18:21-22
[ The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant ] Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[a]

3. Matthew 18:34-355
34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

4. Luke 17:3-4
So watch yourselves. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him."