Forgiving Ourselves by Pastor Leah Rosso

Psalm 32; John 21:1-17

Today we are finally getting to talk about forgiving ourselves, and perhaps this is a good day for it since many of us need to forgive ourselves for living in Minnesota in April during a blizzard!

A Sunday School teacher had just concluded her lesson and wanted to make sure she had made her point. She said, “Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain forgiveness of sin?” There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room, a small boy shouted, "Sin!”

Ironically, I’ve found that people who haven’t even done anything wrong in a situation, still feel the need to be forgiven. In The Book of Forgiving, Desmond Tutu himself talks about forgiving his father, who was terribly abusive to his mother, and in doing so, having to realize that there’s forgiveness he needs to extend to himself for not protecting his mother; for not standing up to his father; for hiding in fear. It doesn’t make logical sense— all of us can tell him until we’re blue in the face that a five year old can’t protect his mother from his father’s abuse; but nonetheless, Tutu has to forgive himself.

And, of course, there have been many examples in our conversation about forgiveness for the past eight weeks where people have offered forgiveness— a mother who forgave the man who killed her son; a couple who forgave the young woman who ran over their daughter when she was driving drunk; a woman who forgave her brother for letting her down— and what we find, is that it is often much harder for the person who caused the hurt to forgive themselves.

And it seems to always come down to this— there are times we just don’t feel we are deserving of forgiveness. Sometimes this is because we know ourselves well and we know our motivations and we believe that somehow we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. If someone else had done what we did, we would’ve forgiven them, but since we know we could’ve done it differently, we just can’t bring ourselves to forgive ourselves.

For others of us, we don’t feel we are deserving because we mix up our judgment of our actions with judgment about ourself. We often call this shame— when we get what we did confused with who we are. Oftentimes this is something we learned from an early age— from a parent or a teacher— that our actions define who we are, so if we do something wrong, it is not that we have failed at something or made a bad decision— it’s just that we’re bad. And it’s hard to forgive yourself if you think there’s something wrong with you at your very core.

Both of these reasons, however, are myths. There is no one who does not deserve forgiveness— including you; and there is no act that is unforgivable.

It’s hard to know where Peter was at with all that has happened in his life. There are varying stories of Jesus appearing to his friends and disciples after his resurrection, and this story from the Gospel of John is one of my favorites. I think what is helpful to me, is that this dialogue that Jesus has with Peter shows Peter’s humanity and vulnerability that is somewhat rare in the Bible. The Bible isn’t written like modern literature, telling us who’s thinking what and who’s feeling this or that, so to actually see this exchange between Peter and Jesus where it says that Peter is hurt because Jesus keeps asking him if he loves him, gives us a glimpse into what may be going on in Peter’s psyche. Peter is, of course, the one who outright denied Jesus. He’s the only one, besides Judas, where Jesus specifically told him that he would deny him, even as Peter defended himself in that moment. So we can imagine that when Peter realizes he has denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus said he would, just as Peter told Jesus he would never do— that there is a lot of guilt involved and perhaps even shame. After all, Peter is the outspoken one. He is the one who argued about being greatest. So it’s hard to tell if Peter is dealing with a bit of arrogance, in thinking that everyone else can be forgiven but not him— he knew better, he was supposed to act better than all the rest; or, if Peter is dealing with feelings of intense shame because he isn’t sure he can be a disciple anymore. He’s not sure Jesus should ever forgive him, let alone be forgiven himself. He knows for sure he’s not qualified to be part of Jesus’ A-Team anymore.

At a first reading, we, as the reader, may even hear Jesus’ words with shame in them as Peter may have heard them— “Peter, do you love me? Peter, do you love me? Peter, do you love me?” Three times Jesus asks Peter this question, and when living in a place of fear and shame, it is a question that can sound passive aggressive in its nature. But when we step back for a moment and think about why Jesus may have asked Peter this question three times, we can see that in this question, Jesus is giving Peter a chance to re-commit his life to following Jesus. Denied three times, and now, face to face, Peter confirms three times that indeed he does love Jesus. And each time Jesus says to Peter— “Feed my sheep.” It is almost as if Jesus is saying to Peter, “You still have a job to do. You are still one of my disciples. I still need you. The world still needs you.”

It is the same message that Christ says to us today. Having trouble forgiving yourself? Practice and practice hard. Because retaining forgiveness from others will harm us; retaining forgiveness from ourselves will also harm us— perhaps even more deeply. It is the same path, whether it’s for others or for ourselves. The path of forgiveness means we need to tell the story of what we have done that needs forgiving; it means naming the hurt we and others have experienced through our own actions; it means granting forgiveness; and, because we cannot release ourselves, renewing our relationship with ourself, with others, and with God.

Jesus longs for us to be healed— to know we are forgiven and to forgive others. And more than that, Jesus needs us to be healed. As the saying goes: often hurt people hurt people. It is also true that often forgiven people, forgive people.

Bassam Armin grew up in the ancient city of Hebron in Palestine, facing the violence of Israeli soldiers. At 12 he watched a friend die in front of him who had been shot by the Israeli forces, and then at 17 he was arrested for planning an attack on Israeli troops and was put in prison for seven years. While there, he made an unlikely friend with an Israeli guard. He realized that both of them felt they were fighting for freedom, and after many conversations and interactions, both men realized that they could no longer demonize the other. They began to see the humanity in their enemy and to forgive one another. This friendship changed Bassam. Bassam began to realize that violence wasn’t going to solve anything when both sides felt so strongly that they were in the right, so in 2005 he co-founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants leading a non-violent struggle against the occupation. Just two years later, in 2007, Bassam’s ten year old daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier. He says his daughter’s murder could have led him down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but he had made a conscience decision not to go back that way. “It was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter,” he says, “but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”

Even when it seems unimaginable that forgiveness is possible, God’s love will see us through.

Corrie ten Boom recalled a time when she had forgiven someone but could not let the incident rest and it was causing her to not be able to sleep. Corrie kept praying that God would help her in putting the problem to rest. Finally Corrie went to see her Pastor and shared with him what it was she needed to let go of. He looked out the window and nodded at the church bell tower. “Up in the church tower there is a bell which rings by pulling it from a rope. When the sexton rings the bell,” he said, “the bell rings once, and then the sexton lets go. But the bell does not stop ringing. It swings to a ding and then to a dong. Slower and slower it goes until there’s a final dong and it stops. The same is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if our angry thoughts keep coming for awhile. They’re just the last dongs of the bell slowing down.”

Forgiveness is not easy. It is not quick. It is not about subverting justice or about making excuses for ourselves or others who have caused harm. But it is worth pursuing. Jesus calls us to forgive ourselves, to forgive others; to put down our shame, and to take up love instead.

So take a step this week in practicing forgiveness- for yourself or for another. Extend grace to a friend; let go of the hurt you’ve been holding because of that family member who isn’t who you want them to be; listen to the story of someone you’ve hurt so that you can know their pain; practice telling yourself that you are forgiven. Jesus has forgiven you a long time ago. And Jesus is calling you to lay down your burdens and to go about the work of feeding his sheep.

Resources Cited/Consulted:

DavidLose.net Corrie ten Boom story came from “Guideposts Classics”, November 1972 The Forgiveness Project by Marina Cantacuzino The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu Interpretation Commentary for the Gospel of John