Forgiveness and Restoring Right Relationships

or Finding the Sacred Selah


Psalm 32

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


I have a sister, and the women here know what I mean when I say sister- a sibling in Christ to all of us- who is the daughter of two alcoholics. When they drank, they became physically and emotionally abusive, not the kind, gentle, fun-loving parents she knew as child. Addiction is a terrible disease- and not something the addict can control without proper care and support. Because my sister’s alcoholic parents weren’t able to get the treatment they needed, my sister had to mourn their deaths, while they were still alive, because the parents she had known, had died to her.

When my sister’s mother was actually dying, of cirrhosis of the liver, she didn’t go to her mother’s bedside—maybe she thought it was a false alarm, maybe it was because the boundaries she had around her parents had become so strong, because of the ways they had caused her harm. But surely part of it was because her mother was already dead to her, she had a head start on her grief, to feel her hurt, and unforgiving of the hurt and pain her parents caused her. Earthly death released my sister to have a genuine relationship with her mother- because she could remember her mother in her essence, her beauty, her love, not in the throes of her addiction.

Some of my sister’s family criticized her behind her back for being unforgiving. How could she not have been there for her dying mother? How could she not have forgiven her parents? In the Christian tradition, we are all sinners, reconciled to God through Christ- no matter what we have done. And this is good news, friends, this is good news!

We see this sentiment in our gospel reading today, of the Prodigal Son, who sins against the family, and after a process is welcomed back with celebration by his father.

Author Isabel Lopez writes about forgiveness, “I eventually came to understand that in harboring the anger, the bitterness and resentment towards those that had hurt me, I was giving the reins of control over to them. Forgiving was not about accepting their words and deeds. Forgiving was about letting go and moving on with my life. In doing so, I had finally set myself free.” Wow- to set yourself free- sounds wonderful.

Forgiveness is a beautiful Christian concept. But it can be dangerous too, if we don’t get the timing right. Forgiveness can’t be used to perpetuate abuse, or make excuses for bad behavior, or insist that we forgive each other for hurtful behavior before we are ready. Marie Fortune, who is a pastor, an educator, the founder of FaithTrust institute, where she addresses sexual and domestic violence in faith communities writes in article, “Seeking Justice on the Path to Forgiveness,”[1] writes that,

“In contemporary Christian teaching and practice, the burden to forgive seems always to be placed solely on the shoulders of those who have suffered physically and emotionally. This is the most common response that victims or survivors hear from family, friends and the church. The first thing anyone who is trying to be helpful wants to discuss is forgiveness, meaning the one victimized should simply forgive and then be rewarded magically with healing.”

In Judaism, the burden rests with the one who caused harm. During the yearly holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement provides communities with corporate atonement for sins against God. “But sins against one’s neighbor (or intimate partner) are not pardoned unless the offender compensates the victim and apologizes. This means confession, taking responsibility, repentance, and restitution to the one harmed.”

Richard Swanson, Biblical Scholar adds, “Christians can learn about the work of repentance and restoration from Jewish communities, because it must happen face to face- not abstractly between a person and God. In Christian theology the forgiveness narrative goes like this: God accepts and loves all so we should too. But Yom Kippur takes seriously that the harm done among people must be repaired with people.”[2]

He writes, “If I have harmed you, for Yom Kippur I owe you the honor of seeking to repair the harm, with you, face to face. And you have the right to refuse my offer. Concrete harm is taken seriously. And sometimes the harm is too great to allow for easy repair. In such cases, you are free to refuse. This is crucial. If you refuse, I am required to accept your refusal. I can ask again, but only later, after an interval, on another occasion when I approach you and repent and seek to make restoration.” This interval is important- the most important part of the ritual. It is like the Selah- that Madlyn read to us from Psalm 32, the pause, the holy pause.

Someone can refuse to grant forgiveness up to 3 times, and each time the perpetrator is required to accept your decision. The psalmist sings, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” But in restoring right relationships- it can’t be for the happiness of the transgressor. We can’t say, as abusers often do, “God has forgiven me, what right have you to refuse?” Quite the opposite.” Richard Swanson writes. The ritual takes seriously the harm done, and because of the Selah, the holy pause, I have to honor your integrity in reacting to the concrete reality of the harm.

Only after the 3rd time seeking forgiveness can I approach God seeking forgiveness, as we do in Christianity right away. Only then, the Psalmist writes, to mirror this patter, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah.” God will forgive you, when no one else does. Forgiveness is a beautiful Christian concept. But it does not condone or pardon harmful behavior- and often justice making is a prerequisite for forgiveness. Reframing forgiveness in a Christian context is paramount.

Hear this wisdom about the 12 step process of recovery for addiction, about step 9 of ‘Making Amends’, from author Keith Miller from his book A Hunger for Healing, “When we make amends we are simply telling the person we harmed the truth about our actions as we now see it, trusting that the healing, the self-acceptance, and the serenity we will gain is worth the rejection we may encounter. Doing Step Nine correctly also takes courage, prudence, good judgment, and a careful sense of timing. If you are just coming into the Twelve Steps as you read this, remember that you’re not ready to do Step Nine yet. You’ve got eight steps to walk through first. By the time you get to this point you may be amazed at the way you have become ready to trust God and do Step Nine…”

Timing, the holy Selah. The purpose of step 9 in the 12 step process is not to make the addicted person feel good. It is not to offer, as Marie Fortune writes again, “platitudes, sentimentality and offers of cheap grace. People we have hurt do not need to be urged to “forgive” in fact, in many cases they need to be urged not to forgive so quickly. They need guidance and support to help them face head-on the painful realities and memories of violence and abuse in their lives. They need to hear about a God who stands with the exploited and the abused, who calls the powerful to account, who offers justices and forgiveness as the tools of healing; who expects bystanders to support victims and call abusers to account.”

And when, and if, the victim is ready to make amends, and to restore a relationship of justice that has been severed by abusive actions, it needs to be on the terms of the victim. This is hard to wrap our heads around, when the abuser or perpetrator of bad behavior is a victim too; a victim of addiction, or of their own mental illness.

Some of you are aware of an issue that has touched our community- where a long time member or friend of this congregation had a manic episode- for quite a long time, and hurt so many people in the congregation and beyond. This happened two years ago, and while this person has sought their own healing, not everyone who has been hurt has been ready to make amends- and it is their right not to do so. And we as a church have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable, to create a safe space- which is a complicated and noble task.

And while many call for reconciliation- we need to make sure in getting there we have a process that honors the victims of the original behavior. In a process of restoring right relationships and making amends and justice seeking, –reconciliation is the fruit of that process. I’ll share with you today, as one of the victims of his behavior, after the Selah, the pause, the time and space to heal that this congregation gave me, I am ready to engage in a process of restoring right relationships, of repairing the mends that were broken. And this is hard work for everyone involved, but it is good work, progress, in a process of justice making through relationships. A process that needs to extend compassion to all parties involved, to the mental health of all parties involved- to the one who initially caused harm in a mental illness that was beyond his control, and the mental health of those he harmed, who may be suffering from trauma and decreased self worth- also issues of mental health.

In situations like this, of which there are many, no matter the reason- a mental illness, an addiction, it does not erase the effect of the behavior. And when we begin to pit these issues against one another, mental illness or addiction against the rights of the victims, we contribute to a culture of war, a culture of fighting and dogmatism- where we stand up so much for the rights of one, that we hurt the rights of another, rather than having compassion and seeing nuance for all. Things are not black and white- we live in community of many truths, of grey area, where we are called to lift up everyone’s experience as their own truth, even if it clashes with our own sense of truth. And staying in relationship with one another all the while.

Let me tell you a story about reconciliation. In war torn Sierra Leone, a West African county that experienced a devastating civil war from 1991-2002, where more than half the population was displaced and much violence took place with community members of the same villages fighting each other- a reconciliation ritual was developed called “Fambul Tok” meaning “Family Talk.” Communities would gather around a bonfire, for a two-day ceremony, where people could admit to the hurt they experienced, and people who caused the hurt could admit to causing it. [3]

And after the ceremony- the community on the whole was a little more free- people began going places they didn’t go before because they were afraid of seeing certain people, there was a greater sense of comradery, and giving and caring in the community increased. But for the victims, the wounds were reopened again, and they were dealing with the mental health issues of PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder. The reconciliation ritual, while good for the whole, and desperately desired by the people who were peripherally affected, who wanting to live in harmony again- they felt better. But the victims were left on their own with no proper pathway to continued care and healing. We want to rush to the reconciliation, but the process must have the holy Selah, the pause, the sharp insight for the needs of victims.

My sister, our sister, will be on antidepressants her whole life. And anti-anxiety medication. These issues don’t exist in isolation. Even though her parents were victims of their own addictions, and the systems failed them, they still caused harmful behavior that has a lasting impact.

In the Christian tradition, we are all sinners, we are all victims and we are all perpetrators. Not one of us here are innocent- we have all hurt someone else with our words and actions and behaviors. And all of us are reconciled to God through Christ- no matter what. No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, we are loved by God and reconciled to God through Christ. And this is good news, friends, this is good news! But our Christian concept of forgiveness needs to be flipped on it’s head- it can’t be used to perpetuate abuse, or make excuses for bad behavior, or insist that we forgive each other for hurtful behavior before we are ready. Forgiveness is a process, a process that frees us from the hurt that has been done to us. Forgiveness and restoring right relations on a community level is possible! And it is a noble process, a process of justice, and one that needs to be done with great care- with time and space for the holy Selah, the pause, for healing. Thank you for my Selah, and I ask you to pray, for this community, for the restoring of right relations in our own families, in our own relationships, and in this community, so that we can “work towards the realization of a society based on mutuality, respect and social justice where communities are peaceful, families are safe and individuals are empowered.”[4] Let it be so. Amen.


[1] Fortune, Marie, The Forgiveness Handbook: Spiritual Wisdom and Practice for the Journey to Freedom, Healing and Peace, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT: 2015 p171-174.

[2] Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland Ohio: 2006 p. 124-126.