To Be Forgiven
By Reverend Rebecca Bryan
“How free do you want to be?” is a common phrase used by those in twelve-step recovery programs. We are promised that if we follow a few simple steps or suggestions, we will be free, first from our addictions and then from the things that drove us to our addictive behaviors in the first place.
Most people are eager to do these things when they start in the program. They have “hit bottom” as we say, meaning they no longer want to live in the grips of addiction. Hitting bottom has little to do with outward appearances and everything to do with surrendering to the need for an inward conversion. We don’t want to go on as we have been, turning to substances or behaviors for relief from emotions or stress, yet we don’t know what else to do.
For many, the process of asking for forgiveness and making amends for harms done opens the door to an entirely new way of living. It is one free of guilt and remorse, with the possibility for healing and restoration of relationships. It allows us to be real people who make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and have tools to deal with that.
This is not a sermon about addiction. It is instead a sermon about forgiveness, specifically, asking for forgiveness, and the remarkable things that come out of that process. The importance of seeking forgiveness and how to do that are things that twelve-step programs teach amazingly well. I have witnessed countless people finding freedom in this process, as I did. It is something we can all learn from and apply in our lives.
What were you taught about asking for forgiveness? Did anyone model this for you? Were you taught to go to a clergy person, asking for forgiveness and acts of penance? Were you made to say you were sorry, regardless of how you really felt, perhaps to that neighbor whose window you threw a ball through? Or were you raised in a home that was off-kilter with this process, either one where no one ever said they were sorry, or one where someone said it far too often for things they should never have felt sorry about? Or were you shown a model of everlasting guilt for your mistakes? Perhaps you were one of the lucky ones who were shown a healthy relationship to this process.
We have spent the month looking at forgiveness from the attitude of forgiving others, and at the relationship between forgiveness and working for social justice. This morning let’s sit with the things we need to ask forgiveness for, whether from others or ourselves. For many of us, this is much harder.
None of us is immune from erring and in so doing hurting other people, knowingly and unknowingly. Few of us are taught how to accept that and be humble enough to try to set things right.
Humility, as I use the word here, means “rightsized”—having an appropriate estimation of ourselves, neither inflated nor deflated, including of our gifts, passions, and weaknesses. Humility is the acceptance and admission of our humanity, including the capacity to cause harm. When we cause harm, humility is having the integrity to do what we can to right those wrongs, without debasing ourselves, with the wellbeing of ourselves and the other person at the top of our hearts. When we do that, the happiness of another person and ourselves is more than being right or our ego or pride.
At the same time, humility is knowing that which is our responsibility to own. There are those of us who are apt to take on much more than is theirs to own. Few people find that balance of right-sidedness. Most of us either diminish our wrongs or exaggerate them. All of us are apt to push them away because it is hard work and uncomfortable to face them, but it is so worth it. It is also work we are meant to do in community with others, not alone. Whether done with therapists, trusted friends, or spiritual directors, this work is healing and regenerative, and designed to end patterns, not perpetuate them.
There are four parts to this process of seeking forgiveness or making amends. First is to acknowledge honestly and appropriately to ourselves what we owe amends for. Second, it behooves us to have someone with whom we talk about it, to get their perspective and healing affirmation. Some of us cannot go further than that, but at least we don’t carry it alone. Third, we imagine what amends may include, and fourth, we make amends, either directly or indirectly depending on the situation, though not directly when it would cause harm to the other person or ourselves.
Amends are different from apologies. They include some change in behavior that either literally or symbolically rectifies the harm we’ve done. We do it as an offering to the other person or people, knowing we are not in control of how they respond. Regardless of how they respond, we set ourselves free.
I’ve made amends often over the years, for relatively minor things and for big things. I’ve sent money to a charity symbolizing healing when it was not appropriate or safe to rekindle a relationship, I’ve sat down over coffee and talked about things I wished I had done differently, and I’ve written letters to people who have died.
Most of the people I’ve gone to are gracious and accepting of my amends. Some say they don’t even remember what I am talking about; with others, I will never know how they felt. Only one refused what I offered.
The most profound encounter I had with this process was with my brother. He and I had a long-time dispute, something that drove a wedge between us, affected our family, and led to us having minimal contact for years. When we were together, it was cordial but strained. I was sure my perception of our disagreement was right until the day I learned something that changed everything. My entire understanding shifted with that one piece of information.
I knew I had to make amends with my brother and knew that after years of this disagreement, making amends was going to be difficult. I called him on the phone and told him what had changed for me. I had no idea what his response might be but assumed it would be negative. He was quiet for a moment, then said, “There’s nothing to forgive. You are the one who had to carry this all these years.” In that moment, I knew what mercy felt like. It felt like being forgiven.
The practice of seeking forgiveness or admitting our wrongs is deeply healing work. It is an invitation for both you and the other person to be set free. Asking for forgiveness does not condone our behavior, any more than extending forgiveness condones another person’s wrong behavior.
We need to be ready for this work; it is not to be taken lightly or prematurely. We need and deserve supports in our life, people and tools that help us as we travel the path of seeking forgiveness. It is a path less traveled. It can be lonely, but we need never be alone.
As Unitarian Universalists we do not believe this is a damning universe. Living with unresolved relationships and states of unforgiveness can be its own kind of hell. Remember, we forgive people, not deeds.
Who has been coming to your mind during this sermon? With whom might you consider making amends? Whatever the situation, give it space, give it honesty, and give it love. Be patient with yourself.
“Listen,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid that you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember.”
How free do you want to be?
Amen and blessed be.
 Morrill, Jake, The Christian Art of Forgiveness: Guided Reflections to Cultivate a Forgiving Heart, Rockridge Press, Emeryville, CA. 2021. Pg. 10