The new priest is nervous about hearing confessions, so he asks an older priest to sit in on his sessions. The new priest hears several confessions, then the old priest asks him to step out of the confessional for a few suggestions… The old priest suggests, “Cross your arms over your chest and rub your chin with one hand.”… The new priest tries this. The old priest suggests, “Try saying things like, ‘I see, yes, go on, and I understand, how did you feel about that?” The new priest says those things, trying them out. The old priest says, “Now, don’t you think that’s a little better than slapping your knee and saying, ‘No way! What happened next?'” – I’m not sure if this would be a good time to encourage you all to go to confession during Lent or not.
It is in the fifth chapter of James that we hear specific instructions on healing: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil.” A few verses later, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” James is showing us that there is often a link between sin and sickness, therefore he encourages us to confess our sins to each other. Often, when we hear these instructions we think of the confession between a penitent and a priest, but James is also talking about Christian speaking to Christian as a means of accountability. For example – if you have a problem with ___, then you can confess this to a trusted friend or even a group of trusted friends who will in turn hold you accountable. They do this not so they can beat you over the head when you slip and fail, but so that they can support you in your time of weakness and give you encouragement when you hold strong.
So we confess our sins to God and to a priest for absolution. We confess to one another for accountability and encouragement, and finally we confess so that we might receive forgiveness from the person who we injured.
Back in the day before I was the saint that you see standing before you today, I had a favorite expression for someone who had injured me in someway when asked if I would forgive them. I heartily responded, “I wouldn’t spit on them if they were on fire.” That left very little room for reconciliation and Jesus was not amused. Yet finally I heard that call from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” I understood that I must learn to forgive as I have been forgiven. For me, I also discovered that there were three main reasons that compelled me to forgive: obedience, guilt and imitation.
Take obedience. Some folks choose to go to work out of obedience, which can sometimes be closely linked to fear. Obedience in that they know what is expected of them and fear that they will be fired if they don’t. The same line of thought applies to forgiveness. Consider Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant: a servant owed a great debt to his master and yet was unable to pay when his master called in the debt. He therefore begged his master for forgiveness and the master forgave the debt and let him go; however, when that servant went out he encountered someone who owed him a debt and demanded that it be paid. When the man said he couldn’t pay the servant had him thrown into prison until he could. When the other servants saw what had happened they went to the master and reported it. The master recalled the servant and said to him, “‘You wicked servant; I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Jesus concludes by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” There are times when we may also forgive someone out of obedience to the command to forgive and out of fear of the repercussions of not forgiving. Is that forgiveness? Yes, as long as it is from the heart. As long as we truly forgive.
Second, we may choose to forgive out of guilt. Take for example the parable of the father who had two sons. The father went to the first and said, “‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.” Jesus asked those who were listening to him, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered, but the question for us is: what turned the first son’s heart? Probably a number of things, but I suspect it started with guilt. “Dad asked me to do this [grumble. grumble.]”, yet off he went. In a similar manner – because of guilt – we may choose to forgive. If I am being hard hearted and not wanting to forgive, but then look at an image of our crucified Lord and recognize the price he paid for my sins that I might be forgiven… guilt. Plain and simple. The guilt of my own sin and understanding the price paid by Jesus for those sins, will compel me toward forgiveness. Is that forgiveness. Again, yes, as long as it is from the heart.
So we can forgive out of obedience and guilt, but I would suggest to you there is an even better way: imitation. Why do you do something in a particular way? Oh, that’s how my dad always did it. Why are you a dentist? Oh, my mother was a dentist. We imitate the behavior we see from others. In the first paragraph of the first chapter of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, “‘He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,’ says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.”
Ephesians 5:12 (NIV), “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” “Follow God’s example” is also translated in other versions as “Be ye therefore imitators of God.” That word “followers” / “imitators” is translated from the Greek word “mimEtai” (μιμηταὶ) It is where we get the word “mimic.” What is it we are to imitate / mimic as dearly loved children of God? “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” That is what we are to imitate. We forgive, because Jesus forgives.
If you forgive from your heart out of obedience or guilt, then you have done as Christ commanded. You have forgiven because you have been told to forgive and know that you must, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; however, in being a follower / imitator / mimic of Jesus you will forgive – not because you have been told to do it – but because you want to be like Jesus.
Is that asking too much? Is it to hard to want to be like Jesus? If so, then to paraphrase George Herbert, set it up there as a mark, something to aim for “since he shoots higher that threatens the moon, than he that aims at a tree.” Forgive by any means you can summon, but seek the higher way of imitating Christ.