By Amber Noel
The priest says, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor,” and maybe (if you’re lucky), there’s a period of silence before you launch into “Most merciful God,” during which your eyes are squeezed shut, your heart is lowly, and your head is so very bowed, but you are not exactly sure what, off the top of your head, to confess.
You’re saying the Lord’s Prayer, and you get to “as we forgive our debtors,” and you earnestly, unreservedly, technically mean it, but you don’t have anyone specific in mind to let off the hook.
Don’t only love your friends, says Jesus. Can’t any schmuck do that? My way, the way to the kingdom, is to love even your enemies.
But Lord, who is my enemy?
Is this familiar to anyone?
You may have plenty of enemies. Maybe your problems with forgiveness are clear, and they are, more or less, just to get on with the hard work.
But for many of us, I believe forgiveness and confession are hard, not because we really have nothing to forgive, and not because we know exactly what we should do and struggle to do it, but because what, exactly, we did wrong, and who, exactly, is at fault for injustice isn’t always very clear. It’s not that I don’t want to be a radical Christian. I’m just not always sure where to start with the basics.
This is a discipleship problem I have not yet solved. Scripture, the Church, and the Lord ask something of you. That something — if you do it, accept it, integrate it into your life — grows you in virtue, contributes to your salvation. But you’re not sure what it practically entails. Do I miss the forest for the asking “Am I in a forest? What is a forest?” Am I like the lawyer who asks Jesus, “Yeah, but who is my neighbor?” To some extent, maybe, sure. But it was the lawyer’s motivation that was bad, not the question itself.
Let’s take harboring anger as a case in point. This is a big one for me. It’s visceral. It’s a sensation that builds in the stomach, in the neck. It is unresolved rage and frustration. It’s sadness and thwarted potency. It comes out at embarrassing times. It throws your reactions out of proportion. It’s very clear. But its targets move. And it is mysterious.
For all practical purposes, it is unforgiveness. Many of us, I’m convinced, carry around feelings of unresolved frustration and anger, but no clarity on who or what, exactly is causing it, and therefore, like the lawyer, miss out on some of the basic promises of kingdom life, not for want of desire, but for lack of clarity.
The work of forgiveness, of letting go, however complex, has to have a concrete target. You should, ideally, be able to talk to the object of your forgiveness. You can pray for them.
But what if there’s actually no one person, specifically, to forgive? Maybe it’s the news cycle that’s wounding and building resentment, or the unfairness of life, or bad luck in love, or an obnoxious pet rabbit that bites your legs, or someone you’ve never met (like a politician), or a group of people (like Congress or “the media”), or your horrible daily commute, or just the whole darn world and the age we’re in and all the ways it feels wrong. What if you’re angry at a process, or standing in line too long, or a city that’s getting you down, or an inanimate object?
And let’s remain with objects for the moment, because that’s legit. The Bible has plenty to say about becoming angry with other people, but not about becoming angry with technology that outwits you or breaks down, or with rain that pours through the sunroof you forgot to close, or with favorite mugs and antique vases that tumble absurdly out of your hands or fly off shelves, or with sharp corners that whack your funny bone.
It is possible that resentment about the uncooperative nature of objects, timing, and processes boil down to anger at yourself — for not being able to understand or tame or use with grace these vicissitudes, these objects. (Nothing will put me in a foul mood — existentially foul — faster than a barked shin.) Maybe it is anger with limits, with failure, with breakability, which is also, maybe, anger at death. And how do I start to forgive that?
Of course there may be someone else specific to forgive, if you dig deeply enough. Prayer and counseling can help you locate many roots. And the roots are tangled with other roots, and these are tangled, not only with hurts and traumas and misunderstandings, but with relationships and time and much good. And any moments of revelation and clarity you can receive about the taxonomy of forgiveness are blessings. Because life simply goes on producing anxiety, and vague, settling clouds of it. And it’s hard to not hold it against it — in a general way.
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone;
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil. (Ps. 37:9)
I once wrote a small note next to this psalm in my BCP that says simply, “Facebook.”
What if your work of forgiveness has more to do with yourself, and with the fact that you will die, and you are small and fragile, and there’s not much you can do about much?
What if you’re mad at God? Why won’t he make things better than they are?
Do we easily despise the way this mortal coil “works” and what God apparently can’t be bothered to do to fix it immediately?
Maybe a legitimate starting point for how to grow in Christ, how to clarify enemies, offer and receive forgiveness, and find where transformation begins, is always me. How do I feel about the life I’ve been given, and what do I think the Lord is over there doing about it? Maybe this is starting to get to the bottom of solving the “Who is my enemy?” for many of us — maybe for all of us at one time or another. Maybe Job’s questions aren’t only for extreme circumstances, but for daily life. They’re accusation, catharsis, self-knowledge. And, eventually, there’s room for the divine response.
I am always puzzled and strangely comforted by those psalms that give God the credit and blame for everything. God, you’re the best. Against you only have I sinned. This is all your fault. Stop looking at me so that I can live! If we’ve sinned against him, and hold things against him, and get angry at him, and if maybe the Lord is our first, best, and final addressee, then, maybe, in the work of forgiveness, we also need to forgive God. Of course, strictly speaking, God cannot be forgiven, because God cannot do anything wrong. But so often God’s inscrutable ways can leave us feeling as though he has — disappointment, unresolved injustice, pain. If forgiveness is less about guilt and more about relationship, it can make sense even to forgive God.
I was once part of a charismatic prayer group that focused on forgiveness and spiritual healing (it was just the right amount of weird). One evening we were all invited to forgive God. We were invited actually to say the words, I forgive you, Lord, for _____, even though it felt silly, wrong, and theologically awkward. But — and the Scripture knows this well — in many ways, to make healthy headway, humans have to begin with their feelings.
Another night someone offered a prayer of forgiveness for their municipal garbage pickup, which ran late and added to their general feelings of rage and disappointment. I won’t comment on that, except to say: First-world problems. But why not? When it comes to forgiveness, as with any other aspects of discipleship, we have to begin with where we are.
How can I be forgiven if I can’t forgive? How can I love myself, the world, or you (come on, Billy Joel), just the way you are? And how can I love the inscrutable, ever-present Other, the great “I Am Who I Am,” who despises nothing he has made and died to forgive us, and receive his life — and love him, too, just the way he is, which is surely the greatest joy?
I need a starting point. What am I angry about? What if I verbally began, as a spiritual practice, noticing when I’m mad, scared, disappointed, or annoyed, and forgiving whatever comes to mind, no matter how silly it sounds: myself for being mortal, God for disappointing me, my mom for talking too much, my boyfriend for not understanding me, that tree for dropping limbs on my roof, that chair for sticking out an inch too far and my toe for getting stubbed? Then will God send me the harder work? Or is that the work itself?
Try and see what comes to mind this week for you in the general confession and the Lord’s Prayer and in these anxious days we’re in. Don’t lose the time. If we can help ourselves and others recognize where they are angry and disappointed and why, we may have just done half of our jobs as pastors and companions in the way.