My encounters with the great commandment
By Tana M. Schiewer | March 23, 2016
The Path of Forgiveness Part Two
I walked timidly into my three-year-old son’s room to do something I had done many times before: repent and ask for forgiveness. I don’t remember what he did—something that normal three-year-olds do, I suppose—but I had completely lost my cool and yelled at him. He cried. We went to our corners. Finally, after I’d calmed down, I went into his room and apologized for yelling at him.
Still sniffling, he lifted his tear-stained face and said the words I’ll never forget: “You’re kind of a mean mommy.”
In that moment, my heart broke. This wasn’t the case of a petulant child calling his mother mean because she wouldn’t let him do something he wanted to do. In this case, the title “mean mommy” was well-deserved. I had anger issues. I yelled a lot. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, but I regret that I allowed anger to affect my relationship with my son at such an important time in his development. It is probably the strongest sense of regret I have ever felt. (And I’ve messed up a lot, so that’s saying something.)
Regret can be an insidious thing, lodging itself deep in your gut and rising up every once in a while to steal your joy or convince you that you are not worthy of redemption. Regret can become the slow-burning side effect of the inability to forgive yourself.
I’ve never been particularly good at forgiveness—for myself or for others. But I’m better at forgiving others than I am at forgiving myself, and I know others who feel the same way. While we do a fairly good job in the church of talking about forgiving others, I would argue that we don’t do as good of a job discussing how we forgive ourselves.
Ask anyone to cite a forgiveness passage from the Bible, and you tend to get quotes about how we should forgive others. The Lord’s Prayer tells us that forgiveness will be granted to us in measure with how we forgive others (Luke 11:1-4). Jesus tells Peter to forgive his brothers and sisters not seven times, but “seventy times seven” in Matthew 18:22. And we’ve heard plenty of sermons on Matthew 5:23-24, about leaving our gifts at the altar if we need to repent to someone. The importance of forgiving others is, I think, not lost on us.
But what about forgiving ourselves? Sure, we could look at these Bible verses and just assume that forgiveness includes ourselves too, but I think that when talking about self-forgiveness, the phrase Jesus adds to the Shema is instructive: “One of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these’” (Mark 12:28-31, ESV).
To answer the scribe’s question about the greatest commandment, Jesus pulls two passages not from the law but from elsewhere in Torah. The first one (“Hear, O Israel…”) comes from what is called the Shema, which first appears in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and is an answer his audience might have anticipated. But Jesus isn’t done. He then quotes from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not just love your neighbor—loving your neighbor would also make sense as a simple commandment. “Okay, Jesus. Love God, love others. Got it.”
No, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. To me, this implies that we do indeed love ourselves—and that loving ourselves actually comes first. And inherent in the act of love is forgiveness.
Regret can be an insidious thing, lodging itself deep in your gut and rising up every once in a while to steal your joy or convince you that you are not worthy of redemption.
But how do we forgive ourselves? That’s really the sticking point, isn’t it? If forgiveness doesn’t come simply and easily to us, how do we “make” it happen? It can feel like some nebulous internal process that can’t be explained, much less broken down into four or five easy steps.
What if there was something physical we could do to help the forgiveness process along?
This past fall I had the opportunity to participate in a tactile effort to engage the act of forgiving and letting go. At Dust Covenant Church in Blacksburg, Virginia, we recognize Jewish festivals and holy days. Our pastor (and my husband), Don Schiewer Jr., often provides detailed background and engages us in some tradition associated with it. Last September, we observed Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time leading up to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). It’s a season during which we are invited to reflect and repent. It would seem like the perfect time to write a sermon on the importance of forgiving and seeking forgiveness from others; however, this year Don decided to focus on the act of forgiving ourselves.
On that unusually cool Sunday in September, we gathered to engage in a process of confession and release. We each had the option to confess something out loud to the group (or to simply think about it to ourselves)—something that had caused us great regret, even if the other person we had harmed or offended had already forgiven us.
Once we each had a particular instance in mind, Don led us outside to the sidewalk and told us that that specific place is where we could let things go. He invited us each to receive communion, think about our burden, and then to let it go. We could each vow that we would leave that particular burden in this particular place, and once we left that sidewalk on that block, our burden could no longer haunt us. There it would remain, stuck in the concrete as stubbornly as regret often sticks to our insides. Don even went so far as to suggest that when we walked down this part of the sidewalk in the future, we should walk around that particular place in an effort to leave our burdens be.
It seemed like such a simple exercise. But because forgiveness is an internal process that can be hazy, having such a clear physical touchstone was incredibly helpful. I symbolically carried my burden to this one place on the sidewalk, put it down, and vowed to leave it alone. There, languishing on the concrete, it could no longer find its way inside me to grow and fester. The past would lose its ability to warp my present and my future.
Of course, the exercise didn’t work perfectly. Just as the internal process of forgiveness is difficult and intangible, I wasn’t able to physically pluck my regret out of my body, place it on that sidewalk, and walk away from it. But the physical act of walking to a space, mentally picturing my regret sticking there, and walking away was powerful nonetheless. The particular regret I was focusing on that day did slide away. I stopped beating myself up. I forgave myself. And the next time I screwed up (like I said, it happens a lot), I found it easier to move forward with forgiveness.
A few years after the “mean mommy” moment, I timidly asked my son if he thought I was mean. Though I had made enormous efforts to change, the regret of that time of anger was lodged inside me and wouldn’t let go, so I assumed he hadn’t let go of it either. My son looked at me quizzically, as if I had asked the most ridiculous question. “No!” he replied. “I think you’re a great mommy!”
I asked him if I was angry too much. Again with the look. “No,” he said. “I think you’re angry the perfect amount.”
I had to laugh. Any moment of anger felt wrong to me, but my son’s response was so wise. He saw the whole me, the entire picture. Any momentary slip into anger was weighed against all of the times of loving, fun, and care we shared. In other words, though I hadn’t forgiven myself, he had forgiven me. He had acted as a good neighbor to me.
Shouldn’t I do the same?