The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
Better to Forgive
or to Seek Forgiveness
The outline of the talk Presented on March
15, 2020, by Andy Walsh
- I was not sure who would show up today.
For those who did show up, I wondered if we would all be
spaced six or more feet from each other . . . whether people
would forego handshakes and hugs . . . whether anyone would
be wearing gloves and/or masks . . . or whether anybody would
be selling toilet paper or disinfectant.
- I thought about changing today's
message to address the pandemic that we are all facing.
Then I recognized that many of you know more about this
situation than I do. And any advice I could offer would
most likely be irrelevant in a few days.
- So, I decided to stick with the original
theme of this talk. Forgiveness. A theme this community
is wrestling with for the month of March. In a note of
self-disclosure, I must confess that the message I am
giving is the message I most needed to hear on this
topic. I have given several talks about forgiveness. All
of them have focused on the need to forgive others or the
need to forgive ourselves. I have never spoken publicly
about the need to seek forgiveness.
- When I look around our society, I see a
problem. We live at a time when admitting our mistakes is
considered a weakness. Blaming others for all of our
problems is considered smart. Counterpunching, not
seeking mutuality or forgiveness, is the way to defend
our fragile egos. I have contributed to this distorted
understanding of forgiveness in the past. Of course, I
have often thought, it is better to be the victim who
forgives than to be the problem who needs
- The opening words by Kahlil Gibran remind
us that giving and receiving are two sides of the same
process. The giver is not superior to the receiver. The world
is not divided neatly between those good people like us who
are givers and those weak people like them who are takers. By
way of analogy, it is misguided to divide the world between
good people like us who offer forgiveness and bad people like
them who need to be forgiven. As Desmond Tutu points out,
"Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every
one of us is both inherently good and inherently
- If we cannot identify with people who make
mistakes, how can we sincerely forgive others?
- Giving AND receiving forgiveness requires
us to stand outside of ourselves
- To empathize with others
- To acknowledge our
- To acknowledge the grace we have
received from others
- To acknowledge the gratitude we have
- Forgiveness and reconciliation are an
important part of traditional religions-Jewish, Christian,
Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist.
- In the Abrahamic religions of Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam, there is a recognition that we
are all children of God. God cares how we treat each
other. Division and hatred among human beings separates
us from God.
- In Taoism: The greatest good is like that
of water. It does not seek its own. It goes with the
flow. It does not dwell in the past. It does not dwell in
the future. Tao lies in the eternal present. To hold on
to resentment is to resist the way. To let go of
resentment is to live in harmony with the Way.
- Hinduism: Karma. Wrong action is the karma
that binds us to the world of suffering. Resenting those
who have harmed us is the karma that binds us to the
world of suffering. Letting go of the past, letting go of
resentment, letting go of ego. This is the path to
- Buddhism: An enlightened person recognizes
that my abuser, my victim, and I are not different
people. I am my neighbor who seeks forgiveness, and I am
the neighbor who forgives me.
- Forgiveness in Christianity: I teach at a
church-affiliated college. Christianity, in my opinion, has
much to teach us about forgiveness. According to tradition,
Jesus encouraged his followers to turn the other cheek. He
forgave his executioners. His reputation as a healer rested
in no small part on the notion of sin, poverty, and sickness
in his own day. At a time when lepers were considered
untouchable because they must have sinned to merit this
disease, Jesus touched the untouchables and welcomed them
back into community. At a time when a menstruating woman was
considered unclean, Jesus called her a beautiful child of God
and welcomed her back into community. At a time when poverty
was considered a curse and wealth a blessing, Jesus had the
audacity to proclaim that the poor are blessed and that the
love of wealth can be an obstacle to being a part of
- Yet my research also tells me that the way
Jesus is typically perceived is part of the problem we
face in contemporary America. Jesus is presented as
perfect, without sin, as one who forgives without need of
forgiveness. Add to that the image of a man who demands
obedience to himself above all else, and we have a recipe
for narcissism as an ideal.
- My own reconstruction of the historical
Jesus concludes that the humbler Jesus in Mark is closer
to the truth than later images of Jesus. In the Gospel of
Mark, Jesus is not the self-proclaimed messiah. (Scholars
call this the messianic secret.) Jesus' ministry
begins when he is baptized by a man who is performing
baptisms for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus prays to God
"forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have
sinned against us."
- The earliest images of Jesus identify him
as someone who forgives and as one who seeks forgiveness.
Later images of Jesus identify him as a perfect being who
forgives but needs never seek forgiveness. Later
Christian theology portrays the forgiven as owing a debt
to the forgiver.
- Christianity has changed over time-for
better and for worse. There was a time when acknowledging
our mistakes and seeking forgiveness was far more common.
The Roman Catholic Church made confession one of its
- The Protestant Reformation occurred, in
part, because critics of the Catholic church felt that
the system of penance, pergatory, and the sale of
indulgences had perverted the original intent of the
confessional. Protestant reformers, however, may have
gone too far in insisting that we can each be our own
priest and need not confess our sins to anybody else. The
reformers did not realize our capacity for
rationalization and justification when we speak directly
to God without human ears to tell us when we are full of
. . . malarkey.
- In the past hundred years,
Protestantism has been divided between modernist and
fundamentalist wings. The fundamentalist wing
continues to talk about sin and forgiveness, but it
does so in such an abstract way that individuals no
longer need to acknowledge actual wrongdoing or seek
forgiveness from particular individuals. We are all
sinners. God forgives us all. It is cheap grace. We
don't have to do the hard work of acknowledging
wrongdoing, changing our behaviors, making amends,
seeking restitution. In fact, other people don't
matter at all so long as God forgives us.
- The modernist wing of Protestantism,
of which I am a part, recoils at words like sin and
judgement. We don't hold each other accountable
to live up to our own highest ideals. We live and let
live. While this is generally, in my opinion, a
healthier attitude than judging others harshly all
the time, it too easily dismisses our obligation for
perpetual self-reflection. It offers a crown without
a cross. We don't have to do the hard work of
acknowledging wrongdoing, changing our behaviors,
making amends, seeking restitution. We might go so
far as to conclude that there is no evil in the world
. . . or that the suffering of others is not real . .
. or at least that the suffering of others is not
really my problem.
- There is a basic human need to be a part of
a community of accountability that can help us get our
lives back on track when we make mistakes . . . to create
the possibility for a second chance at life. . . to offer
the hope of reconciliation to people who have harmed
others. I suspect that much of Christianity fails to meet
these needs. 12-step programs like AA seem better
prepared to help people navigate acknowledging
wrongdoing, engaging in self-critical reflection, and
making amends to heal broken relationships.
- Seeking forgiveness does not make us
weaker than offering forgiveness. Our motives for seeking
forgiveness are related to our motives for offering
forgiveness to others.
- One motivation for forgiveness is to let go
of the past so we can live in the present.
- Holding on to resentment makes me a
prisoner to the person who has harmed me in the past.
Holding on to guilt also binds me to my past
- Holding on to resentment is like
holding on to a hot coal in order to harm another.
Holding on to guilt prevents me from doing everything
you can to be the best person in this moment.
- Holding on to resentment is like
drinking poison in hopes that the other person will
die. Holding on to guilt prevents me from doing
everything I can to relieve the suffering of others
in this moment.
- The words of Thich Nhat Hahn haunted me
the first time I read his poem, "Call Me By My True
Names." He is one of the most famous Buddhist monks in
the world. MLKing even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
for his commitments to nonviolence and reconciliation. His
engaged Buddhism has inspired so many that Thich Nhat Hahn is
about as close to a living saint that I can imagine, and yet
he identifies himself as an arms merchant or an officer of a
forced labor camp. He reminds us of the hubris that assumes
that we could never be a part of the problem . . . that we
could never be responsible for the suffering of others.
- Like the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hahn slashes
our illusions and our egos. He reminds us that we are all
connected. We are the giver and the receiver. The victim
and the abuser. Part of the problem and part of the
- Another motivation for forgiveness is to
restore broken relationships.
- Forgiveness vs. permission. . . Domestic
- Forgiveness does not necessarily mean
- Forgiveness does not necessarily mean
restoring the relationship to where it was before the
harm was done. Rebuilding trust is a process that
requires consistent behavior over a long period of
- Just as we should not "forgive"
someone who is preparing to harm us, it is foolhardy to
seek "forgiveness" if we do not end our harmful
- Saying I am sorry does not mean I am sorry
any more than saying I forgive you means that I forgive
- Sometimes, we say we are sorry because
we want others to forget what we have done, not
because we are truly sorry for what we have
- ometimes we say we forgive another
person before we truly mean it. We continue to hold
on to our resentments.
- At the heart of deep spirituality is
a recognition of the harmony and interconnectedness of us
all. There are no forgivers without forgivees. I am a
part of the problem, and I am a part of the solution. I
have caused suffering in others through my actions and my
inactions. Reconciliation is possible with those whom I
have harmed and with those who have harmed me, but my
forgiving and my seeking forgiveness are not dependent on
the responses of others.
Notable Quotations about Forgiveness
- "Reconciliation is to understand both sides; to
go to one side and describe the suffering being endured
by the other side, and then go to the other side and
describe the suffering being endured by the first
side." -Thich Nhat Hanh
- "Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt
you for hurting me." -Anonymous
- "Forgiveness does not change the past, but it
does enlarge the future." -Paul Boese
- "Without forgiveness life is governed by... an
endless cycle of resentment and retaliation."
- "Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but
faces it head-on." -Alice Duer Miller
- "Those who cannot forgive others break the
bridge over which they themselves must pass."
- "It is in giving that we receive, it is in
pardoning that we are pardoned." Francis of
- "Love the sinner and hate the sin."
Augustine of Hippo
- "Hatred does not cease through hatred at any
time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable
- "An hour of deeply contemplating your own moral
failures will leave you feeling much more forgiving of
the foibles of others." The Stoic Emperor
- "The more you know yourself, the more you will
forgive others." The Stoic Emperor
- "We must develop and maintain the capacity to
forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is
devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the
worst of us and some evil in the best of us. Martin
Luther King Jr
- "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where
there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury,
pardon. Francis of Assis
DESMOND TUTU ON FORGIVENESS
- "The simple truth is, we all make mistakes, and
we all need forgiveness." Desmond Tutu
- "There are times when all of us have been
thoughtless, selfish or cruel. But no act is
unforgivable; no person is beyond redemption."
- "It is not easy to admit one's wrongdoing
and ask for forgiveness. "I am sorry" are
perhaps the three hardest words to say." Desmond
- "When we are willing to let down our defences
and look honestly at our actions, we find there is a
great freedom in asking for forgiveness and great
strength in admitting the wrong. It is how we free
ourselves from our past errors. It is how we are able to
move forward into our future, unfettered by the mistakes
we have made." Desmond Tutu
- "The reasons for forgiving ourselves are the
same as for forgiving others. It is how we become free of
the past." Desmond Tutu
- "When I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief
that you can come out the other side a better person. A
better person than the one being consumed by anger and
hatred." Desmond Tutu
- "True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is
based on forgiveness which is costly. Forgiveness in turn
depends on repentance, which has to be based on an
acknowledgment of what was done wrong, and therefore on
disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do
not know." Desmond Tutu
- "There is no magic wand we can wave to go back
in time and change what has happened or undo the harm
that has been done, but we can do everything in our power
to set right what has been made wrong. We can endeavour
to make sure the harm never happens again." Desmond
- "Forgiveness says you are given another chance
to make a new beginning." Desmond Tutu
- "Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our
pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing
healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of
being at peace." Desmond Tutu
- The following, adapted from the Chicago
Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred
citation for this article:
- Walsh, Andrew. 2020. Better to Forgive or to Seek
April 1, 2020).
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page. The list of Selected Sermons.