Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Folly of the Rat Poison Cocktail

Refusing to forgive is like drinking rat poison
and then expecting the RAT to die.
(Anne Lamott)
Even the seasons remind us of the forgiving nature of our God. I have been very grateful for the relief we have experienced in the last week or two, from “the unforgiving heat” of these past few months. Forgiveness is much more than that, of course, as Matthew 18.21-35 makes quite clear.
“How many times do I have to forgive someone in the church who has wronged me? As many as seven times?” Peter asked Jesus.

Jesus responded, "One should forgive not just 7 times, but 77 times!" Obviously that is a bit difficult to get one’s mind around. So a story is told which helped to clarify.


A king brought a certain servant before him and said, “You must pay what you owe me.” Unfortunately this poor fellow had had an enormous credit line that he maxed out, far beyond his ability to repay. There was no way in his entire lifetime that he would ever pay it off.

As a result of this incredible indebtedness, his life was in danger, as were the lives of his wife and children. They were all about to be sold into slavery to pay his debt. How could he have been so stupid to endanger his whole family by running up this kind of debt?

As we know this kind of thing happens all too often in our own time. Not the slavery part of course, but countless families today have ruined their lives and those of their loved ones by going into serious debt.

The fellow in the story, overwhelmed by his inability to pay, fell at the feet of the king and pleaded for mercy.

“Give me a little more time, and I will pay you what I owe.”

He was dreaming. The guy could never have paid his debt. But the king listened to the man’s pleas and decided to release him completely from his obligation! It was an amazing act of benevolence!

The man goes home to celebrate his great fortune. But in the very act of celebrating, he notices a friend of his, who owed him a few dollars. So he grabs him by the neck and says “Pay me what you owe me! Right now!”

He has been shown extraordinary generosity, but cannot extend even modest generosity to a friend. Can you believe the man’s audacity? Of course we can. Who among us has not held on to a grudge and refused to forgive someone?


The story is Jesus way of explaining the difficulty of forgiveness. And it is hard. There are times when we just cannot bring ourselves to forgive some wrongs. There are some that are too immense to be forgiven, we think.

Today is 911. If there was ever a time when forgiveness SHOULD be hard to offer, it is today. Or so we suppose. When we think of other high profile criminals – from Scott Peterson to Michael Jackson to Timothy McVeigh – they are instances of great evils that we find difficult, if not impossible to forgive.

Each of us has memories of things that someone did to us – a family member, a co-worker, a fellow church member, a spouse – things that we cannot forget, and that are impossible to forgive. Because we think that forgiveness means excusing or ignoring or forgetting. But forgiveness does not mean any of that.

When I say, “I forgive you,” it does not mean that I am tolerating your bad behavior or that what you did to me was okay. It is just the opposite. It means that I refuse to hold onto my right to get back at you. I release my need to hold a grudge despite the fact that what you did was wrong. Lewis Smedes (Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve) put it this way:
“Excusing someone for a wrong they’ve done is a cheap substitute for the more difficult job of forgiving.”

Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. It is all about letting go of resentment. It is not really about the other person at all. C.S. Lewis once talked about finally forgiving a man who had been dead for 30 years! Forgiveness is an individual, unilateral act centered solely in your heart. You may never have a chance to reconcile with those who have hurt you, but you can still forgive them, and if you do, you will find an incredible healing waiting for your soul.

Forgiveness is not a cheap substitute for justice. When I forgive you, that does not mean you will not be held accountable for your actions.

The Christian writer
Anne Lamott has said, "Refusing to forgive is like drinking rat poison and then expecting the RAT to die.”

Now that is not a very heartwarming image. But it is absolutely true. Drinking rat poison, like withholding forgiveness, has a devastating effect on the drinker, while the rat goes free. Not to forgive but to be resentful, does not hurt the one about whom we hold the grudge. But it is death to the one who holds it.

The famous South African novelist,
Alan Paton, says, “There is a hard law… that when a deep injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive.”

“It is God’s cure,” as
Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “for the deformity that our resentment causes us. Forgiveness is how we discover our true shape and every time we do it, we get to be a little more alive.”


Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells a true story about an incident that took place at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission down in Cape Town, South Africa. The commission followed a set of very simple rules. If a policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed to his crime and acknowledged his guilt, he would not be punished. Hardliners grumbled that criminals would go free, but Nelson Mandela said that his nation needed healing even more than it needed justice. At one hearing, a white police officer named Van de Broek told how he and other policemen had abducted and shot an eighteen year old boy and then burned his body in order to hide the evidence. Eight years later, Van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. This time, the man’s wife was forced to watch as the policemen bound her husband, threw him on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body and set him on fire.

The courtroom where all this was being recounted was hushed in stunned silence as this elderly woman who had lost her son and then her husband was given a chance to confront their murderer.

“What do you want from Mr. Van de Broek?” the judge asked. Everyone listened intently as the old woman spoke. She said she wanted Van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her son’s body and gather up the dust of his remains so they could give him a decent burial. Staring down at the table, Van de Broek nodded in agreement. Then she made a further request.

“Mr. Van de Broek took my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month I would like for him to come to the township and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God and that I forgive him also. Finally, I would like to embrace him so he knows that my love is real.”

It was amazing! At that moment the courtroom spontaneously erupted into a chorus of Amazing Grace as this old woman made her way from her chair to the witness stand. Poor Mr. Van de Broek never heard a word of the singing. Overwhelmed with emotion, he had collapsed on the courtroom floor.


What that woman understood and what Jesus understood, and what he hoped Peter would understand, and that WE would understand is that once we begin to forgive, something marvelous happens.

Once we get into the habit of letting go of our hurts and resentments we discover the freedom and the peace that it breathes into the weariest parts of our souls. When that happens forgiveness ceases to be an obligation.

Somewhere between the seventh and the seventy seventh time, we lose count; because forgiveness is no longer what we do. It has become who we are. And by that time, as the courtrooms of our lives burst out into choruses of Amazing Grace, we will realize that forgiveness has no limits, because it is a way of being true to life of Jesus Christ.

Feel the fresh air of forgiveness, whether it is with family members, neighbors or coworkers, who are far from perfect, or church friends with differing ways of thinking about sexual orientation or church finances or the color of the pews or the music of worship or anything else.

And know, as
Thomas Long has said, “that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose.”

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