There is no word for forgiveness in the Zuni language, a fact I discovered when I lived in the Zuni Pueblo located in western New Mexico. As a newly minted teacher, I had been hired to teach at the Towa Yallanne Elementary School—named after the sacred mountain of the Zunis. All of the children in my third grade class spoke Zuni, a language that has no close affiliation with any known language.
I discovered the absence of “forgiveness” in the Zuni lexicon when one of my students’ relatives related to me that there was a longstanding feud in her family between two sisters. The sisters would not speak to each other. They were locked in silence. Neither could say, “Please forgive me.”
The question, “How do we forgive?” is one that plagues us—not just since 9/11 when Americans were confronted with the question of how to forgive our enemies. Or even after Sandy Hook, when we saw a killer who purposely targeted innocent young children.
We wonder, “How can we forgive what seems unforgiveable?”
There are many who are offering help to those who want to learn to forgive. One such group is The Forgiveness Project. The project has a roster of speakers who tell their stories of how they learned to forgive. Marian Partington is one of their speakers. She has written a book, If You Sit Very Still, in which she describes her path to learning to forgive those who tortured and killed her sister Lucy. But Partington’s path leads to a mystical kind of forgiveness that draws on Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism with a dash of Christian mysticism thrown in. Reviewing her book, Theodore Dalrymple writes,
Partington extols forgiveness, indiscriminately and without proper examination, as if to fail to forgive were necessarily to fall prey to insensate vengefulness and automatically to inflict cruelty, and as if compassion required forgiveness of wrong in every case….she is that very modern type, spiritual but not religious.
Likewise, another speaker for The Forgiveness Project, Judith Toy, tells how she followed the teachings of Zen to find a way to forgive the young man who killed her sister-in-law and her two children.
“Distraught, I took refuge in Zen. It was only then I got some relief from my grief and confusion – through stopping and calming my breath. The fruits of the practice came slowly. Stilling my body/mind day after day, I inched toward the faith that led to forgiveness.” Toy says that she had to “embrace” her anger and confusion in order to be able to forgive.
Rather than offering a wellspring for forgiveness, these women are sending people to a well that is dry. Buddhism offers no means to receive forgiveness oneself and if we do not acknowledge our own need for forgiveness, can we truly offer it to others?
Speaking on “The Art of Forgiveness,” the late Dr. D. James Kennedy tells of the apostle Peter’s question to Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
“Apparently,” said Kennedy, “that seemed like quite a bit to Peter. That was, indeed, going the second mile…and the third…and all the way to the seventh. It obviously makes clear that Peter felt that forgiving someone was an extraordinary thing that one does. It was quite apart from that which was normal and customary in human life. By far the more commonplace thing to do would be to not forgive a person who sinned against one, but rather hold the offense.”
But Jesus’ response to Peter was, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).
Following this admonition, Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant who was forgiven an enormous sum—in today’s terms it would be the equivalent of $6 billion. The king had compassion on him and forgave him his massive debt.
Nevertheless, the servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him about the equivalent of $12,000 and when he could not pay it immediately, the unforgiving servant had his fellow servant thrown into prison “till he should pay his debt,” completely ignoring the fact of his own forgiveness for a much greater debt.
It didn’t take long for the news of this to travel back to the king. “I forgave you all that debt because you begged me,” he said to the unforgiving servant. “Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?”
Jesus ends the parable with “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.” And then he makes the sober application, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Most of us minimize the enormity of our own debt—we think our debt to God is more like that of the servant who owed $12,000 than the one who owed $6 billion. We fail to acknowledge our need to be forgiven by a righteous God whose holy law we have violated and transgressed in innumerable ways.
The reality is, as Dr. Kennedy said, “we have affronted God in our thoughts, in our words and deeds, by our omissions and commissions, by our animosities, our lusts, our deceits, our sloth, our selfishness, and our pride.” Yet we, like the unforgiving servant, often find it hard to forgive—not just our enemies, but our friends, and even, like the Zuni sisters, our relatives.
Where do we go to find the well-spring that enables us to forgive? There is only one path—and it takes us not to a well-spring, but to a fountain.
Jesus Christ alone is the true fountain of forgiveness. When we have truly received his forgiveness for the multitude of our sins, he enables us to forgive those who have sinned against us. And through him we can pray to our Father in heaven, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”