Two weeks ago we talked about Step 8: “We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
And this morning we move on to Step 9: “We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
Once we have realized that we are powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable, once we have surrendered our lives to that greater Love, who is God, once we have made a courageous and searching moral inventory and then admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs, once we became entirely ready to have God remove all our defects of character, and once we humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings then we move on to Steps 8 and 9.
Steps 8 and 9 are steps on the spiritual path toward reconciliation, to have relationships restored. The 12 step program or spiritual path is not just about one’s own individual healing and sobriety – it is about the healing of relationships.
This matter of reconciliation and restoration of relationships is central because that is the direction toward which the big love story of the cosmos is heading. The Bible tells us that the trajectory of the big cosmic story is toward all things being united, becoming one, in Christ. All divisions overcome. The restoration of cosmic wholeness. That’s the grand arc of God’s story that is being lived out.
So last time we considered these steps of reconciliation in terms of this deep truth, the foundational cosmic reality that is at play here and forms the ideal into which the Spirit is leading and transforming us.
This week we turn to the practical realities of this reconciling step. Step 9 recognizes that there are multiple difficulties and twists and turns in this larger story as it works itself out in our smaller stories in which prudence/practical wisdom is required. These are all the “Yes, but…” considerations that give us appropriate pause in these matters of forgiveness and seeking reconciliation.
To be clear: Forgiveness and reconciliation are such important and central dimensions to our lives as Jesus followers that we need to attend to the practical considerations that must be taken into account. Step 9’s wise caveat: “except when to do so would injure them or others” invites us to consider some of the relevant special cases.
Last time, looking ahead to this morning’s subject, I said: Some relationships are abusive and they require particular strategies. Some people are unrepentant, and that raises particular concerns. Sometimes hurts or betrayals are so deep that reconciliation or even any communication seems impossible. People who are actively in the throes of addiction pose particular dilemmas. Sometimes people we have harmed have cut us off and will not receive our communications.
So let’s look at each of these in turn. Let’s look at them through the lens of love and care. In fact, let’s look at them through the lens of love and care embodied in the Good Shepherd. The guiding principle for our actions, the one that should help us in difficult situations is love and care. What response from us, what action on our part, will help the growth and nurture of the parties involved? Sometimes it is difficult because what is good for one can harm another. I have no magic answer for that situation. I believe no one does. But most situations are not like that.
Jesus said: I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.
So in these matters of forgiving and being forgiven, in these matters of seeking to make amends and to restore relationships, how shall we, likewise, as Jesus people, as Christ followers, act so that life to the fullest will emerge?
Steps 8 and 9 are, of course, stated from the point of view of when we have been the offender. And the injuries we are trying to avoid as we make amends, are typically injuries to the offended or to other parties. But this matter of forgiveness, making amends, and reconciliation takes in the difficult situations when reconciliation is not straightforward and these difficulties are what we must consider as we think about potential injuries.
So – in very practical terms, let’s consider the situations I mentioned earlier in which injury may be likely:
Some relationships are abusive and they require particular strategies
There is good and important Jesus language about submission and surrender. There is good and important Jesus language about giving up one’s life. Yet sometimes this language has been misused or misheard to justify or keep people in situations of domestic violence or domestic abuse or other abusive relationships.
Let’s be clear: there may be practical and emotional constraints that make it difficult to get out of abusive situations. We shouldn’t judge people who are trying to manage terrible and complicated situations. At the same time, no teaching about forgiveness and reconciliation should be commandeered to justify staying in an abusive situation.
An abuser is not only harming the abused person, but the abuser is harming themselves. Abusers, like addicts, need help. They need help to get better, or at least it is better for them to be out of the situation in which they are abusing.
Real forgiveness and real love for the abuser is not allowing the abuse to continue – it is taking steps to see that the abuser gets better.
The good shepherd of such relationships seeks the healing of both sheep. Then – and only then – might perhaps reconciliation be possible.
People who are actively in the throes of addiction
Similarly, for people in the throes of addiction the good shepherd step is that they are healed from their addiction. Loving someone does not mean that we become accomplices in activities that harm them. The exact limits of what this means is not always simple, but the over-arching commitment is straightforward: we are to relate to one another so that healing and the fullest life are enhanced. Bowing to another person’s immediate preferences is sometimes to harm them.
Finally, let’s look at situations when there is unwillingness or an inability on the part of one person – either the offender or the harmed person – to engage in making or receiving amends. Some people are unrepentant. They will not acknowledge that they have harmed another person. They are unwilling to behave differently. What then?
Sometimes hurts or betrayals are so deep that restoration or reconciliation or even any communication seems impossible. What then?
Sometimes people we have harmed have cut us off and will not receive our communications. What then?
In each of these situations one person is unable or unwilling to respond or act in a way that will allow for reconciliation. Reconciliation always requires the willingness of all parties.
Here’s the truth: forgiving and being forgiven, making and receiving amends, apologizing and receiving an apology are all gifts. Like any gift it must be freely given and freely received to truly be a gift.
It is disappointing when we do not receive a gift we expect. It is disappointing when a gift we offer is not accepted.
So what do we do with our disappointment? One option is to allow it to fester into resentment and create a new division, a fresh wound, a renewed offense:
He won’t even apologize! He’s not a bit sorry. To heck with him!
She won’t hear my apology! What’s wrong with her?
He has no idea how much he hurt me. I can never forgive him!
I can’t trust her again. I wouldn’t believe anything she says.
So here’s the path forward: let go of the disappointment. Trust that the Spirit is at work in this situation, trust that the Spirit continues to knock on the door of this situation, trust that the Good Shepherd is finding a way into the hearts of you and anyone else involved and that in the span of eternity that this lock too will yield. Love’s key will unlock life to the fullest. Hope, patience, and trust are the watchwords. Let go of the disappointment.
When I’ve preached about forgiveness many people have told me over the years about some particular incident or some particular relationship in which they have been hurt or betrayed and they just don’t feel that they will ever be able to let it go. I believe they are telling me the truth.
But this does not change the reality of what we pray in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And so I know that there are those who just feel that they are just right up against it here. They cannot forgive.
So what comes next?
If you can’t forgive, you can’t forgive. But, here again, you can proceed with prayer. Pray with hope for the trust and the patience that your heart will open to forgive. Pray for the desire to forgive. Do not give up. Do not resign yourself to living outside of forgiving and being forgiven.
God knows that our hearts are not perfected in love. God knows that when we have been deeply hurt it can take a long time for enough healing to take place that we can move toward an openness to forgive – or to seek forgiveness.
And so we pray for that grace. We pray trusting that healing and wholeness will someday come –as time and eternity arc toward the reconciliation of all creation. We pray that we not be left behind.
The 12 step program and gospel are clearly in touch with the ways in which the world can go wrong, the way we can hurt ourselves and one another. The 12 step program and the Gospel pay attention to the fears and failures and the attachments and ambitions and addictions that cut us off from the deepest longings of our hearts and that hurt our relationships with others.
As I quoted Richard Rohr last time:
“Amazing grace” is not a way to avoid honest human relationships, but to redo them – but now gracefully – for the liberation of both sides. Nothing just goes away in the spiritual world; all must be reconciled and accounted for.
We cannot unlock every situation. But I pray that we will open our hearts to trust that the full and abundant life that the Shepherd leads us toward will be unlocking the fullness of life in love.