The Hardest Blessing

ForgivingImage: Forgiving © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 19/Ordinary 24/Pentecost +14: Matthew 18.21-35

Jesus said to him, “Not seven times,
but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
– Matthew 18.22

As I’ve been pondering this parable of Jesus—one of his most challenging, which is really saying something—I have found myself wondering how many of us have absorbed any of these beliefs about forgiveness:

Forgiveness means excusing or overlooking the harm that has been done to us and saying that everything is okay.

Forgiveness means allowing those who have hurt us to persist in their behavior.

Forgiving requires forgetting what has happened.

Forgiveness is something we can do at will, and always all at once.

If we have absorbed any of these distorted beliefs about forgiveness, it can come as both a shock and a relief to learn that such ideas would be foreign to Jesus. Clearly he expects us—requires us—to forgive. Yet in his teaching about forgiveness, nowhere does Jesus lay upon us the kinds of burdens we have often placed upon ourselves—burdens that can make one of the most difficult spiritual practices nearly impossible.

The heart of forgiveness is not to be found in excusing harm or allowing it to go unchecked. It is to be found, rather, in choosing to say that although our wounds will change us, we will not allow them to forever define us. Forgiveness does not ask us to forget the wrong done to us but instead to resist the ways it seeks to get its poisonous hooks in us. Forgiveness asks us to acknowledge and reckon with the damage so that we will not live forever in its grip.

Sometimes we are given the grace to forgive quickly. Sometimes the grace to forgive takes a long, long time to receive. And so forgiveness often requires practice. It takes choosing to work at it. We might have to chip away at it again and again and again. Seventy-seven times, at least, as Jesus says in this passage.

Forgiveness might well be the hardest blessing we will ever offer—or receive. As with any difficult practice, it’s important to ask not only for the strength we will need for it, but also the grace: the grace that will, as we practice again and again, begin to shimmer through our wounds, drawing us toward the healing and freedom we could hardly have imagined at the outset.

Is there some forgiveness you are being asked to practice? Are there any ideas about forgiveness that you might need to release—or take on—in order to enter this practice? How might it be to ask not only for the strength but also for the grace you need to forgive another—or yourself?

The Hardest Blessing

If we cannot
lay aside the wound
then let us say
it will not always
bind us.

Let us say
the damage
will not eternally
determine our path.

Let us say
the line of our life
will not forever follow
the tearing, the rending
we have borne.

Let us say
that forgiveness
can take some practice,
can take some patience,
can take a long
and struggling time.

Let us say
that to offer
the hardest blessing
we will need
the deepest grace,
that to forgive
the sharpest pain
we will need
the fiercest love,
that to release
the ancient ache
we will need
new strength
for every day.

Let us say
the wound
will not be
our final home;
that through it
runs a road,
a way we would not
have chosen
but on which
we will finally see
forgiveness,
so long practiced,
coming toward us
shining with the joy
so well deserved.


For a previous reflection on this passage, click the image or link below.

Seventy Times Seven
Seventy Times Seven and Nine-Eleven

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Forgiving,” please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. (This is also available as an art print. After clicking over to the image’s page on the Jan Richardson Images site, just scroll down to the “Purchase as an Art Print” section.) Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!

Using Jan’s words…
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13 Responses to “The Hardest Blessing”

  1. Jim McWhinnie Says:

    Thank you, Jan.

  2. Rev. Cynthia Wood Says:

    Your poetry speaks deep into my soul. Thank you.

  3. Lynda Says:

    This post is worded very gently and yet it is so very practical. There is no simple answer regarding forgiveness, we need to grow into the knowledge and sense of what is right. Thank you for these beautiful words.

  4. Linda Goddard Says:

    Oh that tough word, forgiveness! Such a complex experience! In trying to grapple and understand forgiveness, I’m certain that I’ve held on to untruths that have led me wandering down many dead end paths, ones that required me to turn around and try a different route home to myself.

  5. Beth Knight Says:

    Dear Jan – this oh so amazingly on target blessing is so timely for a group of women I was with tonight. Coming home to this and sharing it back to the group is pure serendipity. I am so amazed and grateful for the gift of your precious words.

  6. Evie Miller Says:

    This is so true. Forgiveness is the hardest blessing to give and it does take practice and patience!

  7. Carol Westphal Says:

    One very beautiful and powerful piece. Thank you, Jan!

  8. Maureen Says:

    Beautiful blessing. Thank you, Jan.

  9. Carolyn Sargent Says:

    This. Is. Beautiful.
    The image.
    The words.
    All of it.
    Beautiful, but with a haunting edge.
    A call to practice. Practice. Practice.
    Deep. Thanks.

  10. Susan M. Says:

    Thank you for this post, Jan. I have never been able to forgive some things in my past. Your list of distorted beliefs about forgiveness was so helpful.

  11. Larry Wayman Says:

    thank you

  12. Connie Tuttle Says:

    Thank you for this, Jan. I only wish I didn’t need to hear it.

  13. Ellen Jennings Says:

    Thank you, Jan. YOU are a blessing!

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