The Three Stages of Forgiveness

Message from today’s worship service.

Matthew 18:21-35



When I was about eight years old, I told my mother that I would not be attending Sunday School anymore. I said they just told the same stories over and over again, and that I had heard them all. Needless to say, I did not get out of Sunday School.

And you all did not get out of hearing this story… again. Here we are. Back with Jesus telling us to forgive. Really? Again with the forgiveness? 70 times 7? And of course the spirit of what Jesus commands is not like what Hillary Clinton once said at a National Prayer Breakfast: She told colleagues, “I know that Jesus said to forgive not just seven times but 70 times seven. I want you all to know that I’m keeping a chart.”

We know that what Jesus means is that we are to forgive. Period. Not keeping count. Not keeping score. One either forgives or one doesn’t—but it’s not really that cut and dried, is it?

I’ve decided that there are three stages of forgiveness. Keep in mind, this is not based on any scientific study or empirical evidence, just 44 years of personal observation coupled with about 15 years of pastoral experience. Three stages of forgiveness. We can be in one particular stage, or we may find ourselves in all three stages at once regarding three or more different people or situations.

The first stage of forgiveness is when we know we’re supposed to forgive a person or let go of a situation, but we have no plan to so, and fully intend to hold on to that anger as long as we possibly can. If you are in that stage right now, you are particularly irritated with the sermon topic this morning. It’s hitting a nerve.

The second stage of forgiveness is where we know we should forgive, and we really want to move on and let it go, but we just can’t seem to get there. We’re working on it. If you are in this stage, you picked a really good morning to come to church.

The third stage of forgiveness is where you have forgiven the person who has wronged you, let go of the anger and feel freed from the situation. If you are this stage, you’re probably feeling a little bit like eight-year-old me. Why does she keep telling us the same thing over and over and over again?

We tell it over and over again, because the truth is, none of us ever live completely and permanently in that third stage. Stuff happens. And we need to be reminded.

Reminded that forgiveness is not about letting the other person or persons off the hook. It’s about releasing ourselves from the poison of anger and bitterness that comes from holding on to a grudge.

I’ve kind of exhausted that whole “not forgiving someone is like eating rat poison and waiting on the rat to die” angle, so let me ask you this:

What would you wish for someone you love? Suppose your brother or longtime friend calls you up to say that his wife has left him. After 15 years and three kids together, she’s decided she never really loved him and the whole thing was a big mistake. Putting aside how you feel about the wife, what would you want for your brother, your friend? Would you want him to be stuck in stage one and stay angry, to pass that anger and resentment on to his children and to die as a bitter old man? Or would you want him to find his way to stage 3 and find some peace and acceptance and a fresh start?

If you chose the first option, we may need to talk after the service. However, if you did choose the latter, if you would want peace and acceptance and a new beginning for someone you love, why would you not want as much for yourself?

I hope that you’re getting just who we are in the parable we read this morning. This is not one of the those parables where sometimes we’re one character and sometimes we’re another character. No, don’t fool yourself. We are always the unforgiving servant. The one who has been offered grace and forgiveness and then refuses to pay it forward.

Every time we hold on to a grudge

Every time we harbor resentment in our hearts

Every time we stew in the juices of our own acrimony

Every time we allow our hearts to be weighed down by our own indignation

We are the servant who has been granted grace and forgiveness but who refuses to extend it to others.

But let’s be clear on what we’re talking about here. I’m not saying we should never get mad about things. I’m not saying that we have to be impossibly patient in the face of stupidity, arrogance and just plain meanness. But when that anger and impatience takes hold of our hearts and we not only allow it to stay there, but decide to nurture it and help it to grow, the person we are hurting the most is ourselves.

The reason we tell the story over and over again is that it’s not easy. The struggle is real. It’s very real. But it’s also really, really worth the struggle.

And here’s why. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness.”

If we remain stuck in that first stage of forgiveness, we risk freezing to death on our own. But, if we can extend the same forgiveness to others that Christ has given us, we don’t have to end up alone in the cold. We can forgive each other for the pokes we receive, and we can stay huddled together and warm.

–Rev. Anne Russ

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