Philip Yancey, a well-known Christian author and speaker, tells a story about Leo Tolstoy just before his marriage to a young woman named Sonya.
Seeking forgiveness and wanting to get his marriage off on the right foot with what he hoped would be a clean slate, Tolstoy asked Sonya to read his assorted diaries, which spelled out in graphic detail his sexual exploits — some of which occurred during his courtship of Sonya.
But rather than be a cleansing experience for the couple, Sonya’s reading of Tolstoy’s diaries actually had the opposite effect. Stunned by Tolstoy’s behavior, Sonya, even though she went ahead with the marriage, was never able to forgive him for his illicit behavior.
Or as Sonya Tolstoy would write in her own diary sometime after their marriage, “When he kisses me, I’m always thinking, ‘I’m not the first woman he has loved.’” But what really drove Sonya mad was Tolstoy’s fling with a peasant woman that led to the birth of a son who was apparently the spitting image of Tolstoy. With the son and peasant woman still employed by Tolstoy even after their marriage, the two were a constant reminder to Sonya of Tolstoy’s past.
“One of these days I shall kill myself with jealousy,” wrote Sonya in another diary entry. To which she later added, “If I could kill him (meaning Tolstoy) and create a new person exactly the same as he is now, I would do so happily.”
Needless to say, the marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy, even though it lasted for many years, was largely an unhappy one. For unable to forgive Tolstoy for his indiscretions, Sonya, rather than love her husband, only harbored feelings of ill will and animosity.
Well, it’s pretty easy to sympathize with Sonya and her hard feelings, isn’t it? For truth be told, forgiving people, as we all know, can be tough business, can’t it?
Yep, we hear about Sonya being unable to forgive Tolstoy for what he did and we can knowingly nod our heads in understanding. “Despite a hundred sermons on forgiveness,” writes one person, “we do not forgive easily, nor find ourselves easily forgiven. Forgiveness, we discover, is always harder than sermons make it out to be.”
Of course, the reason it’s so hard to forgive is easy to discover, isn’t it? After all, forgiveness, when you get right down to it, well, it’s just so darn unfair! For to forgive, to absolve people of the wrongs they may have committed, means intentionally choosing to stop the cycle of payback and retribution.
For to forgive, requires putting away our moral calculators when we’ve been wronged rather than quickly using them to tally up how we might best settle the score so things can be even again. For to forgive means doing away with that tit-for-tat sequence that’s been ingrained in us by the larger world around us ever since we were just wee little kids seeking to right those various wrongs committed on the playground during school recess.
“From nursery school onward,” writes Philip Yancey, “we are taught how to succeed in the world … The early bird gets the worm. No pain, no gain. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Demand your rights. Get what you pay for. I know the rules well because I live by them. I work for what I earn; I like to win; I insist on my rights; I want people to get what they deserve — nothing more, nothing less.”
No wonder forgiving is so hard! For it basically goes against everything we’ve ever been taught.
For forgiveness, rather than giving people what they deserve, instead gives them what they need. So to be forgiving, means to make a conscience decision to break the cycle of blame and violence that goes with keeping score.
“Forgiveness,” concludes Yancey, “offers a way out. It does not settle all questions of blame and fairness — often it pointedly evades those questions — but it does allow a relationship to start over, to begin a new … Forgiveness breaks the cycle of blame and loosens the stranglehold of guilt.”
Well after reading such words from Yancey, it’s easy for our minds to drift back nearly 2,000 years to that hillside outside of Jerusalem called Golgotha. After all, it was there that Jesus Christ was sentenced to death and nailed to a tree to die. Convicted by a kangaroo court, beaten to a bloody mess, and mockingly called the King of the Jews, Jesus hung on that cross while his life slowly slipped away.
So if there was ever a day to settle the score that was surely it. If there was ever a day to start passing out the blame and ordering up the punishment it was then. But instead of pulling out a calculator to tally up the score or ordering up a bowl full of rightly deserved wrath, Jesus instead chose to break the cycle of violence. “Father, forgive them,” he said, “Father forgive them.”
The Rev. Stephen Yates is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Destin.