June 8, 2003
Day of Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or
Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


“The Doormat Syndrome”
Romans 12:9-18


It has been a number of years ago now since I talked with a woman who was a victim of domestic violence.  Her husband frequently brutalized her.  She was a committed Christian person and tried to do everything right to be the kind of wife a husband would love and cherish.

One Sunday, her pastor preached a sermon on forgiveness and emphasized, Jesus’ words from His Sermon on the Mount:

“If you forgive others their trespasses against you, your heavenly Father will forgive your trespasses.  But, if you do not forgive others their trespasses against you… neither will your heavenly Father forgive you!”

The woman went to talk to her Pastor about her situation at home and how she struggled with the issue of forgiveness.  How could she forgive someone who abused her?

SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENED as the conversation between the woman and her pastor progressed.  “You must remember,” the pastor said, “That Jesus forgave the people who brutalized Him while He was hanging on a cross. Do you remember how he said, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” Her heart sank as he continued, “Maybe the Lord has called you to be an abused wife!”

THAT WAS THE WORST example I have ever encountered that shows how the whole subject of forgiveness can be abused. In fact the pastor’s response to the woman was itself abusive. Thank goodness she found her way out of that church. While it is true that Christians are called to develop a forgiving spirit, it is not true that a forgiving spirit means accepting abusive behavior.  It is very important to properly understand what forgiveness means. A faulty understanding of forgiveness can lead to something I like to call “The Doormat Syndrome.”

The Doormat Syndrome translates to something like this. The doctrine of forgiveness means I have to accept offense or abuse without negative feelings or anger.

We begin with the truth that Jesus came down very strong on the side of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not an option for Christian people, it is a requirement. The reason Jesus was adamant about this –  (…if you do not forgive others their trespasses against you… neither will your heavenly Father forgive you! ) – is based on three principles.

I.  FORGIVENESS IS THE BASIS OF OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

II.  THE PRACTICE OF FORGIVENESS BY CHRISTIANS TOWARDS EACH OTHER SHOWS THE REALITY OF CHRIST’S LOVE TO THE WORLD.

III.  AN UNFORGIVING SPIRIT IS ONE OF THE MOST DEADLY ENEMIES OF OUR EMOTIONAL AND SPIRITUAL HEALTH.

HOWEVER, THE ISSUE of forgiveness can be abused if we do not understand the meaning of the word forgiveness and how it is to be applied.

First of all: It is very important to understand the second principle of forgiveness…namely; “The practice of forgiveness by Christians towards each other shows the reality of Christ’s love to the world.”

I want to read for you, a couple of verses from the New Testament letter to the Colossians:

As God’s chosen people, holy and beloved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, you must do also.  But above all these things, put on LOVE, which is the bond of perfection.

IN OTHER WORDS, --the function of forgiveness within the Christian Community is to keep the conduit of God’s love clear and clean so that the love of God can flow freely. Forgiveness is God’s antidote to spiritual arterial sclerotic disease in the Body of Christ – which is bitterness, anger, and resentment that come from our human tendency to hurt each other. Forgiveness keeps the conduit of God’s love open and the experience of divine love fresh.

The crucial words in the letter to the Colossians “one another.” It is very clear that forgiveness within the Christian Community is based on the idea that: 1) we are ALL recipients of God’s love, and 2) we are, ALL committed to the same spiritual values.  That is to say, we are ALL called to do all we can to practice toward each other what God has practiced toward us.  In other words the first function of forgiveness is an internal one in the family of faith, the church.

Secondly: The practice of forgiveness toward those who stand outside the Community of Faith has an entirely different function.  The purpose of forgiveness here is to release us from bitterness and to trust that GOD will take care of righting all wrongs.  It does not mean that we are to become doormats for the abusive behavior of people who do not share our values.

Listen once again to 16 through 18 in our scripture reading:

{16}Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. {17}  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. {18} If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Did you notice the switch between verses 16 and 18?  The focus moves from “one another” to “you  I.E. “As much as it lies in you be at peace with all persons.”

TO GO BACK TO MY OPENING STORY… God does NOT call women to live in abusive relationships with men who do not share the values, the love or the faith of the Christian community.

WANT TO READ TO YOU an interesting story from Matthew’s gospel:

It addresses incorrect notion that Christians are not supposed to get angry.

Matthew 21:12-13 Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.  “It is written,” he said to them, ‘“My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of thieves.’”

To have a forgiving spirit does not mean that we don’t get angry at abuse. The verb “to forgive” in the N.T.  means literally, “to release from a debt.” That’s it.  It does not mean you should have particular feelings toward the debtor.  Supposing someone wrongs or hurts you in some way.  To forgive the wrong means that you release the debt.  In other words, you do not keep account of the wrong with the intention that you have to pay back the wrong.  It does not, however, mean that you must feel lovey-dovey or warm toward the debtor.

Let me read one verse past our morning scripture.  Rom.  12:19  “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather let God take care of it; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine… I will repay,” says the Lord.”

The key point today is that forgiveness is a gift to the Christian Community to insure clear flowing of God’s love in our midst. It is also a call to Christian people to trust God to right all wrongs. We do not have the power or the authority to make all things right and we can make ourselves sick trying to do so. God, however, will make everything right in due course and in God’s own time.

Forgiveness will allow us to trust God for the consequences for all abusive behavior and to find release the bitterness of injustice. The woman who was in effect told by her pastor to stay in a relationship with an abusive husband and worse yet – to see this as a call of God – was called to no such thing at all. On the contrary, she should be encouraged to leave. She will, however, find eventual release from bitterness and anger by letting the abuse go and giving it to God. She can trust that God will somehow make this right and that there are consequences for abusers that she has not control over.

Christian are called to be forgiving persons.

Christians are NOT called to be doormats.