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17. Hoarding Forgiveness

As a child, I had a strong urge to be a collector. It's always seemed to me to be a rather virtuous attribute to have a passion for something that may or may not turn out to be valuable. Collecting sits on the 'virtuous' shelf of my mind alongside journalling and exercising, none of which I have ever excelled in, sadly. I mean, I did try to collect things. Seashells (until they had to go out because of the smell). Stamps. Books. Badges. Shoes. But... the only thing I ever seemed to have any passion for was building the unending mountain range of tissues beneath my bed.

I clearly don't have virtue enough to be a collector.

On the upside, however, today we have a short lesson in foreign languages. Well, one foreign language. And not so much a lesson really, more just a single word. But still, this is me branching out in the knowledge arena and I'm thrilled to share it with you. Thrilled because I will acknowledge that I don't have a happy friendship with foreign languages. I suspect I may have fared better had it not been for my third year French teacher in high school. If the Wicked Witch of the West and a mouse had made whoopee, the resulting offspring would have been this teacher who bullied me into irregular verb submission. I dropped out in my fourth year.

Anyway, today's word is: hamstern. Thankfully not French, but German. And no, not a spelling mistake. I truly mean hamstern and not hamsters. Hamstern means 'to hoard', like cuddly hamsters stockpiling biscuits. Consider yourself educated.

To be clear, there's a huge difference between collecting things and hoarding things. When I'm talking about hoarding, I'm not necessarily referring to the Covid lockdown crisis that saw supermarket shelves void of toilet rolls and pasta, but rather a mental illness which prevents you from throwing things away and deeming every little bit of junk as important. It nearly always has a trigger, a reason for the onset, but it can result in being overwhelmed by, well, stuff due to an emotional attachment to objects, even piles of newspapers. Often what others perceive as rubbish can be precious to the hoarder, and it's hard for non-hoarders to understand what's going on.

To give you an example, let me introduce you to Homer and Langley Collyer. Born in the late 1800s to an affluent American couple, these brothers are possibly the most famous hoarders of all time.

They lived a very comfortable life in a beautiful home. Homer earned a degree in engineering, whilst Langley became a lawyer, and all seemed well in the Collyer household until, in the early 1900s, Homer and Langley's parents divorced. The young men stayed in the family home with their mother, but over time their neighbourhood took a nosedive and crime rates soared. The brothers were just so overwhelmed and fearful that they took matters into their own hands and retreated from the world. For reasons therapists discuss at fancy dinner parties, Homer and Langley escaped to their inherited mansion, closing and locking the doors, and never ventured outside again. As you'd expect, over the years they amassed a load of random paraphernalia, and though it's unlikely anyone would ever want it, the brothers were compulsive about protecting it, creating elaborate booby traps to protect their 'treasures'.

For almost 40 years, no one saw or spoke to the brothers but then, in the mid-1940s, someone raised the alarm with the police over suspicions of a dead body at the address. Some sources say it took seven police officers to break down the door because the entrance was blocked by a wall of newspapers, folding beds, half a sewing machine, old chairs, part of a wine­press and other pieces of junk. And the smell was, quite frankly, horrendous.

After several hours of digging, police found the body of Homer, seated on the floor, head between his knees, his long and matted grey hair reaching his shoulders. A sad state of affairs. But there was no sign of Langley. Just where was he? That question triggered one of the strangest searches in American history. 15 days of quarrying produced 103 tons of junk—old chandeliers, the chassis of an old car, a Steinway piano, a horse’s jawbone and, finally, one missing brother. Langley had evidently been taking food to Homer when he’d inadvertently set off one of his own booby traps and the falling stuff had killed him. Homer was so arthritic that he couldn’t get up to save his brother, or even himself, and died of starvation. Bizarre!

Now let me ask you a question. Do you live with yesterday's rubbish, hoarding it from the past? Not in your house, mind you, but in your heart. Not the piles of papers and boxes that we imagine in a hoarder's home, but rather the remnants of anger and hurt. Think about it for a moment. Do you hoard pain? Store up offences?

Come to think of it, a tour of your heart might be telling. A pile of rejections stockpiled in one corner. Boxes of insults filling another. The images of unkind people lining the walls. And no one can blame you. You've had your share of the innocence thieves, the wound inflictors, and the promise breakers, haven't you? But why hang on to the rubbish they've left behind? I truly think there's a way to be free of it.

How many times?

Even if you're not a Christ-follower, I bet you know this verse from Matthew chapter 18: ‘Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?’ ‘No, not seven times,’Jesus replied, ‘but seventy times seven!’

Let me help you out here and tell you that 70 times seven equals 490. (I’m pretty sure I blew this number in the first week of my marriage to Phil.) Is Jesus saying we should only forgive someone 490 times?

Remember, Jesus knows how our minds work, and so He explains His response by telling us a story to help us understand.

In answer to Peter’s question about forgiveness, Jesus talks about a king who decided to contact all the servants who were in debt to him. One of those debtors, let’s call him Brian (good Jewish name), owed him the equivalent of millions of pounds. Obviously, on a servant’s wages, he just couldn’t pay, and so the king ordered that Brian be sold––along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned––to repay the debt.

We’re going to have a midweek brain workout here, because the debt was enormous. Most literal translations say the servant––Brian––owed 10,000 tal­ents. One talent equaled 6,000 denarii. One denarius equalled one day’s wage. So, employing a quick bit of research and maths (neither are my strong suit) I can tell you that one talent would equate to 6,000 days worth of work, and therefore 10,000 talents would represent 60 million days of labour. And so, for the sake of illustration, a person earning £100 a day would owe £6 billion. That's ALOT of money! Sure, it might not be so bad for the billionaires on the Forbes list, but for most of us there's no way we could repay that kind of a debt. And who would ever owe that kind of sum anyway, so is Jesus exaggerating to make a point? Or could He actually be referring to our indebtedness to God?

In this story that Jesus is telling, the servant, who we've named Brian, is actually us, and the king is God.

So there's Brian. On his knees in front of the king, begging for forgiveness and for more time to repay the debt. Jesus tells us that the king was filled with pity for Brian and released him from the debt. Good ol' Brian was clicking his heels and jumping cock-a-hoop as he left the throne room. No more worry. No more debt. Punching the air, he just can't believe he's free.

Shortly afterwards, Brian runs into his friend and fellow servant who we're going to call Gary (another good Jewish name). Now Gary owed Brian a few thousand quid and begged Brian to forgive him and give him more time to repay the debt. Good ol' Brian isn't good ol' anything anymore, and grabs Gary by the throat and has him thrown in prison until the debt can be paid.

Multimil­lion-pound forgiveness should produce a multimillion-pound forgiver, shouldn’t it? Surely the forgiven servant can forgive a paltry debt, can’t he? Well Brian doesn’t. He won’t wait. He refuses to forgive. He could have, of course. He should have. And so I have to wonder if Brian really did receive the forgiveness given by the king. Do you notice that Brian never actually thanks the king? There's no gratitude. It's like he's enjoying the freedom from the debt without actually considering the cost. That leads me to just one conclusion: Brian is a grace-rejecter. It seems to me that he left that throne room with a sly smirk on his face like he's just got away with something, rather than with the joyous heart of one who knows he's truly been forgiven. By being unwilling to forgive someone else, Brian bears the mark of someone who hasn't accepted the grace of forgiveness for himself.

As these things have a habit of doing, word gets back to the king about the throat-grabbing incident and poor Gary being thrown in prison, and he's so angry that he has Brian arrested and held by torturers until Brian's debt to the king is paid in full.

And then Jesus said to his disciples, remember He’s the one telling the story:

‘That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.' – Matt. 18:35 (NLT)

Pow. That's the clincher right there. God says we need to forgive. Not hold on to past hurts, insults, slights. In the words of a famous song, we're to 'let it go'.

That easy, right?


But you see, hoarding hurts in your heart and expects no joy.

Time to let go?

I’ve seen stories of hoarders on TV and it seems to me that they always lose two things: sleep and treasures. They can’t sleep because their beds are covered in junk, and treasures are lost because they’re hidden by mountains of rubbish.

If you keep hold of all the junk in your life there’s no rest and no treasure.

But you could clean your house and give the day a fresh chance!

I do understand. The hurt is deep. They took a lot from you. Your inno­cence, your youth, your family, your retirement. But why let them keep taking from you? Haven’t they stolen enough? Refusing to forgive keeps them loitering, still on the take.

And I know that it was bad. But remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean approval. You're not encouraging the misbehaviour. You’re simply entrusting your offender to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23).

I also know that you’ve been angry for a long time. Don’t expect forgiveness to come overnight, but you can take baby steps in the direction of grace. Forgive in phases. Stop cursing the perpetrator’s name. Start praying for them. Try to understand their situation, but know that I’m not advocating you always let people back into your life, and I don’t believe that’s what Jesus is talking about either.

You know, sometimes we try to forgive people before we’re ready. Remember it’s a process, not a ‘one-time and we’re done’ thing. When we force forgiveness, it’s unhealthy for us. We can be secretly mad but pretending that we’ve forgiven when we’re clearly not ready to forgive.

There’s that old saying of ‘forgive and forget’. There was a time in our society when we didn’t really talk about things. Many of us were taught to just get over it. So many times I’ve been told to pull up my big girl pants and get on with it. And that’s made me tough and stoic. It puts me in autopilot, just carrying on and, unfortunately, that kind of talk just makes us push hurt down, smooth it over in our minds, rather than actually dealing with it. The truth is not every generation, not every person, finds it easy to discuss how they feel. So forgiving and forgetting often becomes ‘forgive and (pretend to) forget’, and we get caught out by our own Collyer-styled booby traps.

But how do we erase memory? I don’t believe we can forget those deep pains and traumas, the things that have happened or been said. Rather, it’s about choosing to not think about it as often, choosing to not keep raking over it. There may be things that trigger the memory, things that stir it up again, and that’s okay. It’s wilfully choosing to not dwell on the memory. Healthy forgiveness involves acceptance of the event, learning to be less angry and less consumed.

Forgiveness is a choice and it may take time, but in the meanwhile you can still be kind towards the person who’s wronged you. You can be kind and not like the person. They don’t need to know! Forgiveness is about releasing you, freeing yourself of bitterness and resentment, and accepting the situation as it is. You may never be able to allow that person into your inner circle again. The hurt may have been too great and you can’t trust them. And that’s okay. But forgive anyway as you can. Healing is a process and processes take time. We get so fixed on being done, on being healed, on having forgiven! But be real. Allow yourself the time and allow the Spirit the opportunity to minister to you. You’re not in this on your own.

In the end, we all choose what lives inside us.

May you choose forgiveness.

* Adapted from a recent talk at Highworth Community Church


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