Over the weekend I watched The McLaughlin Group. I had not seen the show in years but not much has changed. Moderator John McLaughlin fires out discussion points in staccato fashion to the panel. McLaughlin shouts out the topic and then the name of the person chosen to respond first. If we had our own version of the show this week (The BadChristian Group) I suspect the opening salvo might go like this…
Topic Number One…FORGIVENESS…is it even possible?
This is an important subject. One of the most read articles I have posted dealt with forgiveness and I am going to revisit some of that blog today. I have written a lot about the Amish response to the tragic shootings in Pennsylvania. Those gentle people have taught me a lot about the topic. Yes it is possible. But it is very difficult to forgive if you have never been forgiven. For Christians this is a central theme of our faith. We have been forgiven. So what do we do with that gift of forgiveness? To paraphrase the not always ready for family time comedian Ron White…
We have the power to forgive…we just don’t have the ability.
I think that we have generally done a poor job of teaching forgiveness. Here are a few misconceptions that I personally had about forgiveness. This is from a chapter on forgiveness I wrote about in “Bring’em Back Alive – A Healing Plan for those Wounded by the Church”.
Forgiveness is not condoning or diminishing the offense. Forgiving a person who has wronged you does not mean they are “off the hook” for any consequences or judgment that may result from their actions. Forgiveness is a personal act of your will that releases the other person from your condemnation. At that point you have been obedient to what Jesus asks of you…the other person is responsible to God for their response. By extending forgiveness you are not saying the offense was insignificant or unimportant. You are saying that you trust God to see that justice is dispensed according to His Holy judgment and timing.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. The old forgive and forget admonition was one of the biggest barriers I faced in my journey to learn how to forgive. You know the old mental challenge to not picture an elephant in the room. You can’t do it. Instantly the image pops into your mind. The more I tried to be spiritually mature and try to forgive and forget the more my offender became the “elephant in the room.” That person or event was all I could think of. Over time you will think less and less of the hurt and/or the one who administered same. C.S. Lewis wrote to a friend late in his life. “Dear Mary…Do you know, only a few weeks ago, I realized suddenly that I had at last forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I had been trying to do it for years.” To try to achieve a state of instantaneous forgetfulness is setting yourself up for failure and frustration.
Forgiveness does not require reconciliation. Certainly it is a worthy goal to have the gift of forgiveness lead to a restoration of a damaged relationship. But it takes two people to reconcile and you have no control over anyone’s response except your own. The other person may not respond graciously. They may not be ready to accept forgiveness or acknowledge their part or even desire to be reconciled. Again, we have done what is required of us by extending the grace of forgiveness. Reconciliation is not required to be obedient to the command of Jesus.
Forgiveness is an act of the will and is not a response to feelings. We must choose to forgive and trust the Jesus who forgave us to eventually change our feelings. We may not “feel” like forgiveness has transpired. If you decide to wait until you “feel” like forgiving or that the other person must make the first move you will remain spiritually stuck. We have to make the choice and then wait for God to honor the choice. We make a choice to forgive and then we have faith that the Holy Spirit will reshape our feelings over the course of time. Forgiveness requires choice and faith, just like every miracle that comes from God.
Forgiveness is not ignoring or excusing the offense. There is nothing to forgive if we have not been wronged. Jesus is not asking us to ignore reality. He is asking us to acknowledge how much we have been forgiven and to extend the same courtesy to others. Forgiveness is acknowledging the offense without cover-up or excuse and still choosing to forgive.
Forgiveness is not denial of the hurt. Pride will often cause us to “not allow the person who hurt us the satisfaction” of knowing we are wounded. That is absurd. Acknowledge the reality of the injury but make the choice and decision of your will to be healed.
Forgiveness is eliminating revenge as an option. Lewis Smedes makes a brilliant point about revenge. No matter how much we try “we cannot get even; this is the inner fatality of revenge.” When you start trying to get even you have lost. How many times must I gossip about you to get “even” for the hurt you caused me? When is the scale even? Or do I need to have the scale tip a bit toward me to be satisfied? What a self-defeating pursuit that becomes! And the truth proclaimed by Josh Billings is “there is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.”
Forgiveness means understanding that hurt is part of the faith tour contract that we signed when we decided to follow Jesus. Author David Stoop notes that, “People choose the Path of Bitterness when they get caught up in trying to understand the reasons for the offense. They think, if only they could understand why the other person did what he or she did, they could get over it
and let it go.” I have three words for that approach….does not work.
The late author Lewis Smedes wrote powerfully about forgiveness. He often spoke of how only forgiveness can “release us from the grip of our history.” We cannot change an abusive upbringing. We cannot alter dysfunctional theological training that denied grace. We cannot simply deny the hurts that have been visited upon us and be spiritually free. Only forgiveness can release us from the grip of these real and historical events.
Forgiveness is not the cop out of weak people. The reason you need to forgive is that our Designer knew that is the only way for you to be fully healed. You have a Savior who understands the pain of betrayal. So I am going to ask you to be selfish and forgive. Say what? I have heard bitterness described as drinking rat poison and hoping the other person dies. The comparison works for me. It is vital to your spiritual well being to forgive others. When you follow the directive of Jesus and forgive you are free to concentrate on the blessings in your life. Is this easy? Of course not. I believe that forgiveness is the single hardest thing that Jesus asks us to do. But He knows how important forgiveness is for own growth. Will you go to Hell if you die today without forgiving another person? I don’t believe that for a moment. The redemptive act of Jesus on the cross literally has you (and sins past, present, and future) covered. But why would you want to live in anger and distress when Jesus has something better for you? The Apostle Paul’s wrote these words in Colossians.
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Col 3 NIV
The movie “End of the Spear” chronicled one of the most amazing stories of forgiveness in recent memory. A group of missionaries were killed by the Waodani tribe in Ecuador. Their wives forgave them and went back to minister to their husbands killers. One of the things that really struck me from the movie “End of the Spear” was that in the Waodani language, there is no word for forgiveness. The concept was so foreign to that culture that no word had ever been coined. In our Christian culture we have the word but we too often lack the theology to apply it. Pastor Tommy Nelson says you can’t live a successful Christian life without good theology. And I believe understanding the Biblical teaching about forgiveness is one example. Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving debtor.
Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven! “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt. “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’
One observation from the parable. The debtor never acknowledged the obvious. That there was no way he could repay this debt. He made the ludicrous promise that he would “pay it back”. So the big lessons from the parable are not only extending mercy but realizing how much we have been forgiven. While I will likely never commit an act of brutality like the shooter in Pennsylvania I nonetheless had a debt of sin that could not be repaid. When I realize how much I owed I should be overwhelmed with gratitude that the debt is paid. And from that well of gratitude I should be able to extend that mercy to others. Thomas Fuller observed that “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has to be forgiven.”
To be honest, I still don’t know if I could respond as well as the Amish saints to their heartbreaking tragedy. But I do know one thing as I write these thoughts today. I have seen that it is possible. So I know I have the theology and, with Christ, the ability to forgive like those men and women. The hard truth is that a Christian who is not forgiving is a Christian who is not growing. I am going to pray for me (and for you) to make the choice to forgive. God will do the rest.