Fluency in Forgiveness – Simon Mcleay
Forgiveness is a human need. It’s not automatically available, it’s not something that we should presume upon, but to live a full life we need to become fluent with forgiveness. To be able to forgive and to be forgiven is a skill of great value, and central to the Christian faith.
I often hear people say, ‘I could never forgive that.’ But that’s usually in the third person. When pain touches us personally, we usually become so angry or so hurt that actually we desperately want to be free of it.
Do you know someone whose life has been blighted by not being able to let go, either of something that they have done or something that has been done to them? Has your life been affected by some horrible crime or trauma? There are some awful things that people do to each other, but forgiveness can be a key to preventing a crime or a trauma blighting a whole life.
I think so often we struggle with forgiveness because we don’t understand a healthy model of forgiveness. Let’s have a look at God’s forgiveness and see if that helps us understand forgiveness better.
Firstly let me make 3 initial points:
1. You can only forgive something done to you
2. Forgiveness is usually a process and takes time
3. Forgiveness often involves ‘giving over’ something that is already gone,
that doesn’t mean that the ‘taking of’ was in any way right.
1.We struggle when we try to imagine forgiving things done to other people, but you can’t forgive something done to someone else. If you run over my foot, then only I can forgive you for that. It’s not anyone else’s business. If you run over my daughter’s foot, you will also cause me some vicarious pain and inconvenience. I can’t forgive you for the first action, but I can forgive you for the effect on me.
2.Forgiveness often takes time. It takes some time to understand the event that has happened and to understand its consequences. For a small thing forgiveness is often instant, but that doesn’t need to be the model for big things. It’s not wrong to take a little time before saying “I forgive you.” It’s OK to say, ‘I plan to forgive you’, or ‘I will forgive you with God’s help;’ but you don’t need to rush to forgive an unrepentant person.
3. I once heard forgiveness described like this. It’s giving over what has already been taken. For example, if you punched me in the head and your ring destroyed my eye, the loss of my eye would be the issue of forgiveness. There is a sense in which you owe me an eye. Forgiveness is to give up the eye that I have lost. However, even if I retaliated and destroyed your eye, that would not restore my sight. There is a difference between retaliation and reparation. To forgive is to give up my right to take your eye, to give up my right to revenge. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean giving up the right to some reparation if the offender is able to offer some reparation.
Jesus said. ‘Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life.’ (Matt 7.14) Let’s use that picture of a path with disaster on either side to think about forgiveness. Let’s think about healthy forgiveness by using contrasts.
A first contrast is between Presumption and Obsession. As a Christian (or even not as a Christian) we can presume on the grace of God without any real engagement. Many kiwis think, ‘I’m a good person I’ll go to heaven’ they presume on God without any real sort of engagement. Some Christians take a similar path. They think, ‘I’ve asked Jesus into my life, I’ve put my hand up, once saved always saved.’ They presume that a superficial act of repentance is enough to replace a life of discipleship; these Christians never examine their lives and engage in a process of becoming more Christ like. Psalm 139. 23 Search me and know my heart.
On the other side there is an obsession with sin, counting every sin and thinking if I haven’t confessed that sin and I died tonight I would go to hell. It’s a cliché of obsessive Christianity, like the little boy making up sins to take to confession. This approach gives small sins far too much power and ‘air time’ in our lives.
The narrow way is to take a periodic inventory of our lives, believing that Jesus can and is transforming us. Not looking for perfection, but looking for marks of grace. I like the way Joyce Meyer puts it, ‘I used to be a full-time sinner, and once in a while I “accidentally” did something right. But now that I have spent many years developing a deep, personal relationship with God and his word… I still make mistakes, but not nearly as many as I once did, I am not where I need to be, but thank God, I am not where I used to be. I do not do everything right, but I do know that the attitude of my heart is right.’
A second contrast is between Remorse and Repentance. I think when we really grasp this one, we start to understand how forgiveness works and how confession can be a key to healing.
Remorse is the feeling of having done something wrong; guilt, shame, anger, bitterness, produce an unbearable feeling inside. Christians see this is a gift of conscience implanted in us by God to begin the journey to healing. But remorse is different to repentance. Repentance is changing one’s actions, it is not just feeling bad. It is not just feeling angry at getting caught. It is not just feeling angry at God for being rough on me. Repentance starts to see the sin from the perspective of the person who you have wronged, and to desire that this should never happen again. John the Baptist gave very clear teaching on this, ‘produce fruit in bearing with repentence.’ (Luke 3.8) Remorse is not enough you have to want to change. Repent is a word of strong word, the equation of forgiveness requires repentance not just remorse.
Domestic violence is the scourge of our culture. An abuser will often feel remorse, they will come to their victim in the morning and say ‘I am so sorry’ and you will hear genuine emotion in their voice, but that is only remorse. Repentance requires that the abuser confesses to someone else, goes and gets some help from his church, from a counselling agency, from anger management. Repentance owns the shame and fronts up to change, repentance believes that God can actually change us.
A third contrast, is between what John Calvin called ‘Legal Repentance’ and ‘Evangelical Repentance.’
Legal repentance assumes ‘if and only if you repent’ God will forgive you; it’s as if our act of repentance conditions God’s heart toward us. In this view God will not forgive us and remains unforgiving to us unless and until we repent.
Evangelical repentance believes that since God has forgiven us in Christ, therefore we should repent. ‘Since … God, so … we’. But even in evangelical repentance we still need to repent; because refusing to repent is refusing to receive God’s grace.
A good way to think about this is the story of the prodigal son. When we have sinned and are lost we think about returning to God. Do we imagine an angry God before whom we will have to humiliate ourselves, hoping and not knowing whether he will forgive us? Or do we believe that at the end of the road is a God who desperately loves us and will come running towards us when we appear on the road?
Presumption would send a note to God saying, ‘send more money’. Repentance means walking back towards God who is waiting for us.
A fourth contrast is made by a Dietrich Bonheoffer between what he called ‘cheap grace’ and ‘costly grace.’ Cheap grace is forgiveness without repentance; absolution without confession. Costly grace is where we realise that our forgiveness came at a great cost. Costly grace understands that ‘when Christ calls a man, he calls him to come and die’. What Bonheoffer means is that living for God involves dying to the old selfish way of life. We cannot buy, or manipulate or force God to forgive us. We can only receive something that is beyond value yet given to us free. But to take advantage of the riches of heaven we have to put down the desires of the earth.
Can you see these contrasts? Neither presumption nor obsession; not remorse but repentance; evangelical repentance, not legal repentance and costly grace, not cheap grace.