I think I am good at forgiveness as a conviction — mainly because I just don’t want the bad feelings that come with not forgiving people. One time a church I led had the slogan “life’s too short not to love somebody.” I’m on that wavelength.
There’s another reason, too. I never got over my first training as Jesus follower. I would not say I was well trained, but I was introduced to Jesus giving his “Sermon on the Mount” and his teaching about forgiveness is pretty clear in Matthew 6.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
I never got over the conditional nature of those lines. If I am not forgiving, I’m not on the team. It is a forgive-the-world and restore-humanity team; it is a peacemaking, undo-evil-even-if-it-hurts team; it is a love-is-#1 team. If I don’t want to forgive, but I do want to be forgiven, I’m just trying to get Jesus on my team, as if my vengeance rules should rule. But that is exactly what he is upending and he assumes I will be praying and acting with him.
Forgiveness is a fundamental force for good. I think I should forgive debts, relational and material, even if I am a victim. I think that is why, right after we forgive our debtors, we pray “Don’t leave me alone, Lord, lest I fall again into evil.” There is no way I can keep developing and behaving in a way worthy of the Spirit in me unless I stick with Jesus and forgive.
We have reasons not to forgive
If I am honest (and maybe you are, too), I have some good reasons not to stick with Jesus. So I am not surprised but still fascinated by how I keep running into lack of forgiveness in the broken relationships my therapy clients endure.
Sometimes they have been cut off or have to cut someone off without being reconciled and need to forgive at a distance if they can, because the hate or the danger is just too strong. Jesus is not in the mix or maybe just on one side, so the miracle is not going to happen.
Other times, people just agree not to forgive without rancor. Forgiveness is so difficult they make an agreement not to forgive and write their story without it. We’re discovering more and more that the increasingly avoidant way we relate is hard to overcome. Some people agree on relationships that incorporate avoidant behavior as normal. I think many more people just go it mostly alone without much thought.
This example of unforgiveness is a composite of different people I have known. Lets say a married couple grew up managing their dysfunctional parents. The woman apologizes easily because she needed to to protect herself from the wrath of an abusive mother’s control system. But she admits her apologies have no content. Her husband won’t apologize at all since his mother was consistently drugged by painkillers and his father was absent so there was no place to take his injuries. He despairs that there is anything to forgiveness at all and doesn’t do it.
So in their relationship they have a deal: You don’t need to change if you don’t make me change. You don’t need to say you are sorry if you don’t make me say it — that is, as long as you keep your behavior on a spectrum that is not too damaging. She likes that because she doesn’t need to figure out how to forgive with her heart. He likes that because forgiveness is generally fruitless. But when they talk about it, they realize that forgiveness is really on a higher plane than they are operating, not lower. If they don’t forgive, there is no unconditional love in their relationship, no grace, just the same managed distance with which they were raised, never a closeness. She says, “Oh yes. Love would be nice.”
A client was mortified when they thought our appointment was an hour later than it was. When we got together, they said they were sorry and I said, “I forgive you. Let it go and lets move on together.” They were a bit stunned. No one had ever said something like that to them before. Maybe they got “It’s OK.” or “No problem/o” or “No worries” but never, “I forgive you.”
Do we not like to say “I forgive you” because it seems too formal, too ceremonial? Is it too authoritiative? Maybe it is too committed, too publicly caring. Maybe it is too, “I have to mean it if I say it, and people need to think I can mean it, and I need think it is OK if I presume I mean something.” Maybe we aren’t sure.
The incarnation is about forgiveness
Maybe we don’t forgive others because we won’t, or think we can’t, forgive ourselves. Maybe I don’t readily forgive myself because I don’t practically receive forgiveness from God. Even if Jesus spoke, “Father forgive him” over me at the cross as I was nailing him up, maybe I still don’t get it and don’t receive it. I’m still in charge of making the world run right and ashamed I keep failing.
Want to pause an say, “I receive your forgiveness God?’
You may have found that little sentence humiliating, like you had to admit you were wrong for not receiving forgiveness well enough. Isn’t that why people say, “No need to ask” after I say I am sorry? It is sweet that they meant, “Of course I forgive you. I would never make you ask me.” But I DO need to ask and receive an answer. I don’t get forgiven easily. I need the act so I know it happened, so it is recorded in history, and so I know myself as the forgiven one. Being forgiven speaks me into being. It is a creative and re-creative act. Don’t let me miss it!
The incarnation of God in Jesus this month is, in itself, an an act of forgiveness. Before Jesus is born it is predictable that Herod will try to kill him. We are so about power, not love, about creating debtors, about do all we can to deliver ourselves from more trauma. That’s the kind of sin being forgiven. Jesus is rightly seen as the new Adam, wrestling sin into exhaustion and defeat, that’s what it takes to forgive someone. He is also seen as the new Noah gathering people into a new ark that will make it through the trials of this stormy journey into the age to come. Forgiveness is right in the middle of the turbulence and Jesus is right there with as as we endure the waves.
People did not like it when Jesus saw his incarnation as, primarily an act of forgiveness. You may feel the same. But just one more story.
In chapter 2, right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, he tells a story about a man paralyzed from birth. His friends believe Jesus can heal him and lower him through the roof of the place he is teaching. The gatekeepers of orthodoxy question his authority and Jesus knows what they are thinking.
Now some of the scribes were sitting there questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves, and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.”
We may be paralyzed and cannot use our bodies. Our hearts may be stone and we can’t love. Our spirits may be undeveloped so we can’t forgive. But the advent of Jesus is God coming to our homeplace to forgive each of us and to spread grace throughout the world through all of us. One of the joys every year during Advent is hearing Jesus say again, “Stand up. You are forgiven. Whatever is easiest for you to hear, I am here to say it. Now stand up. Learn to walk with me.”
Shall we pause to feel the joy of hearing him? “Stand up. You are forgiven.”
Do you think someone will feel joy when they hear that same forgiveness from you today?