Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Straight and Narrow – What Forgiveness Is (Part 3)

Money! (Kenyan Shillings)

So what is it that we’re supposed to do? Being Christian, I’m going to start with the Bible (and if anyone wants to summarize another holy book in a paragraph, I’d happily post it here). Jesus tells us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”. This is sometimes translated ‘trespass’, but I like the financial metaphor better. We (especially Americans) understand what it’s like to have debt. We’re told to pray that those debts we hold before God are cancelled, forgiven. And we’re told to give the same courtesy to those who have withdrawn from our goodwill. Peter once asked Jesus for an upper limit to forgiveness (John might have been getting on his nerves AGAIN and he was sick and tired of it). He tried to high-ball it and suggests, “Even up to seven times?” Jesus, with his usual wit, says the number is more like, “Seven times seventy times.” Jesus explains elsewhere that our forgiving others is a requirement for entrance into the Kingdom of God.

But what does it mean to forgive? The New Testament uses aphiēmi, meaning literally, “To send away.” Forgiveness is to count it as loss. If it is a debt, it is written off. It goes into the “business losses” for the year. It cannot be repaid because it no longer exists. You can never send a collections agency after it. It is finished. It is not forgotten, for you have a record of your generosity; a ledger recording your heavy losses. If it is a wound, it is healed. It is not tender, red, infected, or pussing. It is healed. And healed doesn’t mean invisible. Wounds, when cleaned, leave scars. But they don’t leave gangrene.

Consider the words of Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop who fought apartheid in South Africa and one who has great experience with wicked, wicked deeds:

Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.

Forgiveness is not easy. It may be the hardest thing we’re ever asked to do in this life. It’s one of those things we’re asked to do as Christians that we can only advance toward and rarely (if ever) fully achieve in this life. Or perhaps more accurately, we can achieve it fully only for a moment; the more mature we are, the more of our moments we can achieve it. I categorize it with Jesus ridiculous command to, “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”. So if you haven’t mastered it yet, don’t get too worried.

What’s so hard about it? It means that you have to take what is your right, and give it up. You have to humble yourself to the one who hurt you. You are making your position equal again with the one who owes you; relatively, by lifting your debtor up, you no longer can stand above him. And for a proud person, this is simply impossible.

But I think the hardest part about forgiveness is identifying why something hurt. To clean all the dirt and filth out of a wound, we must wash the wound with the salt of self-examination. Some of the filth of the wound, and some of the pain, is our own. It was on us before the wound was made. We must scrub away all the blackness and scab and grime, until we get to fresh, clean blood. And this hurts.

So you were insulted. Why isn’t your own opinion of yourself before Heaven enough? Why are you placing your self-confidence in the mouth of your insulter?

So you were robbed. Why are you upset at financial loss if you have placed your faith in Heavenly things?

So your trust was betrayed. Haven’t you also betrayed others? What right have you to be self-righteous against your betrayer?

How do we know we’ve forgiven? I think a fair test is one proposed by Reformed theologian Lewis Smedes, “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”Love is a good proxy for forgiveness. I think also pain is a good measure, certainly for people early in their walk, maybe for all. If it didn’t bleed, you didn’t scrub hard enough.

Forgiveness hurts. Perhaps that’s one thing that all the countless animal sacrifices in ages past were meant to teach: forgiveness is messy. It’s costly. It’s bloody. But it must be. It’s much easier to pretend. Turning a blind eye to wrong is something that our culture seems particularly adept at. But as Tutu explains above, pretending to forgive, or avoiding forgiving are not forgiveness. And only by forgiveness will we ever find true healing.


  1. I like the analogies, the longer a wound festers, the greater the scarring.
    The difficult part of forgiveness seems to be not what someone else did, but coming to terms with the nature of who they did it to.
    Only in servitude, are we able to be made kings. Only in recognizing our own predicament, can we see the necessity of forgiveness.

  2. Forgiveness is definitely messy. So is life. I wonder, I think forgiveness is the first act that opens the door for a relationship to proceed forward again. Reconciliation is the messy process of restoring healing and health to he relationship again. I think sometimes the 2 are confused, because you can forgive a person without being reconciled to them. Forgiveness can be one way, but reconciliation must involve 2. Forgiveness is like the "unlocking of horns"....when two male deer are in a fight and have their horns locked - no one is going to proceed until they unlock and step away from each other - I think forgiveness is like this...unlocking from the stalemate, giving something to someone "before" they have done anything to deserve or earn it....so as to give opportunity for the broken relationship to begin moving forward again into the healing stage.