Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The New Math of Forgiveness

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” -- Luke 23:34

Nothing hurts like hurting about hurts that make you hurt others. What a compound of pain that leads us to do unto others because something was done unto us and we've come all undone over it. So, we hurt and we cry and we ask ourselves why. And we hide and we run and we pray and we seek and we rise and we walk and we declare ourselves done.  And then we see . . . we're not. For the carnage lies along the trail we yearn to leave behind and it calls out to us, to which we can only, in exhaustion from the battle, whisper in all sincerity, "please forgive me."

And we wait . . .

And the answer is . . .

Okay .  . .

If . . .

And it is time to retrace our trail, trading the grace of redemption for the work of repairing, seeking to earn some measure of forgiveness as if it were a rare commodity to be extended only on completion of some arbitrary and man-ordained testing, a rite of passage for the one who truly shows he means it. Already finding ourselves barely breathing beneath the weight of the sorrow of sin's relentless pursuit and our weak attempts to escape, we dig our way out through the callused layers of repetitive sin, stand face-to-face with the reality of remorse and the challenge of repentance and ask . . . but do not receive. Spent, we engage in a new battle, so determined to prove ourselves worthy of that which seems to offer some hope of life: forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not fix sexual and relational brokenness. Forgiveness does, however, help remove the overwhelming obstacles of shame and guilt and lessen the likelihood of a u-turn. Powerful stuff forgiveness. Precious indeed. But it should be less rare and much more alive than the kajillion blades of grass in a dormant winter lawn. Imagine . . . 7 times 70 . . . times a billion or so people.

Forgiveness? God made plenty. It's a commodity that has flowed in un-stemmed abundance like a mighty timeless river straight from the gates of Eden, beneath the Cross of Christ and into the reservoirs behind the dams we've built to hold it back and make its power our own, to be administered when deserved according to our measured grace. "I'll forgive you when I know it won't come back to haunt me."

The new math of forgiveness. Seven times seventy has been replaced by a new equation. Once . . . maybe?

In a worst-case scenario, a sexually-broken person may have . . .

Engaged in clearly-sinful homosexual behavior, or . . .

Traded the reality of life for the mindless pursuit of pornography, or . . . 

Committed adultery, bringing shame to his wife or her husband, or . . . 

Disintegrated into self-absorption through constant masturbation, or . . . 

Become mentally-entrenched in fantasizing over endless lustful pursuits . . . 

Accepting sexual addiction as self.

And these are just the non-criminal aspects of sexual brokenness. Homosexuality, pornography, adultery, self-satisfaction, lust, addiction. Which of these is unforgivable?

In your book?

In God's book?

When I was in high school, I had a dog named Sampson. I'd had a trying 15 years -- divorced parents, father abandonment, sexual abuse, evil stepfather and ocean-deep instability -- and there was something indescribably comforting in the dog's soft brown eyes, lapping tongue, thick fur and bouncy eagerness. I was the most important thing to him. He couldn't wait for me to slip a leash onto his collar, unlock the gate, cross the street to the park and play. One day, while running with him in the park, he ran in front of me, distracted by some enticing sight. The leash wrapped around my legs and I fell . . . hard . . . on top of his soft brown body, snapping one of his legs beneath me.

He barked; he bit. I yelled; I nearly cried. I picked him up; he yelped. I said, "I'm sorry." He panted.

As Sampson healed, his surgically-reconstructed leg shaved and wrapped, he greeted me with the same wide tail wags that had always enticed me through the screen door and into the yard. There were no demands for proof I would never fall on him again. There was no penance. He didn't count the dog treats or analyze the sincerity of the petting.

Yes . . . I know. We're not dogs.

We're better. I can't help but believe that God expects a bit more from his greatest creation.

You see, Sampson was not attuned to the fine intricacies of forgiveness. He did not confuse it with repentance. He did not confuse it with consequences. He did not wonder if . . . if I was too-easily forgiven . . . I might take advantage of some future opportunity to snap his other legs. He didn't even know he was "forgiving" me. If there was any confusion on his part at all, it was between love and forgiveness, and that's not a bad mix-up to make.

Forgiveness is not a fool-me-once-shame-on-you, fool-me-twice-shame-on-me issue. We want to place it on the list of choices we have to make as persons rather than on the list of Christ-like attributes of surrendered person-hood. Christ never had to say "Do as I say, not as I do," when it came to forgiveness. He did and we must.

Forgiving someone does not mean they are free to cast aside the work of repentance.That work must still be done, but it is not dependent on you forgiving them. It may be, however, that the broken one sees a lack of forgiveness as an obstacle to the pursuit of repentance. Is that your problem? No . . . forgiveness is.

Forgiving someone does not mean they can cast aside the cost of the consequences. Burdens must be borne; penalties paid; costs calculated and debts repaid. Is that your problem? No . . . unless, in  your forgiveness you discover a compassion that leads you to walk along the fallen from the crawling to the limping to the someday standing tall.

Forgiveness just means you forgive them, for Pete's sake. Or for their sake. Or for yours. Bearing the burden of unforgiveness can rival the impact of the original sin that brought down the reign of judgment. Even in the absence of repentance, even surrounded by the carnage of consequence, forgiveness reigns. It is the beginning of healing for both sides.

Better math.

Forgiveness doesn't always mean the complete restoration of your relationship with someone, but it helps clear a path, and is perhaps the only hope that your relationship will ever be rebuilt.

Maybe one of the more difficult circumstances under which we are called to forgive is when we look at someone who just seems to have been willingly and willfully sinning and hurting and pillaging life as if all of creation existed only for perverted pleasure. Forgive that? Take a cue from Christ. Forgiveness was dependent on some awareness or on a lack of.

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” -- Luke 23:34

And then,  just a short time later:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this Man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom."
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” 
-- Luke 23:39-43

He looked down from the cross as he was dying, rested his gaze on the ignorant assassins and forgave them. Shortly thereafter, he looked to his left and right at two men who were deserving of the gravest consequence for their sins . . . and he forgave.

Maybe we should pay better attention to what Jesus thought was important enough to be among his last few words, delivered through the suffocation of his final breath.

One last question. Is it possible to forgive someone and for them to not really know you have?  I suppose it could be, in a selfish sort of way. We could convince ourselves that we have forgiven them, but not stoop so low as to actually tell them. Perhaps that would soothe our hearts somewhat and allow us to walk away. Like the repentance and the consequences, the suffocating sinner's awareness of such forgiveness is "not my problem." I know what it feels like to walk through life without the peace of having been forgiven by some.

But why? Why give a hoarded and protected and precious gift and not allow the forgiven the possible pleasure of healing from it? Why respond to someone's longing and never let them know? Why put their peace beneath your pillow so only you can sleep at night?  Maybe we should be a bit like Sampson and confuse it more with love.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 
-- 1 Cor. 13:4

What keeps you from forgiving? Are you too impatient, too anxious to see the repentance worked out to completion and the consequences borne first? Are you biting back out of personal pain, unable to find kindness for someone who is also hurting? Are you holding back because it just doesn't seem like they deserve it, and you're not really sure you want to see them restored? Or . . . are you just too proud? Maybe they haven't asked for forgiveness and you don't want to extend it until they humble themselves enough?

Do you lack the love it takes to forgive? Ask God. In the blink of any eye He can review the span of all human history and tell you quickly that whatever has been done can be forgiven. It will cost you nothing. He already paid beyond whatever measure you might be imagining.

I can think of no better Christmas gift than forgiveness.

God Bless,


(Want to know more about how to deal with effects of sexual brokenness in your life or in the life of someone you care about? Read Surviving Sexual Brokenness: What Grace Can Do.)

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