Preached Oct. 5, 2008
Framing Scripture: Psalm 140:12-13 (NRSV)
I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall live in your presence.
God’s love for us is so great, so thorough. Jesus came to show us what God’s love is like and the extent to which God is willing to go to show love. Our gratitude to God for all the ways he has loved us and is loving us helps us be generous with what we have—talents, time, money—in good times and bad. Our confidence in the love of God helps us persist in relationship with God, in good times and bad. The truly worst thing we can do is make it difficult for other people to experience the love of God and to have confidence in God’s loving goodness. Jesus was the smartest person who ever lived, and we can take what he says to heart both because he loves us so much and because he knows what is best for us. And one of the themes he had a lot to say about was forgiveness.
Once we know how completely God loves us, we can turn around and love others, and one aspect of that generous love is forgiveness. But if it were easy to forgive, we wouldn’t have to be told to do it. A friend of mine at George Fox told me several years ago, “You don’t let things go very easily—you tend to hold a grudge.” I’ve been mad at him ever since.
It is true, however, that when things hurt me, I often have to work on forgiveness for a long time—I have to understand core issues, sort out blame, admit my own fault, and then work hard to forgive. I do try to be honest with God about where I am vs. where God wants me to be, and I invite God to help me when forgiveness is nearly impossible for me.
Chances to forgive someone happen every day. Happily, many times forgiveness is nearly as easy as breathing out. Not every injury is intended nor is it intended personally. Accidents happen, people are thinking their own thoughts and don’t notice me, let alone go out of their way to hurt me. If this isn’t frequent, I can almost exhale the hurt and anger away and forgive instantly.
What is harder is when the injury recurs, when it seems deliberate, when it also causes me to be afraid, or when it involves people I love. I am a strong believer in justice, and this doesn’t always help with forgiveness. I sometimes say to God, “Are you paying attention? Do you see this is happening here?” I think it is better to be open with God than to pretend I like the way things are going. And I don’t think it is necessary to allow another person to wreak havoc on me repeatedly if I can get out of the way.
All the same, the Bible has a lot to say about the necessity of forgiveness. And since Jesus is smart, when He says forgive, undoubtedly he knows this brings good to us we will otherwise miss.
There are three significant words for forgiveness in the New Testament. I don’t want to make a lot of that, but looking at them illuminated some aspects of forgiveness for me that I want to share.
Forgiveness Part I
Mk. 2:5, 11:25 (NRSV) “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Jesus to paralyzed man). “Have faith in God . . . When you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you . . .” (Jesus to disciples). “To forgive” here has in it the ideas of “to send away, to let go, to leave behind”
Mark 2 has the story of the paralyzed man brought to Jesus by friends. It’s a famous story: they rip off the roof and lower the paralytic into the room where Jesus is. Jesus says to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The Father sends your sins away; your sins are left behind; God lets go of your sins. I’m not going to explore the scandal this caused, but I want just to emphasize that the first order of business for Jesus was to let this man know he was forgiven.
Later in Mark, Jesus tells his followers, “Have faith in God . . . Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
So when I come to talk with God, I need to let go of what I’m holding against someone, what I’m holding over someone. I need to leave it behind, I need to send it away. Sounds simple, and sometimes it’s easy. It’s like opening a clenched fist or taking a vacation from my grievance.
The basis for forgiveness is this: I need forgiveness myself. There is no use in pretending I am innocent. Nonetheless, God forgives me and loves me without reservation. When I turn and look at God and see the truth of this, I can have confidence in God’s character and I can turn my own hurts and angers over to God to take care of. If hurt and anger recur, I can turn again to look at God rather than at the offender or my own feelings; God can walk me again through the process of forgiving.
It is a discipline—I need to forgive each time I pray; I need to send the event away from me, open my fist and drop the hurt and anger into God’s hands.
Forgiveness Part II
Lk. 6:37 (NRSV) “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven . . . The measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Jesus to a crowd of followers). “To forgive” here has in it the ideas of “to set a captive free, to acquit a criminal, to release a debtor.”
When I was a child, I was injured in such a way that trusting in God has been hard for me to do. As an adult I began working through this with God’s help. Finally I was able to say, “Ok, God, I know you are scandalously gracious. You can forgive him if you have to.”
I practiced this discipline for years whenever the old hurt would rise up and hurt again. It was good for me to do so. It allowed me to quit protecting myself so carefully, to admit my own faults more easily, to accept that I could also hurt others, and eventually to ask those I hurt for forgiveness. I turned the problem of sorting things out from my ancient past over to God.
It wasn’t a very nice forgiveness—pretty cranky, and not that happy with God’s grace for the offender—but it did me good, and it was all I could do for around ten years.
Then one day God ambushed me as I was driving home from work and said, almost audibly, “You know, you can do better than that.” I said, “You know, You’re right. Please let him into heaven.”
This was a milestone experience for me. It was like opening a jail door for someone, or taking off another person’s handcuffs.
Forgiveness Part III
Eph. 4:32 (NRSV) Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us . . . (St. Paul to the church members at Ephesus). “To forgive” here has in it the ideas of “to extend grace, to offer restoration, to save a life.”
This word for forgiveness comes from the same root as charity and means gift, grace, thanks. Paul makes clear here in Ephesians that the basis for forgiveness is the grace God has extended to us; when we understand, appreciate, and value that grace, the generosity of God to us, how he poured out everything for us, we can also be generous and forgive.
This is where it starts and ends:
The incarnate God in Jesus Christ says to us, paralyzed and helpless, your sins are forgiven. Then he says, now you forgive others. Love your enemies, do good . . . Bless . . . pray for them. Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:27-31, NRSV).
Then in his dying moments he shows us what he means: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
(Thanks to Strong's Concordance for the help in understanding the nuances of the three words for "forgive.")