Rethinking Forgiveness

People aren’t very reliable. They hurt us, they use us, they lie to us. I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately. For a long time I’ve been of the opinion that one can make the choice to forgive a person in their heart, extend that forgiveness to them in the form of simply saying “I forgive you for that,” and be done with them. In some cases, I still believe that may be true. In others, I’m not so sure.

Ephesians 4:32 tells us “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” How exactly does God forgive us through Jesus? I want to run a scenario three different ways to examine what I’ve been thinking here.

First, let’s set up the back-story:
Let’s say that in some alternative timeline, I’m a talented musician who has risen to the top of his genre. I am a multi-millionaire who is respected by everyone in the industry, and I don’t have any current scandals threatening to bring everything crashing down around me. I have also come to be known as a great producer, and I hold tremendous influence. For all intensive purposes, I am the king of my profession.

Out of the shadows comes a dashing young lad in whom I see a lot of potential, but no one is paying him any attention because of deep-seated prejudices that they have. This guy is on the brink of destruction. He and his family are about to be evicted from their apartment, and they’re living on ramen and peanut butter. So I take a chance, and I start promoting him. Within a year, the guy is a superstar in his own right, selling millions of albums and not buying an ounce of Jif.

But as his fame grows, so does his arrogance. He decides he doesn’t need me, and as a matter of fact doesn’t even like me very much. He begins to see me as a rival rather than a benefactor and friend. So, he spills all the dirt on me. Things that I told him in confidence. He even generously puts his own little spin on the stories to cast me in an even dimmer light. Now, I am embroiled in scandal, dodging the press and trying to figure out what just happened.

Fast forward two years. My old protege shot to fame quickly, but he crashed just as fast. He had a great first album, but after that couldn’t seem to hold things together. He spent all of his money, can’t come up with another song, and has downgraded to Great Value PB. I, on the other hand, am doing quite well. All of the attention that his spillage brought me actually turned into more popularity, with people identifying with my struggle and I was able to work it into my music. I am now twice as successful and twice as rich as before. As a last resort, he comes to me and asks for my help; for a loan, for help writing a song, whatever I’m willing to give. What do I do? What goes through my head at this point?

Scenario 1:
This is my chance. The opportunity to pay this dirty scoundrel back for what he did to me. And I have options! Do I slam the door in his face and just cut it off right here? Do I invite him inside, drag him along and make it look like I’ll help, only to dash his hopes on my spotless living room floor? I’m a nice guy after all, I slam the door and I burn the bridge.

(This is what I likely would have done before I became a Christian. There are people who wouldn’t handle it this way, but I think it’s sort of our default way of doing things as humans).

Scenario 2:
This guy did me wrong, but vengeance isn’t what I believe in. I want nothing to do with him, but he’s down on his luck, and the guy has a family for goodness sakes. I have to help. I give him some money and get him started down the path of a new album, and I tell him to please let this be our last correspondence. I forgive him, but I really am not interested in drinking coffee and sharing secrets again.

(This is what a lot of us who are Christians do with those who harm us. We may make the choice to forgive, we may even go as far as to help meet a need, but we really just want closure. We want this person to be, in a sense, dead to us. Wiped out of our lives except for the unpleasant memories that they leave behind).

Scenario 3:
I am so glad he’s here, I’ve prayed for this moment for the past two years. A chance to show him I still care. A chance to lay down my own feelings and even belongings to help him out and be reconciled. I tell him he can have my home, I don’t need all this room anyway. I tell him that we will sit together every single day and work on his music, doing whatever it takes to get his career back on track. I don’t just immediately start laying my life bare to him again, trust is different than forgiveness, but I do express that I am willing to begin a journey in that direction. I extend my hand, and the choice is his whether or not to take it.

Let me be very clear here. I am not saying that we as Christians are supposed to just be some patsies who lay down and let people walk all over us. But what I am saying is that perhaps our thoughts about forgiveness should be modeled after those of the One who has forgiven us. God created us and we rebelled against Him, hurt Him, told Him to get lost and that we wanted to do this our own way. He didn’t take scenario 1 and slam the door in our faces. He didn’t even take the noble path of scenario 2 and help us out but then wash his hands of us. No, he did even more than scenario 3. He took on our form, lived a perfect life to model it for us, died a brutal, criminal’s death in our place in order to pay our debt, and rose from the grave proving that it was all true.

As if that isn’t mind-blowing enough, He didn’t even say “Alright, I’ve made them right with you, let me have nothing more to do with them Father, please.” No, that sacrifice was just the beginning of an unfathomably close relationship that He desires with each and every one of us. He wants to hear about every detail of your life. He wants you to trust Him and depend on Him and let Him hold you through the worst parts of this difficult journey that we are on.

Jesus tells Peter to forgive “seventy times seven” times. I believe that this means an unlimited amount, but even if not, the fact that Peter would be expected to forgive someone 490 times clues me in to the fact that he just keeps coming back for more. He doesn’t forgive once and walk away, he continues to pursue that person.

Put in this light, does my meager “I forgive you in my heart, just so you know” really hold much water? Is it even real forgiveness? We don’t have the capacity to forgive like God does, but maybe we should at least try to trace the lines that He drew for us.

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