No Fault Forgiveness

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

I woke up at 3:30 this morning, and I was preaching a sermon. Or as I prefer to say, teaching a sermon. Yes, I was awake, watching myself, in a sense, creating an outline on a whiteboard and inviting the congregation to talk about repentance and forgiveness. It was a very strange experience, needless to say. At the time, I thought to my semi-aware self, “I hope I remember this in the morning to write it down, because I think it’s good stuff.”

Who knows though how good 3am theology really is? Also, as I’m writing this having been up since 3:30am, I make no guarantees on its quality, either.

I am writing it down. I believe that someone needs to hear it, whether that’s you, my congregation, me—I don’t know. It didn’t come to me for no reason though, so here, at least, is part of the forgiveness piece.

What Forgiveness Is–and Is Not

Many people in the church, especially women, are bullied into forgiveness rather than walked alongside toward it with grace. You don’t have to look far right now to find the double anguish of women who have spoken up about abuse seemingly helped along by the church. In too common practice, leadership then accuses them of trying to destroy their church/pastor/spouse by not engaging in “biblical” forgiveness. 

What they mean, of course, is not being willing to pretend the abuse never happened, and if it did, to agree that they are mostly to blame.

So where do repentance and forgiveness belong in the cycle of church life and discipleship? 

Forgiveness seems to me to have 3 steps.

  • Release
  • Reconciliation
  • Restoration

(Yes, even in an odd awake dream, I apparently alliterate like a good preacher. The “repent” side was also 3 ‘R’s.’ Whatever.)

Release

“Release” is what we typically see Jesus talking about when he mentions forgiveness. In Matthew 18.22, he uses a word that means to cast away or to let go. When Peter famously asks how many times we should forgive someone who has harmed us, Jesus answers with “seventy times seven”—a phrase known to mean “infinite.”  

When someone harms you, continually release them from the debt they owe you. Let the account go. As Paul will later explain, “Love keeps no record of being wronged.” So forgiveness, to Jesus, means to free both people from the imprisonment of holding on to a wrong. He asks that we choose to toss away the accounting books that hold the debt.

This aligns with the parable with which he follows his statement to Peter. A rich man forgives the massive debt of another man. The second, however, chooses to hold on to a much smaller debt owed to him. This, Jesus makes clear, is an affront to the generosity he has had extended to him. As what we now call the Lord’s Prayer teachers us, true gratitude for our own forgiveness results in forgiveness extended to others.

In Jesus’ definition of forgiveness, books are wiped clean.

But what is not happening in this story? Debts are wiped clean, but does this mean the people in the story are to go forward pretending they had never been incurred? Do they allow the person to accumulate debt again in the same way? Jesus doesn’t demand that. The release is required—but the reconciliation and restoration are not necessarily a part of that equation.

That’s where we can fail, in an abusive situation, to teach forgiveness the way Jesus did. Forgiveness is a miracle and a sign of a heart alive to Christ’s deep love for them. It can never be marveled at enough. Downplaying its importance is to forget Jesus’ pretty serous words earlier in Mathew 6.14-15.

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Yet forcing it, in a world where we know repentance is often false and peace a one-way street, feels like an abuse of the very concept. It appears to be mocking Jesus’ “490” proclamation, not endorsing it.

Full disclosure—I am a #metoo woman. I was abused by a relative from the ages of 8-14. I have quite a clear grasp on what it feels to demand forgiveness versus come to it by grace. I have forgiven. The release is complete for me. Nevertheless, restoration of the relationship was never on the table. The harm done continues to this day, and a demanded restoration of trust would have been a sham. Indeed, with three daughters of my own, trust would not ever be offered in any way. We both have freedom. We do not have a relationship.

This is why it’s helpful, I think, to look at this 3-step process for forgiveness. We can get through step one, and that truly is the forgiveness that Jesus asks of us. Steps 2 and 3 may happen, and they may not. Either one is OK.

Reconciliation

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

A possible Step 2—reconciliation—is simply to say to another, “You’re part of the family again. You’re accepted back.” The person has repented, and the relationship is mended.

  • It’s the church treasurer who stole money and repaid it reconciled to the body—but she is not necessarily given back a position at the till.
  • It’s the person who has gossiped or lied about another being taken back into a group of friends or a church small group. The person lied about has received an apology, but he might never entrust that friend with vulnerable truths again.
  • It’s the alcoholic parent being invited to Thanksgiving and the family vacation at the lake. His daughter, however, will continue to hide keys and perhaps credit cards.

Reconciliation is a move beyond release to acceptance, with caution. The release is done. The forgiveness part is over. The shalom has begun. It is not yet complete. In this place it might never be. We cannot force reconciliation nor should we, because we could be pushing someone who has already forgiven back into a relationship where there is no true repentance. 

The abuse will continue, and it will be twice as damaging, because everyone will assume all is well when a happy face bandaid is put on a deep unhealed wound. There will be pressure for the wounded not to speak up again, and the abuser will take advantage of that. 

Reconciliation is the choice of the victim, and it should never be assumed. 

Restoration

Photo by Tandem X Visuals on Unsplash

Restoration seems to take it one step farther in the sense that the relationship is restored completely. Terry returns to the equation.

This is the church treasurer not only being invited back to fellowship but to trust and leadership. It’s the spouse not only forgiven abuse or adultery but the repair of the relationship to a better state than before. It’s Saul of Tarsus becoming Paul while Ananias vouches for the man who would have killed him a month before, given the chance.

This is the kind of “as far as the east is from the west” forgiveness God extends. It’s not a human ability. When it happens, it’s a miracle of grace and God. 

It doesn’t have to happen.

Healthy Forgiveness

I believe it’s time we look at Jesus-taught forgiveness for what it is, not for the painless (for the perpetrator), “don’t make waves” conviction many church leaders fall into. Forgiveness is the release of debt. It can be done unilaterally, as in my case mentioned above. 

Jesus emphasizes its importance because our unwillingness to wipe clean the slate of another shows a poor understanding and experience of God’s great love in clearing our own slates. Bitterness and resentment in the heart and soul of a believer set up a roadblock to our own intimacy with God. We lose our first love.

Reconciliation and restoration are never unilateral. They cannot be the work of one person. The image of either one requires two sides coming together. Thus while one offended party does the work of release, the offender must be doing the work of repentance. (Recognize the wrong, take responsibility for the wrong, and restore what was taken—if you want to know the 3 R’s in that half.) 

The reconciliation and restoration are possible—but they are not required. This side of eternity, many things will be restored by the grace of God. Many, however, will not. This is the tension with which we live as believers. We believe and hope for God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven. We recognize that this liminal occurrence isn’t common. We pray for grace. W repeat. Amen.

Why Pray? To Get My Priorities Straight

Many years ago, I stood at the checkout in a liquor store in my hometown. I was bringing home the sparkling cider for our family’s Christmas dinner. 

The woman behind the register asked: “Are you 21?”

I stammered a moment. “Well, yes, I am. But I don’t need to be. This isn’t alcohol.”

She looked, laughed, and waved me through. “Bottle sure looks the same. I didn’t notice. Merry Christmas!”

I could have presented ID for my purchase—but it wasn’t required. I, or anyone, was freely allowed to buy that celebratory bubbly bottle and take it home.

Often, we feel like prayer is this kind of requirement—ID we must present before we get what we want. We look at it as a hoop we need to jump through. Facts we have to memorize do for a test. 

What if prayer is none of that? Neglecting prayer isn’t something to beat ourselves up over, as we might if we’ve failed the test. At the same time, it’s something to be sad about if we miss it. The truth is, like sitting with a best friend or wise mentor, if I neglect the conversation, I’m missing all the goodness of my relationship. There is delicious bubbly, celebratory conversation to be had freely. It’s my choice if I want to take it or treat it like an ACT test to fret over.

As we continue this exploration of prayer (begun in my previous two posts here and here) the next lines of the Lord’s prayer are:

Set the world right; Do what’s best—
    as above, so below. 

(Matthew 6.10, The Message)

Or in more familiar terms:

Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Do What’s Best

Honestly, how often do we come before God and just say those words? “God, please do what’s best.” Don’t we usually have our own list of things that we think are best? I know I do. We tend to come to God with our plans and wishes and ask him to bless that. Yet one of the first things Jesus teaches us is that our hearts need to want what he wants more than what we want.

We need to come to God not with our list but asking God,—“What’s on your list?” God, do what’s best. How can I be of service in that?

Of course, when we look at Scripture, we know what’s on God’s list. It’s encompassed in that first line—“Set the world right.” God’s list is all about reconciliation of all things and putting the world back the way the Creator intended it. “Set the world right” isn’t a metaphorical concept. It’s really what God wants—things righted in the way they were always meant to be.

“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a plea for all of God’s goodness to be the priority of our daily lives. The purpose of prayer that comes out here is this: To ask that God’s priorities be our priorities.

Once we’ve taken the first steps in prayer, listening to God and knowing who God is and what is on his heart, we already know what his will is. We’ve seen it as we listen and learn. We know that when we say that line—“Your will be done in earth as it is in heaven”—exactly what we’re asking for. So the question is—

How much do we mean it? 

Do we really want God to set the world right—because we know that’s going to mean upsetting quite a bit. The world is very wrong, and often the church is right there with it. We know the status quo is not God’s will being done on earth. We also know that we often benefit from the status quo. So praying this line is an exercise in self denial. It’s a check of our obedience. It’s testing to see if we are willing to submit our will to God’s. 

It’s not some out there, cosmic idea. 

Yeah, I think it would be a good idea if your will was done on earth, God. Somewhere on earth. You know, where things are really bad and people are being exceptionally stupid. Out there. On earth. Vague gesture. 

It’s a request for God’s will to be done right here right now, in my heart and in my life, starting in my neighborhood. Let’s be honest—sometimes I’m really bad and exceptionally stupid. It’s not all “out there.”

God, make your priorities my priorities. Mold my will in service to yours. Help me to give up the things on my list if they’re not on your list. Give me a heart that cares about the things in the world that are not set right. Give me the courage to partner with you to set them right. 

That’s what we’re asking when we pray this line of the Lord’s prayer. It’s radical. That’s why I like to hear it in a translation we’re not used to hearing it in—so that we recognize the crazy upside down world that Jesus is asking us to pray for and know what it all means. 

Set the world right; 

Do what’s best—
    as above, so below.

Amen.