The Gift of Forgiveness

(Originally run in two parts on November 30, 2006 and December 7, 2006)

—Rick Hawkes, Ruling Elder

As we consider the topic of “Conflict and its Resolution” in our current sermon series, ruling elder Rick Hawkes has put his pen to work to bring additional clarity in a 2-part “Connection” series on forgiveness.

Matthew 26.28: This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Matthew 6.12:Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Forgiveness is the heart of the Gospel message: Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins (Acts 2.38). You would think that Christians would be experts in forgiveness—ready to discuss the intricacies of working out forgiveness in daily life, the legal, spiritual, emotional, relational perspectives of forgiveness; how forgiveness works with confession, repentance, restitution, discipline, and restoration; how forgiveness relates to the duty to uphold justice by private individuals, civil courts, and church courts. Unfortunately, the only part of forgiveness that seems to hold our attention is the part that gets us out of trouble so we can have a pleasant life.

When we forgive someone, we are affirming that they, on account of a God-given duty, owe us something, but we are discharging that debt to the account of Christ, to whom we owe all. Maybe a husband promises to call his wife, but he doesn't want to stop what he is doing, so he doesn't call and makes himself a liar. If she says she forgives him, but then she sulks or complains to a friend or expects him to be extra nice, then she has not forgiven him. She is just collecting her debt. Maybe a wife grumbles against a legitimate requirement of her husband. If the husband says he forgives her, but then is distant from her, brings the matter up again, or keeps an especially strict lookout for further disrespect, then he has not forgiven her. He is just collecting his debt.

Scripture says, "Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col 3.13). God forgives us by judicially transferring our debt to Christ. We do not have the power to declare someone innocent. We do have the power to say, "I am not your judge. From what I can see, you did not fulfill your God-given duty to me. However, you do not have to clear this debt with me. Because I am not my own, because I owe everything to Christ, I give everything due me to him. I am at peace with you. It is now between you and Christ." Notice that only those who know Christ and stand in debt to him have some place to discharge debts due to them. Outside of Christ, there is no account that can legally or morally accept a debt due to us. Outside of Christ, there is no force that can loosen our grip on our debtors.

In any human interaction, there will be sin in at least little ways. Because, in our own merit, we stand in desperate poverty before the justice of God, our eyes look greedily to find any flaw in others, so that we might squeeze some debt out of them. He doesn't meet my eyes when we speak; she doesn't sit properly; he never returned my email; her car is dirty; his child is ill-mannered; he's heavy; she's loud; he's proud. Our hundred-million candlepower self-righteousness searchlight probes for a few pennies of offense under someone else's cushion, and we know they are also coming after us, so we keep thick drapes on our windows. This culture of offense finding is perfectly natural to our fallen state. We know we have to build up an armory of offenses we find in others so that when they find an offense in us, we have a ready counter-attack. Why would I let him off the hook and unilaterally disarm? The extent of forgiveness we find in our fallen hearts is a willingness to declare a truce because the other has as much against me as I have against him.

True forgiveness is not about a truce. True forgiveness is costly. It is about being willing to suffer at the hands of another without holding any claim against him. We are taking something that is really ours, this debt created when the other person sinned against us, and we are giving it away. Our grasping hearts can hardly stand the thought of giving away this little bit of victim self-righteousness: I am better than at least this one who has wronged me. Christ was the most offended against of all men, yet he gave in return the best of all gifts. The way of the cross is not one of generic suffering. The cross shows how we must be willing to suffer at the hands of the very ones we love, returning good for evil, not because we are so good, but because we are so loved.

Forgiveness in no way undermines the law and order of God. Rather, it gives us the right perspective with which to apply God's law. While our calling as parent, boss, judge, or jury may require us to decide what consequences follow wrong actions by others, we are always aware that, as individual sinners, none of us has a place to stand or the right to hold something against another. I will punish my child if she clearly disobeys her father, but I cannot seek any personal retribution or hold the offense against her. As a boss, I might require extra oversight of an employee who has told small lies in the past, but I will not look down on him or withhold approval and renewed trust as he meets his particular duties. These requirements of punishment and restitution reflect God's order in this world, showing us the limits of our own humble positions. God's order is applied with wisdom and mercy and justice as defined by God, not by me. This further undercuts my tendency of maintaining a private self-righteous judgment of others.

The principal tragedy of unforgiveness is that it breaks our experience of peace with God in Christ. We are God's precious ones, each one a sparkling jewel springing from a white hot kiss of God's eternal love. Unforgiveness turns our prismatic souls from transmitters of divine glory into opaque idols of self worship, caked with the grimy accounting of other men's sins. If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6.15). These words should make us tear ourselves from the grasp of seductive fault-finding, leaving behind our fouled garments of self-righteous judgment. We cannot confess our own failure while we are concentrating on the failure of another. When we think, "They should be more like this or that," wanting to shape people in our own image, we are displaying an attitude antithetical to the Lordship of Christ and forgiveness in him.

We should pray for the Spirit to root out the countless grudges, grievances, and complaints against others that we have tucked away in the secret places of our hearts. Under each offense that we hold against someone else lies the hidden fungus of our own self-rightness that shoves a humble love for God out of our heart. Christ alone can and will overcome these bastions of unforgiveness in our hearts. O Christ, free me from the deadly fault finding and self-righteous judgment that tears me from you and blinds my eyes to the beauty of your love for me.