(In the light of the wrongs perpetrated and suffered across our fractious and fractured society, I am re-posting three previously published articles, one each week, on the nature and practice of forgiveness.)
A relationship with God is like a Baroque music composition: there is a point (what God must do) and a counterpoint (what we do in response). The point/counterpoint structure provides the soundtrack to a life of faith. Point: “He first loved us.” Counterpoint: “We love him.” Point: “He gave himself for us.” Counterpoint: “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” Point: “The mercies of God.” Counterpoint: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices.” Point: “He has forgiven you in Christ Jesus.” Counterpoint: “Forgive one another.”
When point is present without counterpoint, the soundtrack of our lives loses its power and our talk about God rings hollow. If that continues – God’s work without our response – our children and friends will naturally tune out anything we have to say about God.
There are plenty of examples of the point/counterpoint composition when it comes to forgiveness. Consider these from the lips of Jesus. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Listen to the same point/counterpoint structure in the words of Paul. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” We may be tempted to explain away these challenging words, but we must not do so. This is serious business.
The novelist and teacher Frederich Beuchner writes, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Unforgiveness not only ruins the music of one’s life, it can destroy the instrument as well. People’s lives and relationships – and even their bodies – can be damaged because they either refuse to forgive or refuse to believe that they can forgive. Unforgiveness stops the Christ-follower dead in his tracks, and he cannot follow any further until it is cleared away.
Here is the irony: In refusing to forgive, a person feels that justice is being served, that the offender is being made to pay for his sin. But the person who pays most – both spiritually and relationally – is not the offender, but the offended.
A man was once driving by a farm when he saw something in the farmyard that made him sick: an eagle chained and manacled to a stake. He swung the car around and went back to talk to the farmer. He asked him how much money he would take for the eagle. The farmer quoted some exorbitant sum and the man, without haggling, reached for his wallet. He then told the farmer to unclasp the manacle and free the magnificent bird. Grumbling, the farmer obeyed and released the eagle, but it didn’t fly. It continued to walk in a circle around the stake, as it had done a thousand times before.
This is a picture of the person who, freed by Christ’s forgiveness, still clings to his own injuries. He is chained to his past and will never soar again until he has unlocked the chain that binds him. Whether he realizes it or not, he already possesses the key: Forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”