Last week, I couldn’t go to church. The village where I was staying only had a service once a month, and I didn’t have time to bike three miles to the weekly service in a larger town before I started the first leg of my trip home. So on the train to Marseille, I listened to a free sermon I had downloaded by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. It was from a series he gave on the Parable of the Lost Son, and this sermon focused on the father’s forgiveness.** In it, Keller answered the big question I always had about forgiveness.
I knew that since I’ve experienced God’s forgiveness myself, I’m expected to forgive others. I knew how many times I’m supposed to forgive [seventy times seven]. But I never understood how contrite a person needed to be before I could grace them with my forgiveness. What were the conditions the person needed to fulfill? What kind of repentance did they have to show? The idea that forgiveness might be an easy get-out-of-jail free card always struck me as unfair [unless I was the one being forgiven, in which case I would happily take the offered forgiveness without ever being bothered whether I really deserved it or not.]
For many years there was a person I’ll call Milly [now dead] who regularly and systemically trespassed against me. She never really accepted who I was, and rarely loved me without conditions. I struggled to forgive her. I knew I was supposed to, but I couldn’t get past the fact that she never admitted wronging me. In a sense, there was nothing for me to forgive. In another sense, that wasn’t true at all. Even if she didn’t think she had sinned against me, I was still chalking up a very large debt for her in the account I kept. I maintained an extensive catalog of all the ways she had hurt me, wronged me, mistreated me, was insensitive to me, manipulated me, acted thoughtlessly, etc.
I told myself I would be willing to forgive her when she asked for my pardon. This is how I thought God’s forgiveness worked in my life: I admitted I was wrong, confessed my sin, and then had the slate wiped clean. But since Milly never said she was sorry, I held my forgiveness in reserve. Sometimes I did forgive her in my heart, but it was always grudgingly, with a “Yes, but”. Yes, but she hurt me. Yes, but she didn’t say she was sorry. Yes, but it’s not fair. This didn’t get me very far. Though I cared for her the best I could, under the surface I was usually clenching my teeth and I was always ready to tell someone about my grievances against her.
Keller pointed out that this is not God’s way. God’s forgiveness is assertive, aggressive even. It takes the initiative. It makes the first move. The father in the parable illustrates this by going out to his returning son before the son has a chance to say he’s sorry. The father sees his son a long way off and he is filled with compassion for him [something I rarely felt towards Milly]. He then runs to him, throws his arms around him and kisses him, all before the son has uttered a single world.
There were no preconditions or conditions for the son to meet. And when the son does speak and acknowledges he has wronged his father, the father basically ignores the confession. He doesn’t demand restitution. He doesn’t ask “Are you really and truly sorry for the way you have hurt me?” Instead, he tells his servants to get nice clothes and a ring for him, and to throw a big party to celebrate.
That was very convicting for me. But I did notice that there was one small but significant precondition: the son was on his way home. The father had not gone out and tracked him down. I soon realized that doesn’t get me off the hook though. Although the parable suggests there’s the precondition of the son’s return, in real life Jesus died for me before I had any desire to come back. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”[Romans 5:8] I was living happily in the pig sty, as it were, when He cancelled my debt. There was no guarantee I was ever going to return and accept what He did for me.
Keller’s second point was that forgiveness is sacrificial. He explained that when someone wrongs you, they’ve robbed you. Maybe they’ve stolen love away from you, or respect or peace or affirmation. Whatever it is, they’ve brought both pain and loss into your life, and someone has to pay for the loss and someone has to absorb the pain.
My question about what a person needs to do before I can forgive them acknowledges this reality. Instinctively we know that someone has to right the wrong. I can’t just say, “It doesn’t matter.” Because it does. I’ve been hurt, and I’ve been stolen from. A wound has been left that needs to be healed. A debt has been created that needs to be paid. I almost always think it is the other person who should do this. But God’s approach was to have my debt cancelled through the death of Jesus without me even asking for it. Forgiveness came to me freely, though it wasn’t free. Jesus paid it . And that was exactly what God wanted me to do with Milly: forgive her debt to me. He wanted me to absorb the pain rather than retaliate and inflict pain on her [or at least make her grovel].
This feels impossible. It feels too hard to go around canceling debts and absorbing pain. Keller acknowledged this with his third point: the only way it’s possible to forgive this way is by having inner power. The source of that power comes from God who has completely forgiven me and fully loves me. Because of what He has done for me and the relationship I have with Him, I can do this. If I have a billion dollars in the bank, it’s not difficult for me to absorb a hundred dollar debt because I know I’m not going to run out of money.
God isn’t asking us to become self-righteous martyrs. He simply wants us to forgive people by drawing on the unlimited spiritual account He’s given to us. And if we follow His example, we do this before the person asks for it. Another great preacher in my life, Jack, says this is like two adjoining hotel rooms. Each room has a door that leads into the other one and both doors need to be unlocked for the two rooms to be connected. In forgiving, I unlock my door. I’m supposed to do this as soon as I can, rather than waiting until the other person knocks.
I’d like to think that if Milly had lived longer, I would have been able to truly forgive her. Not because there would have been no more debt to pay, but because as I experienced God’s love more deeply in my life, I would have become willing and able to absorb the pain. It wouldn’t have been easy. It would have required me to spend a lot of time talking with God and working it through with Him, processing the hurt and not just stuffing it away.
On a much smaller scale, I now have a very aggravating situation in my life where I continually need to offer forgiveness and it is a big struggle for me. Virtually every time in this country when I am waiting patiently, obediently, and legally to make a left turn at a traffic light, someone cuts me off. And it’s usually not just one person, but three people coming from behind on the right and one or two coming from behind on the left, and another zooming down the opposite lane of traffic to get ahead of everyone. I yell. I honk. I seethe. I fume. I curse. It’s an injustice against me. I’m being robbed of my place in line.
I think I finally understand what Jesus meant when He said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you. [Matthew 5:38 -42]
The driver who cuts me off is definitely an evildoer. He has hit me on one cheek. And I’m supposed to turn the other. I’m not supposed to resist. This seems so counter to survival. But I’ve driven here twice since listening to this sermon and when people have cut me off, I’ve released them from their debt. I’m not turning into a doormat. I’m claiming my privileges as the daughter of the Most High King.** I’m trusting Him for justice and vengeance when necessary. I’m relying on Him for the power to forgive.
I don’t think this is going to be the end of my struggle with forgiveness. In fact, as I’ve been writing this, another person has come to mind whom I’ve held a grudge against for a long time. I’ve occasionally worked on forgiving them, but I haven’t been willing to absorb the pain. Now I know this is the place where my praying starts.
“Embrace this God-life. Really embrace it, and nothing will be too much for you. This mountain, for instance: Just say, ‘Go jump in the lake’—no shuffling or shilly-shallying—and it’s as good as done. That’s why I urge you to pray for absolutely everything, ranging from small to large. Include everything as you embrace this God-life, and you’ll get God’s everything.”
Mark 10:22-23, The Message
**Links and notes
You can download the sermon, And Kissed Him, here.