Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Supernatural Act of Forgiveness

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors...” Matt 6:12

I was mad.

More than mad. If aggravation, disappointment, and outright anger could be seen as steam blowing out my ears, I could have powered a steam engine at full speed. A church I greatly respect had removed two pastors for superficial theological differences. That alone was bad enough, but those were the only two pastors the orphans I worked worth had ever known. These men and their wives had shown love to these kids and now with little to no notice, these ministers were going back to the states.

What message was that sending my kids at the orphanage? To have these people leave with hardly a chance to say goodbye would be yet another slap of rejection in the face of an unwanted child. To know a church was the cause would form their impression of what “church” meant.

As I walked through the streets of Budapest running the account of what had happened through my head, I was ready to burst with rage. And who should I stumble upon but the pastor of my church. He was not singularly the force behind the denomination's decision, but he was part the authority structure that carried it out.

“Hey Trudy!” he greeted me pleasantly. “How's it goin'?”

I held my chin high as I looked him in the eye and answered, “As well as I could, given the circumstances.”

He looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” he asked kindly, in that pastor/counselor tone that shows sympathy and care.

Now he had asked for it and was ready to give it to him! With words that were on the surface polite and diplomatic, but underneath seethed with prickle and sting, I launched into a diatribe about how this church claims to “major on the majors and minor and minors” in points of theology but in reality had shown that is not the case. I told him how little I cared about their denomination's policies and politics, but I did care about the orphans. And those orphans are the greatest casualties of the decision. But I know they did not factor this into the equation when the denomination came down with its ruling. “...After all, they are only orphans.” I quipped with fire in my heart.

The man, perhaps wise beyond his years, met my prickles and stings with gentle tones as he expressed how painful this had been for him. And he promised the children would not be forgotten, and in the end, he asked, “Will you forgive me?”

Will you forgive me? Those powerful words all too often go unstated. I was caught off guard and mumbled something about how I was not sure it was an issue of forgiveness. I don't necessarily think it was a sin, but it on some level it was wrong. And I was all muddled inside.

As we look at this passage of scripture, it is interesting that it has been translated into English a number of ways. One version says, “forgive us our debts....” Another states, “Forgive us our trespasses....” Still another translates it, “Forgive us our sins ….”

The reason for the variation is that no one English word fully encapsulates the meaning. The original language uses a word here that encapsulates all these concepts.

So often, we take this part of the prayer to simply mean sin, as in clear-cut, breaking-the-ten-commandments-style sin. And we allow animosity that stems from less-clear offenses fester. Let's look at the different shades of meaning.

Debts: Financial debts are the first that come to mind, but it might also include a debt of deed. For example, we often say, “I owe you one” or “he really owes me for the help I gave him.” It may also include property debt, as when someone borrows and breaks something.

Trespasses: This word puts me in mind of the rickety signs that would hang from rusty metal gates in rural Texas. “No Trespassing” the signs read. It means don't come in here. It sets a boundary in no uncertain terms. To trespass represents a violation of person or property. Trespasses could include abuse, stealing, misuse of property among other things. But it also includes much simpler things like when people presume upon your time and you get forced into doing things you really never wanted to do. It can include those times when people take your stuff without asking or say something that is really inappropriate or hurtful – whether they mean it that way or not. It includes a host of minor offenses that serve to irritate, aggravate, and alienate us from those around us.

Sins: This one is most obvious. Sin is breaking the law of God. The clear cut disobedience to the ways and Word of God.

By looking at these three different words, our scope on this verse expands to a fuller understanding of this element of The Lord's Prayer.

By imploring God, our Father, to Forgive us our debts, trespasses, sins. We acknowledge:

  1. Our debt: all that we owe that we could never repay, beginning with salvation and continuing to every aspect of our life.
  2. Our trespasses: all the ways in which we go beyond the boundaries God has laid out for us. All the ways in which we presume upon his nature, power, goodness despite our inability to understand his ways. All the times in which we accuse Him when things don't turn out the way we think they should. All the ways in which we misuse and abuse the blessings He has given us.
  3. Our sins: all the ways we disobey His Word.

By understanding this, the scope and spectrum of forgiveness expands requiring serious attitude adjustment in common daily interactions besides the obvious difficulty in forgiving blatant sins that have been committed against us.

This verse would be meaty enough if it just stopped there. But Jesus doesn't stop there. He takes it one very uncomfortable step further when he adds, “as we forgive our debtors” or “those who trespass/sin against us.”

Linked to the first part of the equation comes that small but brutal word “as.” And by making this link Jesus underscores how important forgiveness is to the Christian life.

So not only do we need to consider our need to be forgiven for this spectrum of offenses, we also need to forgive in like manner.

Why is it so hard to do?

There is an array of reasons why it is hard to forgive, especially if the offense is some heinous act, a truly unforgivable deed that violated us to the core.

We don't want to forgive because:

  1. Fear – the false belief that forgiveness means you have to open yourself up to repeated abuse by the perpetrator. But forgiveness does not mean becoming someone's doormat. Forgiveness is where you are in your heart and if the offender shows no indication of changed behavior you are under no obligation to return to a bad/dangerous situation.
  2. Justice – the perpetrator does not deserve forgiveness. Many times those who sinned/trespassed against us really are not sorry, making forgiving them all the more difficult. We might relaize we can't and don't have to trust this person anymore, but how do we let ourselves trust anyone else? This opens a whole new can of worms.

When we face these kinds of situations, it almost makes us wonder why God would even give us free will if we only use it hurt one another? We all too often use it to turn our back on Him as well. Would it not be better if we had no choice. Wouldn't we all be safer and the world be a better place?

I pondered this issue for years. And it wasn't until I attended a lecture in Budapest some years ago that I finally understood. There a  man spoke about Adam and Eve and the garden and free will. To give these first human creations the gift of free will was a remarkable risk. It risked turning all of the exquisite creation into a tailspin of disaster. Why would God, especially a God who is sovereign, take such a risk?

The man explained that it was an issue of love at its very definition. We all know that God is love, right? The whole point of creation is rooted in love and relationship. That's what he wanted out of us. That's why he created us. But love by its very essence requires free will.

“It is the free will that gives love value,” the man said.

There could be no real love without the risk. And so as we face a cruel and hurtful world, we too must choose to take the risk if we are ever to experience that which we are created to experience: love and relationship with Him and others.

Forgiveness is central to both love and relationship. And therefore it is a critical ingredient in the Christian life.

Nobody ever said forgiveness is easy. Some may argue that in certain circumstances it is unrealistic and unnatural. But maybe that's the point. To forgive is such an antithesis to our nature that each act suggests something supernatural in the spirit has occurred. And if it is supernatural then it is something we need not embark upon alone. We can place our frail, weak hand into the palm of God and ask him to walk us through it.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tells how one of the early church fathers explained this passage: “He says it's a bit like teaching a child to do something. The parent does it carefully a few times, then steps back and says, 'now you show me.' God forgives and then steps back and says, 'now you show me how to forgive.'”