THE CHALLENGE AND BEAUTY OF FORGIVENESS

While some hardhearted people might disagree, most of us would agree that it would be difficult to overstate the importance of forgiveness. And its importance includes both being forgiven as well us forgiving.

I’ve been thinking about what I call “the four lines of forgiveness” for several weeks now, and a news report I just saw on TV reinforced both my premise that we cannot overstate the importance of forgiveness and that there are four lines of it.

The news report was about the trial of a police officer who was going home to her apartment and got on the wrong floor. She entered the wrong apartment, thinking it was hers, and shot and killed the resident thinking he was an intruder. She was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

What was so powerful to me about the news report was the words of the victim’s younger brother on the witness stand speaking to the woman who had killed him. He said he forgave her, loved her, and hoped the best for her while she was in prison. He then asked the judge if he could hug her, got the judge’s permission, and the two embraced. It was a powerful and moving demonstration to see. (To forgive someone does not mean we must put ourselves in a place or position to be hurt or wronged again by the person we are forgiving.)

One line of forgiveness that can be challenging and is beautiful is our forgiveness of others. I have no idea if the younger brother’s words to his older brother’s killer were challenging, but I do know they were beautiful. I also know in my own life, and probably in yours as well, that forgiving others can be challenging. But the reality is that God calls us to forgive others and forgiving them is good for us.

A second line of forgiveness is others forgiving us. I’m confident every person who reads this post has needed forgiveness from others. It is not always offered, of course, but often it is. In my experience admitting whatever it was that you did or said that needs forgiving, and asking for it, goes a long way in receiving it. Unfortunately, if forgiveness is not granted, we have to leave it there.

A third line of forgiveness is God forgiving us. We should never take God’s forgiveness for granted, but the Bible is clear that God wants to forgive us. That’s what the coming, life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is all about. All of us, without exception, need God’s forgiveness. And while it is not necessarily automatic, because of his great love for us God does forgive us when we ask for it.

A fourth line of forgiveness is forgiving ourselves. We probably don’t think or talk as much about this line as we do the others, but for many of us, this is a need. We’ve all heard people say something along the lines of “I’ll never be able to forgive myself!” Certainly no one should be cavalier or flippant about forgiving themselves. Yet, my sense is we do need to forgive ourselves, not be totally defeated by our failures, and move forward rejoicing in God’s forgiveness in Jesus with a commitment and resolve to do better.

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HOW ARE “WE” DOING?

As the title of this post suggests, I want to ask readers and myself a question. And the way I am using the first person plural pronoun is not “the royal we.” The royal we is usage of the plural by royalty (usually the king or queen) to refer to one person. My usage of “we” refers to all of us.

Last night in preparing for my high school Bible class I read through the New Testament letter of I Peter. And as many times as I have read it before, I never noticed that each of the five chapters has a similar instruction and challenge for fellow believers in the church. The more I have thought about these verses, it seems to me they are pertinent not just with fellow believers in the church, but to a variety of groups both in the church and beyond.

Here are the verses:

I Peter 1:22, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.”

I Peter 2:17b, “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers.”

I Peter 3:8, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”

I Peter 4:8, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

I Peter 5:5b, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.”

Those are some powerful notes of challenge and instruction, aren’t they? Not only that, wouldn’t you agree they should not be limited to Christians and church members?

I not only want to treat my fellow church members like this; I also want to treat my extended family, my non-church going friends, the guys with whom I play golf, and lots of other people in my life. I hope as well that they too would treat me likewise.

Here’s why I think these five verses from the five chapters of I Peter raised the question in my mind, “How are we doing?” In general, I don’t think we are doing as well as we should be doing. Too many times I observe what appears to me as a lack of proper respect. Rather than clothing ourselves with humility and being humble, we are arrogant. And I note occasions where love does not cover wrongs, but grudges are held.

The question is “How are we doing?” and we includes me. I can do better, and my sense is so could everyone who reads this. I’m going to use my reading of I Peter last night, and noting the instruction and challenge, to be more intentional about putting it into practice. Perhaps you will join me?

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THERE IS A DIFFERENCE

Often in my reading or discussions with others I become aware of something I had never thought of before. The last several days I’ve been mulling over something I read last week that was totally new to me. It was in a recent book of selected previously published writings by C.S. Lewis entitled How to Be a Christian: Reflections and Essays (published by HarperOne).

Lewis acknowledges that unless he is very careful, “when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me.” He then adds, “But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.”

What is the difference? For Lewis the difference concerns circumstances and responsibility.

He also notes that excusing and forgiving is not limited to our relationship with God, but with others as well. We both need to be forgiven and/or excused by others, and others need to be excused and/or forgiven by us. But it is not always a simple matter of either one or the other. Lewis notes that many times, either between us and God, or between people, there may be needed a mixture of both forgiveness and excusing.

What Lewis writes that most convicts me is “the trouble is that what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.” He didn’t note the connection, but I was struck that often when we ask to be excused (instead of forgiven) the request comes with excuses. While there can be “extenuating circumstances,” those circumstances rarely completely excuse our sin.

Summarizing what Lewis suggests (in my own words), we have to admit, confess, and/or own what is inexcusable in terms of our sin. Real forgiveness is the result of being honest with ourselves and God and asking Him for it.

The basic premise is the same when it comes to forgiving and being forgiven by others. Forgiving and excusing wrongs and hurts are not the same thing. Lewis declares “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (Lewis does not raise the issue, but I personally do not believe forgiving someone means we have to put ourselves back into a situation in which they can wrong us again or continue to wrong us.)

Thank God for His love, mercy, and grace shown in forgiving us. Let’s make fewer excuses and take more responsibility for our sin. And let’s do what Jesus told us to do: forgive others in the same way we are forgiven.

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AT RISK?

When I visited the local hospital emergency room last week those who cared for me put a “FALL RISK” bracelet on my arm. They did that to alert others to keep an eye on me. And the reason was that I had fallen while walking our dogs and had sustained a head injury. (The good news is that even though I sustained a concussion and a shoulder injury, everything is going to be fine.)

As I thought about it I wondered if I had had the warning bracelet on earlier if I would have been more careful and not fallen. I don’t think so because I probably wouldn’t have taken it seriously and would have tripped anyway.

It also occurred to me as I looked at my bracelet that all of us are at risk of falling. At risk of physically falling while walking, but I have in mind what is called falling by sinning.

Christians speak of the Genesis account of the sin of Adam and Eve as “the fall.” By disobeying God they fell from their state of innocence to being guilty of sin. The Bible teaches that all of us have essentially done the same thing. The Apostle Paul is clear when he writes, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The Bible is filled with warnings and cautions about sin. One of my favorites is in I Corinthians 10:12 where Paul challenges his readers, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” It sounds like overconfidence could be a problem for some of us – both falling with regard to sin as well as physically falling while walking.

I’m not planning on wearing my FALL RISK bracelet when I return to taking my turn walking the dogs, but I do think I will be much more careful. There is no guarantee I won’t fall, but I do think it will be less likely.

Nor do I think any of us should wear a FALL RISK bracelet to remind us and others that we are susceptible to falling by sinning. But in light of our failures – and please remember all have sinned and do sin – it might be helpful for us to remind ourselves that when it comes to sin we are all at risk to fall.

Even though we all have sinned, there is good news (often called the gospel). The Bible is clear that God loves us and has provided for our forgiveness through the sacrificial death of Jesus and our faith in him (see John 3:16). Following the bad news of Romans 3:23 about everyone having sinned, in verses 24 and 25a Paul gives the good news, “and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” That is good news, isn’t it?

I wish I hadn’t fallen while walking the dogs, but my FALL RISK bracelet provoked some important thinking on my part. Feel free to leave a comment below and/or share this post on Facebook or other social media.

UNFORGIVEN

In an ad promoting a new movie as “the best western since Unforgiven”, I was reminded of the impact Unforgiven had on Jan and me when we first saw it when it came out in 1992. We saw it in the afternoon, and even though it was sunny leaving the theater, we both commented to each other how depressing the story was.

Whether you saw the movie or not, (and I’m not recommending it if you haven’t see it), the title Unforgiven is attention getting, isn’t it? I’m not sure who was forgiven and who was unforgiven in the movie, but I do know forgiveness is important. Forgiveness is a central subject in the Bible in general and specifically in the teaching of Jesus.

Our greatest need is to be forgiven by God. Much of the Old Testament law is about what God wants and expects from his people as well as how to receive his forgiveness. The New Testament is about God’s ultimate provision for our forgiveness through Jesus. That’s why we call him our redeemer and our savior.

If our greatest need is to be forgiven by God, our greatest gift is to receive and have that forgiveness. I think we all agree with David when he declares, “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1). And it’s even more than that: God’s promise through Jeremiah is that he “will remember our sins no more” (31:34).

What could be worse than to be described as unforgiven by God?

Every one of us needs to be forgiven by God, and in the New Testament we are called to forgive others. Jesus makes the connection of God’s forgiveness of us with our forgiveness of others more than once in his teaching. Perhaps the best known is one of the requests of his model prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He continues in verses 14 and 15, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

My favorite teaching from Jesus about our forgiveness of others is his Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:21-35. It’s about a person who was forgiven an impossible debt by his master, who in turn was unwilling to forgive a small debt owed him by a fellow servant. When the master learned of this he reversed his previous kindness. Jesus concludes the teaching: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Is Jesus teaching in these passages that God’s forgiveness of us is contingent upon our forgiveness of others? You can wrestle with that question yourself. He certainly is saying that if we accept and understand God’s forgiveness we should do the same with others. But is our loving and forgiving heavenly father unwilling to forgive the sin of unforgiveness?

Three things I do know: I am grateful to be forgiven by God, I don’t want to be unforgiven by those I have wronged and hurt, and I want to be forgiving of those who have hurt and wronged me.

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THREE BIG IFS

If is certainly an interesting word, isn’t it? It’s a conjunction that means “on the condition that” a certain condition is met, then there will be a certain result.

In a Bible study I am currently leading I am expanding on a series I did a few years ago I called “Standing on the Promises.” Each week we are exploring and applying one of God’s promises to us in the Bible with the goal of being encouraged. Not all the promises are conditional, but the one I was considering earlier today is. And the conditional promise comes right in the middle of three if statements.

The three big ifs are in I John 1:8-10, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”

The results of the first and third ifs are not promises, but powerful statements about those who meet the conditions. Claiming to be without sin, or claiming not to have sinned, is both lying to oneself as well calling God a liar. Hopefully none of us meet those conditions, and are therefore not calling God a liar or lying to ourselves. We know better as we are well aware of many of our sins and freely admit them.

That’s why I am so comforted and encouraged by the middle conditional if in this trio: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

To whom are we to confess our sins to meet this condition? Perhaps, if it is appropriate, to the person or persons we sinned against. But especially to ourselves and to the Lord. Note if we fulfill the conditions of the first and third ifs, we cannot meet the condition of the middle one. One and three are the opposite of two.

In my experience I have found that the best time to practice the second big if is in connection with the observance of the Lord’s Supper. To my embarrassment, many times in my life I have found myself saying something along the lines of “here I am again Lord confessing the very same thing I have confessed before.” And I must be careful not to allow that realization to discourage me too much.

I’m not claiming the first or third if; I’m not saying I am without sin or that I have not sinned. But I am claiming the promise of the second if, that God is faithful and just and because I have confessed he will forgive me. And not only does he forgive me, the promise continues that he will purify (cleanse) me from all unrighteousness.

I remind myself that I have still have a long way to go in becoming the person God has called me to be; but with his help I am making progress. Thank you Father for the second big if in I John 1:9 and its promise.

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THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE CROSS

As we come to Good Friday and think about the cross, I want to share three truths about ourselves, about God and about Jesus from one of my favorite authors: John Stott.

“First, our sin must be extremely horrible. Nothing reveals the gravity of sin like the cross. For ultimately what sent Christ there was neither the greed of Judas, nor the envy of the priests, nor the vacillating cowardice of Pilate, but our own greed, envy, cowardice and other sins, and Christ’s resolve in love and mercy to bear their judgment and so put them away. It is impossible for us to face Christ’s cross with integrity and not feel ashamed of ourselves.

Secondly, God’s love must be wonderful beyond comprehension. God could quite justly have abandoned us to our fate. He could have left us alone to reap the fruit of our wrongdoing and to perish in our sins. It is what we deserved. But he did not. Because he loved us, he came after us in Christ. He pursued us even to the desolate anguish of the cross, where he bore our sin, guilt, judgment and death. It takes a hard and stony heart to remain unmoved by love like that. It is more than love. Its proper name is ‘grace’, which is love to the undeserving.

Thirdly, Christ’s salvation must be a free gift. He ‘purchased’ it for us at the high price of his own life-blood. So what is there left for us to pay? Nothing! Since he claimed that all was now ‘finished’, there is nothing for us to contribute. Not of course that we now have a license to sin and can always count on God’s forgiveness. On the contrary, the same cross of Christ, which is the ground of a free salvation, is also the most powerful incentive to a holy life.”

Taken from The Cross of Christ by John R.W. Stott, pp. 83 and 84; pub. by IVP, 1986.

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