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I accept     

Posted by Katherine Putnam on August 28th, 2012

“You mean you wish to surrender to me? Very well, I accept.”

So, I don’t know if you know this, but God’s kind of all about forgiveness.

And it kind of sucks.

I am quite the sinner: bad temper, untamed tongue, stubborn pride, near-inability to surrender control to God, the list could probably go on forever, especially if I started documenting individual offenses in each category.

So, I kind of suck.

I’m a sinful, sinning, sinner and I know that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Mercifully, I also know that “the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ” (also Romans 6:23). I know that justice demands I pay penalty for my sin, but that God–in his grace and mercy–paid that price for me.

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.” (Ephesians 1:7-8)

“For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.” (Psalm 86:5)

I am blessed with God’s forgiveness, so why does it feel near impossible to forgive others?

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

I think, from what little I’ve read on the subject, that part of the difficulty in forgiving others (and, sometimes, ourselves) stems from the fact that forgiveness completely contradicts our understanding of justice. Justice demands a punishment, a price, a ransom for wrongdoing. Mercy? Forgiveness? They release the sinner from the debt of their sin. In our minds, to our human perception, that’s just plain wrong. It’s unfair. Nevermind the fact that we are recipients of that same grace; it’s galling to see another sinner leave the situation “unpunished.” That’s what Jonah was so angry about, wasn’t it? What about the prodigal son’s older brother? I think they both found it unpalatable to watch sinners escape punishment. It went against what they believed to be right. To put it bluntly, they probably through it sucked.

Whenever I think of the “suckitude” or unfairness of forgiveness, I think about a passage from Leif Enger’s novel, Peace Like a River. (Anyone who knows me knows that I plug this book only slightly less often than I plug Battlestar Galactica.) To set up this passage, narrator Reuben Land has just watched his father (a God-fearing, God-seeking, admirable man), publicly disgraced and fired by a nasty superintendent named Holgren.

“Dad lifted his hand, sudden as a windshift, touched Holgren’s face and pulled away. It was the oddest little slap you ever saw. Holgren quailed back a step, hunched defensively, but Dad turned and walked off; and the superintendent stood with his fingers strangely awonder over his chin, cheeks, and forehead. Then I saw that his bedeviled complexion—that face set always at a rolling boil—had changed. I saw instead skin of a healthy tan, a hale blush spread over cheekbones that suddenly held definition; above his eyes the shine of constant seepage had vanished, and a light lay at rest upon his brow.

Listen: There are easier things than witnessing a miracle of God…

…I knew what had happened, though. I knew exactly what to make of it, and it made me mad enough to spit.

What business had Dad in healing that man?

What right had Holgren to cross paths with the Great God Almighty?

The injustice took my breath away, truly it did.” (pgs 79-80)

Fiction has always helped me understand abstract matters better. This scene contains such a clear, tangible, physical manifestation of God’s forgiveness for us. His grace makes us undeserving wretches clean and whole, just as his mercy flowed through Jeremiah and healed the face of the undeserving Holgren. And, just like Reuben, I find this act of grace so doggone unfair.

But, when the situation is turned around, when I am the bedeviled sinner, doesn’t Reuben’s question still apply? What right have I to cross paths with the Great God Almighty?

None.

I have no rights to God’s forgiveness or mercy. He gives those gifts to me not because I deserve them, but because he loves me.

So who am I to withhold my forgiveness from a fellow sinner?

Who am I? I’m ashamed to say that I’m a sinner; I’m that unforgiving servant.

If it’s not my limited understanding of justice and mercy getting in the way, it’s my tendency to hold grudges and keep the past alive. It’s my own unwillingness to be seen as anyone’s “victim.” It’s my selfish desire to be in control and my stubborn refusal to surrender the situation–or the other party–to the Lord. I’m so quagmired in my own sin that I feel unable to overcome it; it calls to me and encourages me not follow the Bible’s instructions:

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)

You see, I understand my anger, my bitterness. I’m familiar with it. I’m not so familiar with the peace available to me should I surrender my anger to God. It’s a strange phenomenon, my willingness to cling to my limited, negative perceptions and behavior, when I know that God’s alternative is so much better.

Fear of the unknown helps me do the stupidest things sometimes.

And, if I am not coming across stupid enough already, then surely admitting that there’s even more about forgiveness that confuses me will max out the stupid scales.

As previously discussed, forgiveness is difficult to accept, difficult to dole out, challenges our understanding of justice, and requires that we surrender our own sins and negative feelings to God. Yet, despite all that difficulty, it seems a fairly simple concept: God forgives me even though I don’t deserve it, and he asks that I show that same forgiveness to others. (“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and all that rot.)

So why am I still confused about the subject? Well, I’m confused because I am unsure whether God’s mandate that we forgive others also means that we have to trust them. Are forgiveness and trust the same thing? Forgiveness and friendship? Does choosing to no longer spend time with someone mean that we haven’t truly forgiven them? Does forgiving someone mean we have to remain in or return to close relationship with them? Does it mean we have to like them? Spend time with them? Forgiveness requires that we keep no record of wrongs; does it also require us to wear blinders? To adopt Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? (Or is it wrong to consider that insanity, as God has the power to effect miraculous change and break lifelong habits and attitudes?) Does forgiving someone mean we should not or can not view them as a poor or undesirable influence in our lives?

“The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” (Proverbs 12:26)

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)

Let’s be clear: I do not consider myself righteous. But, righteous or not, isn’t there wisdom in choosing our companions carefully? Shouldn’t I seek out those “iron” friendships and avoid those that encourage me to dullness or rust? How do we balance that with forgiveness?

I guess my problem is that I don’t think that forgiveness and trust necessarily go hand in hand. I think the cause of some of my confusion (and questioning on the matter) is that a refusal to forgive and mistrust often do go hand in hand. Another blogger (Douglas Wilson) said it better than I: “often a lack of trust is mingled with an ongoing resentment. That resentment is inconsistent with forgiveness, but the lack of trust need not be resentful…The issue is not whether lack of forgiveness can be combined with lack of trust. Of course it can be, and when that happens it increases the confusion, as sin always does. But the point at issue is whether they can be separated. They can be, and they need to be.”

I think maybe all my confusion and frustration and questioning simply stem from my sinfulness. And I think the solution lies in surrender: surrendering to God, releasing my emotions and my sinfulness and my confusion to him. I need to approach God with a “broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) and ask him to help me forgive those I need to forgive (past and present, big or small, regardless of whether the offense was real or perceived). I need to surrender and forgive. I need to surrender partially to be obedient to God’s commands, and partially…well, bear with me through one more quote, this time from The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo:

“Forgive me,” said Lester again.

Forgiveness, reader, is, I think, something very much like hope and love, a powerful, wonderful thing.

And a ridiculous thing, too.

Isn’t it ridiculous, after all, to think that a son could forgive his father for beating the drum that sent him to his death? Isn’t it ridiculous to think that a mouse could ever forgive anyone for such perfidy?

But still, here are the words Despereaux Tilling spoke to his father. He said, “I forgive you, Pa.”

And he said those words because he sensed that it was the only way to save his own heart, to stop it from breaking in two. Despereaux, reader, spoke those words to save himself.

It sounds selfish to sum it up this way, but I really do need to forgive others for my own benefit. The alternative? Well, it’s bitter, and angry, and disobedient, and ugly, and the opposite of God wants for or from me.

I’m not sure that I’ve made much sense today. I can admit that this post is more an attempt for me to work through my own thoughts on a subject that had plagued me for longer than I care to admit, and less a polished post (do I have any of those?) fit for outside viewers.

The bottom line is: I am forgiven, I need to forgive, and to do so I need to surrender to God and ask him to lay to rest whatever confusion remains.

So if you find any spare moments to pray for a hardhearted little sinner, lift up a prayer for me?

Cheers,

Katherine Elyse


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