Thursday, August 21, 2008

Forgiveness (continued)

I've been thinking more about the topic of forgiveness. My last post mentioned how shocked I was that my opinions, and my experiences, of forgiveness were so different than many of the members in my bible class at church.

Eventually I realized that their opinions were exactly what my own would have been a few years ago. And that the way we feel about forgiving each other is inexorably tied to how we think God forgives. Jesus said that the two greatest commands were:

1) Love God with all you've got
2) Love your neighbor as yourself.

He said everything hangs on these. And they're melded together. Whatever I think about God will inevitably shape how I treat my fellow man. If I think the God of the Old Testament is waiting to send fire on the sinners, I might forcefully protest at a solider's funeral or a gay wedding and get the warning out. I become a smaller, flawed extension of the God I perceive. That's what many Christians mean when they quote things like Ephesians 3 and say that God is "at work within us".

So I considered that if I think God will send the vast majority of people to eternal torment, how will that impact the way I forgive other people here on earth? Can I truly "give it up to God" and offer pure, total forgiveness to people if I think that the creator of the universe is going to punish? Or am I merely waiting on them to "get theirs" when judgment day comes?

I can't answer for anyone else. I don't know where my bible class participants sit on this issue. But for me, when I thought God would punish in eternity, I could never really 100% forgive people here on earth. Couldn't do it.

Then I thought about some biblical examples of forgiveness, from Jesus himself. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it got me thinking:

#1 -- The Adulteress

In John chapter 8 Jesus is teaching in the temple courts when the religious leaders bring a woman to him. They claim the woman is caught in adultery, and according to Mosaic law she must be killed by stoning. Jesus responded at first with silence and started to write in the dirt, but eventually he uttered the famous "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Everybody left, ashamed. Later he looked up and the woman was still standing there, surely shocked that she was still alive. The scene ends with this exchange:

Jesus: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
Woman: "No one, sir."
Jesus: "Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin."

#2 -- The Murderers

In Luke 23 we see the death of Jesus. Correction -- the murder of Jesus. He was in his early 30s and was apparently healthy until being severely beaten and hung on a cross to suffocate. And here was the Messiah, the son of God, the blameless one, being brutally killed for no justifiable reason. Surely if there was an unforgiveable sin, this would be it. The God of thunder would come charging in. Retribution would be swift and brutal. Justice would be served. So what did Jesus say?

"Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

#3 -- The Doubters

So Jesus was killed. And in the events leading up to his death, his disciples, his closest friends, disappeared from the picture. Most we just don't hear about during and immediately after the crucifixion, except that John was near the cross while Jesus died. And that Peter was elsewhere in the city, denying that he even knew Jesus.

In John 20 we get a glimpse of the disciples three days after Jesus was buried, and they're noted to be locked in a house, fearing for their lives. Not exactly a stirring tribute.

Jesus appears to them multiple times and the final time he asks them to meet him on a mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28 notes that even now, when they saw him, they doubted.

These men had every possible advantage of belief. They'd been with Jesus 24/7 for three years. They'd seen him face-to-face and heard his direct teachings. They'd seen him alive again after being killed. Yet still they doubted.

And if there was any sense of repentance necessary here, any requirement to make things right, Matthew 28 doesn't have a record of it. Jesus just asked his friends to get to work.


One thing strikes me as a common theme across these stories -- none of the screwed up people actually asked for forgiveness. They just received it. Yes, Jesus told the woman to leave her life of sin, but after he said he didn't condemn her. Forgiveness came first, then a new life could begin.

My former picture was that I had to repent and follow the steps to salvation, in order to receive forgiveness. That was how I saw God interacting with me. So in turn, when it was my time to forgive someone who had hurt me, they had to ask for it first. My forgiveness was conditional, naturally, because I thought God's was too. How could I hold myself to a higher standard than what I thought God would provide?

I admit that this might be merely my own personal weakness. Others may be able to forgive others ceaselessly in this life, even if they think God will condemn them in the next. But for me, I had to remember those greatest commands, and that above all I am to love my neighbor as myself. To forgive them without ceasing. And if my treatment of people depends on my picture of God, I chose to picture God providing forgiveness without ceasing. They my own forgiveness flowed to others naturally.

I may be wrong about all this. Other bible verses can surely be cited to conflict with the three stories noted above. But my perspective has helped me better fulfill the greatest commands, and I think that is a good thing.

Bottom line: When the most heinous act in history was being accomplished, even though the murderers showed no sign of remorse, Jesus said to God, "forgive them." I believe God said, "Done."


LisaS said...

slowly Michael moves towards the Orthodox world ... it's insidious isn't it

Debby said...

Sorry. I could not even complete the entry, Michael. I stopped dead at "I become a smaller, flawed extension of the God I perceive." Wow. Must digest this. There's a big difference a wise guy and a wise man. How do you do both?

I'll be back.

Andrew said...

Well said my friend! We do not do justice to the God who can do all when we limit him with such pettiness. Your point is so valid, in the back corners of our theology we are not believing that God REALLY forgives.

Don't know if ya like to listen to a good speaker, but Bart Campolo talks about many of the thoughts you brought up here at:

Bob said...

Wow. That's all I can say.

The two greatest commandments are so simple yet so incredibly complex, so much so that a lot of folks just really can't accept them in their raw form.

Keep writing.

Redlefty said...


:) I continue to find many beautiful things in the Orthodox perspectives.


Thanks, and I hope you make it back to finish. :)


I much prefer bad speakers, but sometimes I'll give in and listen to a good speaker (sarcasm). Thanks for the link!


I will surely keep writing. You do the same!

Rene'e said...

Hi Micheal,

"And that the way we feel about forgiving each other is inexorably tied to how we think God forgives."

I like your post. I agree with you 100%.

For Me;
I was taught that an additional way we could understand the concept of forgiveness is from the Lord's Prayer.

"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

The prayer implies if we ask God (in prayer) for forgiveness of ourselves, then also we must forgive others.

What is your thoughts?

Redlefty said...


I agree about the Lord's prayer, except perhaps for the inclusion of the word "if" in your statement.

I haven't looked at the Greek text in a while, but I believe the record of Jesus' phrasing is a presumptive future tense, in other words, when we forgive others, not if.

He used the same phrasing in the sermon on the mount (when you fast, when you pray, when you give, do it like this... not if).

Which to me begs the question -- if our forgiveness of others is to be assumed as the right thing to do, always, with no exceptions, then dare we assume the same of God's forgiveness?

I think you're certainly onto something about the Lord's prayer and how our forgiveness and God's forgiveness are mysteriously linked.

Rene'e said...

Thanks for answering. Keep in mind I a wading through these subjects myself and I am far from an expert.Not to mention, I lack the gift of being able to put my thoughts clearly in words. I ask for your patience with me.

I am told by my Church that there is no sin that God will not forgive.

What I am referencing here is our own willingness to forgive others.

As a parent and father which you are, I am sure that there is no offense that your children could commit against you or others that you would not forgive. This is how I am told God is with us.

But, if your children continued to commit the same offense to you or others knowing that you would forgive them, that places things in a different light so to speak.

They really would not be sincerely sorry for having offended you or others, do you agree?

This I am sure for both of us as parents,we can agree would cause us pain and disappointment, but we would continue to love them. As God love us.

For me to commit an offense (sin) to another which is also offending God, with deliberate intent, knowing that God will forgive me, would be arrogant and prideful and taking advantage of God's forgiveness, and Jesus's Sacrifice for me personally.

For me to refuse forgiveness to others who commit offenses against me would be prideful and arrogant.

My point is that if I believe there is no sin I could commit that God would not forgive, and I am sincerely and contritely sorry for having offended God and others (for me this is repentance), than I should not withhold from forgiving those who have commited offense to me. To do so would be placing myself above God and others with my pride.

For me personally, I feel that to show God, that I am truly sorry for having offended Him, I ask for forgiveness (as the Lord's prayer implies we should) and show my sincerity by not committing that offence again.

This is how I would know as a parent that my child was truly sorry for what they had done, and not because they knew I would forgive them and love them anyway.

Peace to you.

Redlefty said...

You are bringing up many excellent points. I'm almost leaning toward another blog post on the topic for further exploration of it, but for now I'll answer here in the comments.

I'm in agreement with just about everything you're saying. If infinite forgiveness leads us to constant disobedience just because we know we can get away with it, then we've missed the point. There's a deeper truth there, and a better path.

One thing I'd like to add to the parenting metaphor is that when my kids rebel, their offense to me is not the primary issue. It's not that they've offended me -- it's that I have to watch them experience the painful consequences of their rebellion that truly hurts.

For example, I teach my kids to be honest. Then I see my daughter lie to her friends. Sure, that hurts me, but the real pain as a father is to see her lose friendships and receive back all the pain that she's caused them. Natural consequences had been set in motion.

I see God's relationship with us as very similar. The greatest commands are a path to a beautiful life. When we don't love our neighbor, sure, it might offend God, but the true tragedy is that we hurt each other and experience all types of ripple-effect consequences and ugliness.

So when the theological issues get too complicated for me, I just look around and see the powerful simplicity of the greatest commands, and how they just seem to work on a practical level to make individuals, groups and entire cultures function better. God's a big guy, he's been watching us offend him for a long time and hasn't struck us down yet in frustration. We're the ones who keep paying the price for our rebellion.

This puts a different spin on things, I think. It presents the notion that if you keep rebelling because you know I'll always forgive you, you're only hurting yourself.

Your writing was very clear, I think, in describing what a contrite heart looks like. Thank you for sharing.

Rene'e said...

Thank you.

I share agreement with you on these points and your thoughts on the subject, you explained what I was trying to say better in words than I was able to do.

Peace to you.

Debby said...

So do you suppose that since God knows our hearts, His forgiveness is doled out in amounts equal to our repentance? He sees a truly contrite heart laid open in repentance, and his forgiveness covers and cleanses that heart totally. If you repent but a little, laying small parts of your heart open for that forgiveness, he does his best to wash the parts of our lives that we have turned over to him. Perhaps the forgiveness is meted out in measures proportionate to the sins that we dare to lay before Him in seeking His forgiveness. Does this make sense?

In a way our trust in our God, our faith in Him is directly proportional to the amount of grace we are able to receive. Not because His gifts come with limitations, but because we are limited in what we can accept.

Redlefty said...

Yes, Debby, that makes a lot of sense!

We may have a different perspective on the use of the word "forgivness" that what happens as we confess/repent, but I think the process holds true. As we work on different aspects and weaknesses we grow.

The week after the bible class on forgiveness, I taught on the topic of listening. I asked the class (~75 people) where they hear God. Some said nature. Some said in children. One man said he hears God in other people. You get the picture.

I looked around the room and said, "Does everybody hear God in nature? Or in children? No, some of us hear him in different places. But obviously it's not because he's absent. We hear him in our own ways, with our own limitations and perspectives."

Perhaps you're saying something similar happens with grace? We each are able to let a different part of ourselves be surrendered, and that part receives healing. But all of us also hold onto something else in ourselves, something we're not ready to surrender yet.

Regarding my opening statement in this comment about our use of the word "forgiveness", I suspect that forgiveness isn't really what happens when we repent. I suspect the forgiveness is already done from a divine perspective -- we just need time to catch up and forgive ourselves, which is a process.

One of my dad's favorite gospel songs is called "It Is Finished". Here's part of it:

It is finished, the battle is over
It is finished there'll be no more war
It is finished the end of the conflict
It is finished and Jesus is Lord

Yet in my heart the battle was still raging
Not all prisoners of war had come home
These were battlefields of my own making
I didn't know that the war had been won

Debby said...

I believe that our sin is between us and God. I do not believe in repentance as a public act. I believe that repentance comes out of our relationship with God, as we discern His will for our lives, and then realize that we fall short of His plans for us. Repentance should really be a spiritual growth, with no guilt attached, a realization followed by a step closer to God. Repentance should be the journey that brings us to God Himself.

t.k.foster said...

The one who condemns is guilty of far worse than the one who is condemned; self-righteousness can be the worst evil of all. We are not better than our fellow man/woman and we are all one mistake away from being that person. Our focus should be on self-reflection and not paying attention to other's stumbling.

Debby said...

PS Still thinking on this post. Wish to clarify. While I think that seeking forgiveness from God is a private issue, if you've hurt others, seeking their forgiveness is important as well. But repenting to God, that's between you and God.

Don said...

Michael- Jesus'two directives are interesting. If I believe our Source is part of us, an integral part, since he created us, if you follow the second directive, you HAVE followed the first. It is an impossibilty NOT to follow the first. Our neighbor is a part of God, from God, created by God. Love the neighbor, love God..The problem seems to be that most of us, because of our traditional Christian upbringing, have for some reason been taught that we are not worthy of God's love. We have to change something, DO something to deserve his love. This results in us not truly loving ourselves. This becomes a "catch 22" for us. If we cannot truly learn to love ourselves, we cannot truly learn to love our neighbor. The question then becomes, can we truly love God, our Source.
I view repentance a little differently than some. I see repentance, true metanoia, as changing direction in our life. This metanoia happened for me after 59 years in a traditional Christian church, atmosphere. I am heading in a different direction. I believe this is the meaning of the Greek word, metanoia, the most used Greek term for our word repentance. I really think we need to reassess some of the most common "Christian" words that all of us believe we "understand". Blessings to all

Redlefty said...


How often do you think we sin against God without breaking the second command and somehow hurting another person?

My own suspicion is that this is pretty rare, and since none of us live in a vacuum almost everything we do affects somebody else. But I reserve the right to be totally wrong. :)

Don, yes, you and I have both studied the texts from the persepctive of important words (grace, kingdom of heaven, hell, death) and it's amazing how our preconceived notions of the English words color the entire book. I used to think certain things were obvious in the bible, just by reading the NIV or New King James. Now after studying the Greek and Hebrew, I'm not sure we even got it close sometimes. And my preconceived notions keep getting blowed up to smithereens.

Debby said...

No. I agree with that. But sometimes, don't you think that people want this big public demonstration of repentance? And that also, some give that big public repentance without anything internal going on (I'm thinking John Edwards at the moment). Seeking forgiveness from God is always an internal dialogue, in my opinion. This doesn't mean you should not ask for forgiveness from people, if you've wronged them, but the Godly forgiveness, and repenting to God himself are internal dialogues. I think, anyways.

Redlefty said...

Ah, I see now. Yes, I think you're right on.

My own background is in a church that almost never, never has a public confession or repentance. It's offered weekly but rarely accepted by anybody, which is why I wasn't thinking about the big public scene.

Debby said...

And why do you think it is that we, as a nation, have such an insatiable desire to see someone standing before us offering explanations and apologies. And then there is the endless media discussion from the experts about whether the person was sincere or not, or what their body language says, etc. etc. etc. It's not much different from public floggings. Without the flogging. We wondered all those years ago, how people could push to the center of the town square to watch public floggings, or witch burnings, or hangings. This media stuff does not strike me as much different.

It makes me really uncomfortable, and I'm not really able to give you a short answer if you ask me why.

MamaRose said...

WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I'd missed OUT on a LOT--before I got caught up--read your blog & ALSO all the comments you've gotten!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Michael, you ARE being a TEACHER!!!

And, one important part of that is LISTENING--why your lesson that, I bet!!!!!!!!! We ALL could do a BETTER job of listening!!!!!!!!!!!!

Your Dad & I often 'confess' to 'Selective' Listening--only to the things we WANT to hear--make us 'comfortable/happy'!!!!!!!!!

Anyway, on Forgiveness: I always 'understood' the Lord's Prayer to 'say' that UNTIL/UNLESS we forgave others who sinned AGAINST US--God would NOT forgive us!!!!!!!!!--and, still do--BUT, I have come to understand that I CAN & NEED to forgive someone who has hurt me--EVEN BEFORE they ASK me!!!
Because, they may NEVER 'ask' me!!!
It's the 'RIGHT' thing to do & it RELEASES me from having them 'control' my LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I 'GET' that, now--and, I'm 55!!!!!

So, it's VERY GOOD to 'talk' about these things & LEARN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And, a word that kept coming to my mind, but NO ONE had 'said'/written, yet was:

That's REALLY what God WANTS from us--a HUMBLE & CONTRITE HEART!!!!!
Ready to 'DO HIS WILL' & BE HAPPY about it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

WAY TO GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Made me THINK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LOVE YOU BUNCHES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Mom

Logan said...

Beautifully written!