If it doesn't count for Christ, it doesn't count.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Unforgiven, but I ain't like that no more . . .

I was recently asked about forgiveness under circumstances where, due to some really extreme circumstances, the will to forgive is hard to find. I have been pondering this ever since.  I don't know that I have any answers, but here is what I have come up with so far.  (It is a great relief to know that I am NOT the answer man.) This mostly concerns forgiveness on our human level, but, for anyone who is a Christian, our one-to-another forgiveness cannot be separated from the forgiveness we have received from God Himself.

One of my favorite movies is Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven".  The movie's main character is a former outlaw named Will Munny.  He did some terrible, irreversible things in his life.  In the movie he is a widower, but he had married a woman who saved him from himself. 
"I ain't like that no more. I ain't the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin' whiskey and all. Just 'cause we're goin' on this killing, that don't mean I'm gonna go back to bein' the way I was."
Will Munny, somewhat changed though he may be, in no way feels deserving of forgiveness for his past and he has no place to go in search of forgiveness from those he harmed in any case.  It is never even mentioned in the movie, but there is a sad certainty that these men who carry a great amount of regret for their past actions know that they will live and die unforgiven.  I don't think they can find it within themselves to seek forgiveness of any kind.  And that is the saddest part. 

Of course, before the movie is over Will has done some more terrible things.  We like it, though, because he does the terrible things to people who also have done terrible things so they deserve it.  And we like to see people get what they deserve in the movies.  In real life, maybe not so much.  Because it's real. And we all deserve pretty much the same thing.  And, quite frankly, if I demand that the other person get what they deserve, how can I insist on avoiding what I deserve?

My observation is that more people struggle with forgiving than with being forgiven.  I cannot say that this same struggle is foreign to me in my own life.  Certainly there are many who have committed hateful, hurtful, devastating acts and who yearn for forgiveness from those they have offended. Some, like William Munny, feel that they have offended to a point beyond forgiveness, so they don't ask.  Some ask, but don't receive it. But isn't that then a problem in the other lane of the road to redemption?  There are even those who would know forgiveness if they would only receive it. (Where does that come from?)

Of course, there are the minor things, the unintended things, the serious-but-handleable things. (It's my blog and I can make up words if I want to.)  But, then there are those major things. The kind of things that can potentially knock us down and take us out.

Some acts can be so vile, hateful, thoughtless, and hurtful and can have lasting effects.  People are hurt mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, even spiritually.  Like a stone tossed into still water, ripples spread among family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, all affected in some way by the offense, and all, at least in that case, innocent.  And all because of one person's weakness.  Such acts are born of weakness.  It takes no strength, no moral character, no sympathy, . . . no love . . . to bring about such devastation.  Is it ironic that this kind of lack is such a powerful force?  Not really, because such things are of sin, self and Satan.  And these are 3 powerful forces indeed.

It takes far more strength than you or I could ever muster on our own to overcome the forces and the results of such a powerful weakness.  It takes supernatural strength to bring to bear the most powerful force in existence in mankind's war against that which would destroy us. And that force is forgiveness born of love. As the forgiven, our own sin, which would exert itself against us, has no more power over us than the power we give it.  As the forgiver, we are exerting the power to negate the effect someone else's sin would have upon us no matter how great that sin may be, and thus refusing to go into a sinful state ourselves.

To forgive is to release. Forgiveness does not release the other party from his or her responsibility in the matter.  Forgiveness removes the transgression from the relationship.  It says, "I will no longer hold that against you." Some circumstances might call for an additional, "but you cannot be a part of my life in the same way any more", or "you can't be in that same position of trust any more".  It is even possible that there may be words along the lines of, "I forgive you. This will not come between us again. But, you might have to go to jail for that!"  Then there is the convicted killer who receives forgiveness from God and man or woman perhaps moments before he or she is executed for the crime.  Like wrongs committed, forgiveness runs the scale from the simple to the extreme.

Forgiveness does as much or more for the forgiver as it does for the forgivee. As I just said, it is a release. It sets you free from the heavy chain that binds you to an act and to a person, both of which cause you pain and distress.  An unforgiven act eats away at you.  Bitterness and resentment, perhaps the same emotions that were behind the act in the first place, will grow within you. Unforgiveness can change the person that you are, and it will be an obstacle to becoming the person God made you to be.  Unforgiveness may or may not affect the other person, but it definitely affects you.  To forgive is not to give up anything worth having. It is not letting go of anything that is of real value to you.  To forgive is to set yourself free to move onward and upward.    

Still, we struggle at times to forgive. We know we should forgive. We know that we have been commanded to forgive. But, our situation is different. This is the kind of thing that you just can't forgive, isn't it?  Surely, God, You don't mean that I should forgive this!

Well the issue of forgiveness was settled long ago, but, as in so many things we face in life, we keep looking for another answer. A loop hole. A way out. We know the reason to forgive. It's the way to forgive that eludes us. It requires that we take up our cross - die to ourselves - and allow Christ alone to thrive within us. Let Jesus be our sole source of strength and our sole guide to forgiveness.

If you only knew how many times I have started a blog on this subject, and from how many different angles I tried to approach it.  The thing I learned is, any route that you try to take to get to or get around forgiveness that is not directed by Jesus Christ will lead to a dead end.

Sometimes the conduct of the offender is so constantly egregious that one might wonder what forgiveness is for.  I mean you keep forgiving, the guy keeps hurting, so what is all of your forgiving accomplishing?  Well, forgiveness is the nature of Christ, as is love. He loves the otherwise unlovable, and forgives the otherwise unforgivable.  And it is through Him that we are able to do those things as well. If you are struggling with forgiveness, take heart. It could be the other way around. You could be lying awake at night conjuring up all kinds of ways to get revenge with the idea of forgiving anyone never entering your mind. The fact that you are struggling to find a will and a way to forgive is evidence that the very nature of Christ is alive within you and seeking to be known!

Proverbs 20:22 Do not say, “I’ll pay you back for this wrong!”  Wait for the LORD, and he will avenge you.

Matthew 5:23-24  “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift." 

Matthew 5:44-45a  ". . . I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.".

Mark 11:25-26  "And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

There are so many verses of scripture that help us with forgiveness, but I think this next one sums it up best for us: 

Ephesians 4:29-32  "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."

When it comes down to it, forgiveness is a choice. So, where do you find the strength to make that choice?  Go to the One who commanded it in the first place. He will never tell you to do something that He will not provide everything needed for its accomplishment. It is not about us looking "big".  It is about showing how big our God is!

Forgiveness is a great testimony, a great witness to the power of Christ in our lives. When the time comes that forgiveness pours out from God and through us, some will no doubt say, "It takes a big heart to be able to forgive like that!"  Won't it be a grand thing when our reply is, "Not really. It takes a big savior to be able to forgive like that."


PS   Here is one of my all time favorites.