Forgiving is For Giving
FORGIVING IS FOR GIVING
Have you got your Christmas shopping done yet? If you are like me, you wait till the last minute. In case you are still in a rut about what to get your loved ones for Christmas, your pastor has come up with some lists of the hottest items for this Christmas season. Don’t worry, you can thank me later….by getting me a Chick Fil A gift card (I have simple needs). According to the New York Post‘s list of top twenty Christmas gifts, you might want to get water proof puppy boots, or a life size eighteen inch Star Wars figurine, or the Ultimate Frank Sinatra Vinyl edition (what’s vinyl again?). On Amazon.com, the most popular board games that you could use to bring your family together this Christmas season includes Cards Against Humanity, a card game whose tagline is, ”A party game for horrible people. Unlike most of the party games you’ve played before, Cards Against Humanity is as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.” Or you might want to try Exploding Kittens, which is a card game that markets itself as “a card game for people who are into kittens and explosions.”
But if you are still at a loss for what to give this holiday season, your pastor has a more useful suggestion. A way to put the Christ back into Christmas. It’s the gift of forgiveness. Because as the title of our sermon suggests today, “Forgiving is for Giving.” I will warn you: Forgiveness is a hard gift to give. A costly gift to give. But since Jesus gave that gift to us, we have the power to give that gift to others.
We may know in our heads that the Bible talks a lot about forgiveness. But in our hearts, I don’t think we really believe it. Not in our relationships, not in the way we run our justice system, not as a nation as a whole. It’s a pretty unforgiving world, we must admit, so while forgiveness sounds like a nice idea in theory, it also sounds like a dangerous idea in practice. I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness. I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the War in Syria, the rise of ISIS, and how all this is shaking out in our political campaigns here in America. I graduated high school the class of 2002. I came of age by watching the towers fall on television, by hearing about the Pentagon being struck only a couple of hours away from where I lived in Virginia. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, I watched on TV as college students celebrated in the streets. Later, a guy in his early twenties explained to me that Osama Bin Laden had been like the boogie man for people his age. The War on Terror is all they had ever known. When I heard about the Paris Terror attacks, I was watching the scene unfold on television at the gym. Afterwards, I went to Kari, my girlfriend’s house, and I told her before Paris I had hope, but now I knew this war would never end. I didn’t want Kari’s daughter Emmalee to inherit such a world.
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
This verse strikes me every time I pray it. I have come to see I am a pretty unforgiving person. Does that mean I am not forgiven every time I don’t forgive? I don’t think so. Instead, I think our willingness to forgive is a sign or fruit of our salvation. It is a sign that we have received our forgiveness from God and we are willing to give that to others. A lack of forgiveness is also a sign that we may call Jesus Lord, but as He will later teach, we in fact never knew Him ( Matthew 7:21-23). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set boundaries against people who are hurting us. Forgiving is different than reconciling. God forgave sin once and for all through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We forgive because He first forgave us, as 1 John tells us. But just because God forgave the world does not mean every individual is reconciled to God. Just because you forgive someone doesn’t mean you have to have a relationship with them. Just because we have forgiving hearts doesn’t mean we can’t defend our nation. It does mean we have to be aware of the state of our hearts and to take Jesus’ teachings seriously in every area of our lives.
Jesus gives a very graphic description of what He means by “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” in Matthew 18. In this parable, the King’s servant has run up a tremendous debt. Many people assume that he did so through mismanagement, but we are not told how this debt happened. Some scholars believe the servant was collecting taxes for the master and perhaps because of several poor harvests he was unable to make his quota. The amount he owed is tremendous. Ten thousand talents in today’s language would mean a whole lot of money. We are talking about amounts similar to the Greek Debt Crisis, a debt in the billions. One scholar estimated that it would take the servant 193,000 years to pay off the debt (Turner, pg 450). The servant knows he can’t pay the sum back, but he is desperate, so he asks for more time. But the master has mercy on him and does more than he asks: he forgives the entire debt. But then the servant goes to one of his fellow servants and basically chokes the guy, demanding that he pay him back 100 denarii. One hundred denarii is not a small sum. A denarii is a day’s wage. So that is a good deal of money. But there are 6,000 denarii in a talent (Morris, 471). So this chief servant is sort of being a hypocrite considering what he has been forgiven, to demand so much of someone else. Of course, word gets around, and the master hears about it. He sends the wicked slave to the jailer to be tortured until he can pay his debt. Thing is, in jail you can’t pay your debt, and even if you could, the servant owes too much to ever pay it. It’s a pretty gruesome scene. The message of the parable seems to be that if altruism doesn’t convince you to forgive, then self-interest should. If we don’t believe this is talk about eternal punishment, then we can certainly agree Jesus is talking about punishment in the here and now. Unforgiveness is a heavy burden. Hate destroys us from the inside out. As Dr. Everett Worthington, author of Forgiving and Reconciling, points out, “Hating people is like burning down your house to get rid of a rat” (Worthington, 22).
Dr. Worthington, or Ev as he is known, is a Professor in Richmond where I spent eight years of my life. One of my best friends works for him doing forgiveness research. I have met Ev personally, and his wife helped my church with an outreach event. I’ve had Ev’s book on my shelf for a good seven years, but I never read it till now. Ev is not just a professor who lives in an ivory tower and talks the talk about forgiveness. He knows what he is talking about. He knows because on New Year’s Eve 1995, his mother was murdered with a crowbar during a home break in. Ev and his wife are committed Christians, and he had been studying forgiveness since the 1980s. But even he wanted to find the perpetrator and beat his head in with a baseball bat. Many of you have met my mother. And the thought of someone doing something like that to her makes me want to do the same thing that he dreamed about doing.
Ev thought of many reasons not to forgive. Forgiveness denies justice, forgiveness interferes with grieving… the list goes on. Ev acknowledges there is a need to keep dangerous people off the streets, that sometimes evil must be fought with force. And righteous anger at injustice has motivated many to change the world. But as Ev puts it, “Righteous anger is not the same as bitter, resentful, hateful, hostile, ruminative unforgiveness” (Worthington, 21). As for forgiveness interfering with grieving, Ev has this to say: “Forgiveness does not deny that a true offense has occurred. It doesn’t deny the pain and sadness of a true loss. In fact, forgiveness works hand in glove with grieving to help resolve grief faster and more thoroughly” (Worthington, 21).
I don’t know why Ev’s book sat on my shelf for seven years. Maybe it is because of the sheer number of books I have. But in reality, I think part of it was because I wasn’t ready to read what he had to say. As my counselor put it, people say what they believe but they do what they actually believe. I say I believe in forgiveness, but I don’t act that way. If someone murdered my mom, I would hope they would get the needle and then burn in hell. Anyone to suggest otherwise is crazy in my book. That is what I thought till I read Ev’s book, which pointed me back to the Book and what Jesus said.
Before I read Ev’s book, I thought forgiveness was primarily about getting. Getting what you need. I thought today’s parable taught that if you can’t forgive for the sake of the other person, forgive for yourself, forgive to survive. Forgiving was for getting. Getting what I need for salvation. Getting what I need to be emotionally healthy. But after reading Ev’s book, I realize that thinking that way did not actually make me more forgiving. I was like the ungrateful servant. I honestly wanted to save my own hide. I was grateful for God for forgiveness, but not grace-filled by God so I could give forgiveness. Ev’s research as a psychologist bore this out. People who forgave because they believed that forgiveness was for giving, that is those who forgave out of empathy and care for the perpetrator, their forgiveness was deeper and lasted longer than those who believed forgiveness was for getting, those who forgave for their own health and well-being.
But how in the world are we supposed to give a gift to those who hurt us? To those who don’t deserve it? I mean, God can do that, but that is because He is God. He doesn’t know what it is like to be human… Oh wait, I forgot about Jesus… Never mind. Jesus was divine, but He was also a man. And if Jesus could forgive as a human being, so can I forgive those who hurt me. So can you. But it helps to have some steps. Ev provides us steps for forgiveness through the acronym REACH (pg 73).
R stands for Recall the Hurt. This is not finger wagging, or playing the blame game. But it is not denial either. It is recalling the hurt as objectively as possible and admitting that a wrong was done to you. When we recall the hurt, we try to replace into that memory good feelings about the person instead of bad. We can’t change the past. But we can remember the past differently.
E stands for Empathize. This means walking in the shoes of the one who hurt you and trying to understand things from their perspective. When people hurt us, we are tempted to turn them into monsters. We are tempted to think that their humanity has been swallowed up by pathology or ideology and they simply cannot be understood. But as Ev puts it, “As Christians, we know that all people are created in the image of God, and all are redeemable. Jesus died for all people. They are not monsters or devils. So do not recall the hurt by depersonalizing the one who hurt you” (Worthington, 86).
A stands for Altruism. We are to offer them the altruistic gift of forgiveness. We are to forgive them because we remember what it is like to be forgiven and we want them to have that feeling. Some people think that to be altruistic, you can’t have any impure motives, that you can’t get anything out of it. But as Ev tells us, “Love occurs between two people. Love given is love returned. Altruism is not giving without getting anything in return. It simply is giving for the benefit of the other person” (Worthington, 120).
C stands for Commit Publicly to Forgive. This is the ancient art of confession. Not just to God, but to another human being you trust. When we make our forgiveness public, we can be held accountable for our commitment. How do we know who to trust with our confession? A mentor of mine once told me just to ask yourself. “Is this person safe and supportive?” We usually know the answer to this question in our gut.
H stands for Hold onto Forgiveness. We hold onto forgiveness by not focusing on negative emotions, by letting people hold us accountable to our commitment to forgive, and by seeking to have our character shaped into the image of Christ, the Savior that we serve. Often, first we decide to forgive, and as we pray, as we act out our forgiveness, we begin to change our emotions and feel the forgiveness that we hoped for.
Forgiving is for giving. That’s a gift I need to give today. That is a gift you need to give today. You can probably think of someone right now who needs that gift from you, not because they deserve it, but because you love them and because God loves them. So it’s time to reach. To reach deep into our hearts, deep into the abundance of the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, and forgive as we have been forgiven. Forgiveness is hard, reconciliation is harder, loving our enemies seems impossible. But we know all things are possible with God. I leave you with the last words of Everette Worthington from his book. If a man who had his mother slaughtered could write these words, ask yourself what is possible in your own hearts?
“We are never told that forgiveness or reconciliation will be easy. Thomas Paine, one of the founders of freedom for the USA, said, ‘That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.’ Opening ourselves to granting other-oriented forgiveness is not easy. No friend, family member, author or television personality can do it for us. Marilyn Ferguson said, ‘No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside.’ When we allow that gate to be opened through the power of the Holy Spirit, we step through it and leap outward to plunge into the cool, refreshing freedom of forgiving. Perhaps just as important, we also encourage and bless the other person with the gift of forgiving that is for giving” (Worthington, pg 258).