Wednesday, 06 June 2012 14:32

Choosing Forgiveness

Written by  Karen Wingate
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I remember the sick feeling in my stomach when I heard about the brutal shooting of ten Amish girls at a rural school near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in October, 2006. Five girls died and, to this day, one survivor still remains semi-comatose in her parents’ home. How could anyone be so vicious? News reports validated that I wasn’t the only one who felt horror - and yes, a tinge of anger - at this unfair and evil act.

 


Shock turned to wonder when the nation observed the reaction of those closest to the tragedy - the Amish themselves. One of the murdered girls’ grandfathers warned young relatives, “We must not think evil of this man.” Amish neighbors shared gifts, hugs and tears with the family of murderer, Charles Roberts, who concluded his violent act by killing himself. In spite of their own loss of life, damaged emotions and overwhelming medical bills, the community started a fund for the killer’s family and willingly suffered more emotional trauma by attending Roberts’ funeral.

As a parent and Sunday School teacher, I’ve taught children to say the magic words: “Please,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” While it’s important to teach children these concepts, in the case of forgiveness, we need to go a few steps further. I’m afraid we’ve given children the mistaken idea that simply saying the words, “I forgive you” solves the problem. Whenever we confront such evil, however, the words simply aren’t enough. We’re led to wonder: how do I know when I’ve really forgiven?

Through their actions, the Amish showed that forgiveness is more than a three-word phrase. Forgiveness is expressed in the way we choose to respond toward the one who offended us. It is an agreement to bear the consequences caused by the offense and a commitment to the mending of a relationship we didn’t break. This is possible because we trust God will take care of us and delights to weave the adversity of our experience into His beautiful plan for our lives. Before we can experience the healing forgiveness brings, we have to admit to ourselves that there is a debt to be reconciled.

The Bottom Line
So often I’ve heard - and you probably have too - that we should “forgive and forget.” It’s not that simple. Our souls cry for justice. How can we forget when we still see the carnage and taste the galling leftovers of sin and selfishness?

The truth is: sin has consequences. Selfish or irresponsible choices have the potential to smash the dreams and alter the life direction of innocent bystanders. Even small acts of rudeness or selfishness can affect our day.

Suppose you just purchased the car of your dreams. You park that sleek beauty in your driveway. Five minutes later, distracted while talking on my cell phone, I plow into your beautiful new car. Your insurance company assesses the damage at $8000. Guess what? I have no insurance. I don’t even have a driver’s license. I shouldn’t be driving in the first place!

You now have a choice. You can insist I pay for the damaged car. You can file criminal charges against me. Or you could be really nice and say, “It’s ok. Just forget about it.” But as I gratefully drive away, you turn and face your shattered dream. You are minus one beautiful, new, unbroken car. You still face an $8000 repair bill.

That is what amazes me about Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35. In one short sentence, the master canceled the huge debt the servant owed. But I have to hit the pause button whenever I read that part of the story. The debt still existed. Someone, most likely the master, had to pay the debt. Even if the master declared bankruptcy, someone was out a lot of money.

God did not smooth over our sin with a beneficent “I forgive you.” Our sin cost Jesus His life-blood. He didn’t deserve to die. Of all people, He didn’t deserve the repercussions from our wrongdoing. Yet He was willing to pay the highest price to restore us back into relationship with His Father.

Forgiveness, then, is choosing to take over the payment of a debt, making it possible for restoration to occur. In our humanness, however, can we afford to do what Christ did for us?

Benchmarks of Forgiveness
Accepting a debt we shouldn’t have to pay sounds very unfair and virtually impossible. Colossians 3:14 shows us how we can do this: we forgive as Christ forgave us. Jesus was able to forgive because He knew God had the power to rescue Him from death. In turn, we don’t have to be concerned over how much someone’s sin will mess up our lives. God has the power to rescue us from anything.

Choosing to forgive becomes easier when we trust God’s power and desire to take care of us. Even if we lose our jobs, pension plans and stock holdings, like Enron Corporation employees did after corrupt upper level executives brought about its downfall, God can help us pay any debt an offender thrusts upon us. God has promised to provide whatever we need (Philippians 4:19). If we can trust God to take care of our daily needs, we can also trust Him to help us bear the loss caused by someone’s offense.

It gets better. God delights to use the refuse of our lives to build our character, making us strong and useful for Him. Clay can be fashioned into useful vessels if it is pliable. God can mold me into a vessel useful for Kingdom service if I am not hardened by bitterness over how someone has offended me. If I hold onto my resentment, I miss an opportunity to move forward in my walk with Him and to reflect His character to those I am trying to influence for His Kingdom.

The Old Testament character, Joseph, could forgive his brothers because he was willing to trust that God could do something awesome with the events of his life propelled by his brothers’ unfair sale of him into slavery. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good,” he told them (Genesis 50:20).
Forgiveness actively pursues the process of restoring the relationship, recognizing that it is a process, not an event. Restoration takes time and may not happen at all. Joseph had to wait over twenty years before he was reconciled with his brothers. Even so, as we see in the context of Genesis 50, the relationship remained strained as Joseph’s brothers never fully trusted his willingness to forgive. The important thing is that, for our part, we leave the door open to the possibility of reconciliation.

When we suffer the unintended consequences of another’s sinful behavior, we have a marvelous opportunity to mirror the grace Christ so freely offers to us. Our forgiving behavior becomes a microcosm of what Christ did on the cross when he paid the debt for our sin. The third school shooting that week and the twenty-fourth in our nation in the year 2006, the Amish school shooting was nothing unusual in and of itself. The world heard of the event because the community was willing to put feet on their forgiveness. God’s grace went on parade that week when neighbors were willing to hold the hands of the killer’s widow.

We forgive when we stop fighting the compulsion to balance the scales of justice, relinquish our loss into the hands of our capable Lord, and care more about someone’s relationship with God than how they have hurt us. It is through our active choice to forgive that others will taste and long for ultimate forgiveness found only in Christ Jesus.

Karen Wingate, a minister’s wife in Western Illinois, writes a blog on Children’s Ministry at www.childrenteach.blogspot.com. She and her husband have two adult daughters.

Last modified on Friday, 08 June 2012 23:11
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