Thursday, May 14, 2015

Progressive Christianity: Forgiveness

Ben Corey's next chapter is titled 'Undiluted Forgiveness'. And as he has done in other parts of the book, he uses something from his own life to make his point.

During one part of his seminary career he was assigned lots of reading. He found that he was getting further behind and more books were added to the list. He writes,

One night as I had another restless night’s sleep with my mind recalling all the hurt and disappointment I had experienced in life, I looked over at that growing stack of books and realized they were far too like my growing stack of hurt and disappointment — they just kept piling up and encroaching on my ability to fully embrace day-to-day living.

Ben has some wisdom to share in this context.

Like a domino effect, there are seasons in life when we feel like we’re experiencing one hurt after another to such a degree that we can barely think, function, or make it through the day.

New hurts remind us of old hurts.
Fresh wounds tear open partially healed wounds.
Current disappointment triggers prior disappointment.

As I began to come to terms with this dominating force of compound hurt, I began to realize that while there is an element of hurt we can’t control, there is an element to dealing with hurt that we can control.

Ben's point is that we can deal with some of life's hurts by forgiving those who have brought that hurt into our lives. He uses Jesus' parable about the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18.21-35) to drive home the importance of forgiveness.

Here is how he ends this chapter.

The radical message of Jesus tells us that we’ve been misunderstanding the nature of forgiveness all along — forgiveness isn’t what sets them free, it’s what sets us free. You and I both have a stack of books, and if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’ll realize that doing things our own way only makes that stack of books get higher and higher. Given enough time, we find ourselves in an emotional prison with just our own selves and the books. The radical message of Jesus, however, reminds us that this is a prison that is locked from the inside and we alone have the power to unlock the door and walk out into wide open spaces in complete freedom.

I fully agree with Ben's stress on the importance of forgiveness as well as its neglect. And yet, there were some gaps in what he wrote. So, I'm going to take the opportunity here to offer a thought or two.

First, I think that it would have been helpful for Ben to include a definition of forgiveness. What exactly are we talking about?  Let me offer a definition:

Forgiveness is my promise that I will not allow some sin committed against me to interfere with my relationship with the person I'm forgiving.

This, after all, is what God does in forgiving us. Consider this promise of His.

I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43.25)

Now God isn't talking about amnesia when it comes to not remembering our sins. He can't forget anything, not in that sense. Instead, He is applying the biblical concept of remembering. Here's one example.

But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided. (Genesis 8:1)

It's not that God had a senior moment and had forgotten all about Noah. To 'remember' is to bring to mind and then take action. And that's what God did with Noah. He 'remembered' him and then sent that wind.

And that's what His promise is about when it comes to our sins. He won't 'remember' them. If He did bring our sins to mind and then take action, He would have to condemn us. He promises not to do that, not to let our sin interfere with the relationship that He now has with us. And He can do this because of Jesus.

So, imitating God, we promise the same thing when we forgive someone else. I have found that understanding forgiveness in this way can be quite helpful. It can answer lots of practical questions.

There is another thing in this chapter that I need to comment on. Ben uses that parable at the end of Matthew 18 to make his point about why we should forgive. I think that he misses the point of the parable. Ben writes that we forgive so that we can leave our emotional prison and walk out into freedom. That's nowhere in that parable. But here is something that Jesus does include.

And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

There are two things to note here and seeing them will help to appreciate the edge there is to Jesus' words.

First, though the master had previously cancelled the debt of his servant, he withdrew that forgiveness because of the servant's refusal to forgive his fellow servant. Jesus said that the Father would do the same to any disciple who refused to forgive another Christian. A disciple can have his forgiveness revoked by the Father. That is very sobering.

The second thing to note is what happened to that servant. This is the translation Ben uses - and it's accurate.

In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Tortured? Until…? Did Jesus really mean that?

Jesus wanted to make sure that His listeners got the point. Refusal to forgive has enormous consequences for any disciple. I think that Ben would have done well to have included this in his chapter.