“I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.” Isaiah 43:25 ESV
It has been said that you can’t lead someone somewhere you haven’t been. This last season of moving to Utrecht has been filled with new experiences and emotions, many of which were not so pleasant. I’ve been many places I never thought I needed to go. I’ve explored deeper depths of my own soul than at any other time in my life. What I found there only added to any self pity and anguish I was already experiencing. But that’s the beauty of transition. It forces us into a place where our armor’s off, the gloves are down, and God can begin to make life from some things that needed to die. It’s a hard thing to accept that you are a bitter person. Even more when you never realized it was there and were under the impression that even if it was, you are doing what was necessary to deal with it. Dealing with whatever it is that you find lurking in the depths of your own soul often flies in the face of our more immature readings of scripture.
Take Paul in Philippians 4 when he says to think on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, etc. How many times I have used this verse and verses like it (such as take every thought captive) and applied them to problems they were never meant to solve! Perhaps this is where the problem starts? I took these verses and those like them and added in some American (or is it British?) “get on with it, just move on, it doesn’t really matter, you’re over reacting” and found myself with a pile of dirty laundry so rancid even the flies avoided it.
It all comes back to a gross misunderstanding of forgiveness. I grew up believing (subconsciously through no fault of my parents) that forgiveness meant saying, “I forgive you.” At the moment that those words left a person’s mouth, that meant forgiveness had taken place and all was right with the world. If only. What I didn’t realize was that forgiveness only works if you actually acknowledge what you are forgiving. Let me say this another way – forgiveness only cancels the hurt and pain that the forgiver is willing to acknowledge is true. Truth is whatever is, therefore God is ultimate Truth because He always is, but I digress. Whether my reaction, or feelings, or opinion of the matter were right, they were no less true in that they existed. Now we’re getting somewhere. My counselor said it like this (yes all missionaries either do or should have a counselor – nay all people in leadership!) He said that to forgive means acknowledging we will never get from that person what was owed us. Do you see the subtle difference there? If I say, “I forgive you” I can still cling to whatever I have been hoping you would give me (or not give me, or do or not do). I can forgive the act but all the while cling to my ideas and hopes for the future. But real forgiveness makes no claims on the future. Real forgiveness cancels the debt with the knowledge that the debt will never be repaid. What was lost is just that… lost.
What’s more, God says above in Isaiah and in Jeremiah 31 the same, “I will remember their sin no more.” If God can choose not to remember our sin, then we know he must be fully aware of it, has acknowledged that it is real, has acknowledged the damage it has done, the hurt it has caused, and has not taken it lightly. We can’t forget something we have never been made aware of – that would make it new information to us. But if he chooses not to remember, then it presupposes knowledge of the thing he is no longer remembering. It’s a conscious choice to not remember it. It isn’t something He just gets over, like breaking up a long standing dating relationship. We treat forgiveness like this: if we just move on and add enough time, we will get over it and the offense will no longer bother us. Oh and in my case if we say “I forgive you.” But God does not “move on” from it and pretend it’s “not a big deal” or that “it’s both our faults so how could I hold it against you.” I think we especially like this one in our neo-moral society. No. God is fully aware that it isn’t His fault. And anyways, how could he so easily move on from it? The cost of that sin was the life of is very own Son. I don’t see God saying anywhere in scripture, “it’s not a big deal, I’ll just get over it.”
That is the subtle temptation the devil likes to play. Move on. It doesn’t really hurt. You’re over-reacting. It was also the missing piece of my own forgiveness process. Or rather the reality that I had no process. My father has recently said that a path without a process yields little progress. That was certainly true for me in this regard. So what does this all look like? I am learning to acknowledge the full weight of the offense – right, wrong or otherwise. Whether it is a real offense or not is inconsequential. My feelings say it is and if I don’t acknowledge them as real, they will go into hiding and come out at the worst possible time, often on someone or something that doesn’t deserve the wrath of my ire! In acknowledging the offense I acknowledge the hurt and pain I feel, all the implications of what was done and how that has affected me. I spare no detail and submit my thoughts to no restraint. I personally like to write it all out. If I don’t get it out, it will remain in. I’ve heard of some people speaking these things, but I have to write them down. When I feel that the full weight of the offense has been transferred to paper and the words satisfy all that I feel and have experienced), I then reflect on what Jesus has done for me and I write that in spite of all the totality of the offense as written on the paper, I will choose to forgive. I then sometimes begin listing what I am forgiving. For me there is healing in connecting each hurt to forgiveness. In essence, I bring it all to light, leaving nothing hidden of what I feel inside. Then and only then can I forgive the totality of the offense because I have finally acknowledged that it is a real offense, it has done real damage, and it has caused real pain. It is real, and it will remain with me until I acknowledge it. Then after I have written out my forgiveness, I throw the paper away. Some people burn it. Whatever is done, I can’t go back to that paper to remember what I wrote. It’s not a journal entry. It’s been dealt with. I can’t go back.
Having this understanding of forgiveness has rocked my world in connection with what God has done for us. If all that baggage was in me for offenses done to me, certainly wrong, but nothing like the evil many people have experienced, let alone God himself, how absolutely unimaginable and unfathomable is His forgiveness!?!?!
This is where it starts getting really interesting! Look at the verse at the top again. Who is God forgiving for? Himself! This blows my mind. God, the Holy God, forgives offenses, even after acknowledging their full weight, because He is Holy and Righteous. Righteous is another word for justice. Holiness means He only does what is right all the time. Why is this such a big deal? Because if God forgives because it is Holy and righteous, to be just and holy, one must forgive. The inverse is also true. It is unjust and unrighteous to count one’s sin against them. I’ll say it again a different way: it is unholy and therefore sin to not forgive. If God were to not forgive, He would stop being Holy. Let that sink in for a moment. God is saying, “I will always be Holy, I can’t not be Holy. Therefore, I will forgive.”
It’s hard for me to even write that. I’ve become much more wary of making claims about God as I’ve gotten older and experienced more of Him, none the less I am making this one. I love definitions, so here’s one more way of looking at it. Lack of forgiveness:
to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.
to give up all claim on account of; remit (a debt, obligation, etc.).
to grant pardon to (a person).
to cease to feel resentment against: to forgive one’s enemies.
to cancel an indebtedness or liability of:
leads us to leave resentment undealt with:
a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury
which causes us to act out in bitterness:
a deep-seated ill will
a harsh or sharp quality
an uncomfortable degree of coolness
biting sharpness of feeling or expression
God is Holy. He will not allow Himself to leave resentment undealt with and act in bitterness, which would be sin. He forgives for His own sake because He is Holy. And this is what we all desire isn’t it? To be around people who do the right thing no matter what? To surround ourselves with people of honor, who choose righteousness for their own sake. And we haven’t even mentioned the freedom that comes! Oh the freedom of no longer carrying a “deep seated ill will,” of no longer feeling prone to “a harsh or sharp quality,” of no longer feeling “an uncomfortable degree of coolness” towards those around you and acting out in “biting sharpness of feeling or expression.”
I will end with Pauls words:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery [ahem-bitterness-cough].” Galations 5:1 [brackets added] :-D