When Bridget Driscoll died in London on August 17, 1896, she became one of the first people on earth to be killed by an automobile. The attending coroner said he certainly hoped that "such a thing will never happen again."1
Despite that coroner's naive hopes, the realities of math and physics dictate that mixing people and machines makes a certain number of injuries and deaths inevitable. In the same way, human beings cannot occupy the same space – like a home or office – without transgressing and offending others. That is why families, work places, churches, schools and neighborhoods can become hotbeds of human conflict and suffering.
Let's face it: human beings are messy and hurtful. We don't mean to be that way. We don't intend harm. But most of us have caused and received many relational injuries. We have all insulted and injured our parents, siblings, spouses, children and a wide array of other people.
Right there is the point where two worldviews collide.
A utopian view insists that humans are born perfect and then corrupted by society. Therefore the perfect society always remains a tantalizing dream. That dream seduces some into an endless chase of the unattainable.
Strangely, the prospect of perfection leads some to reverse the God and human roles. Those who pursue the utopian dream always seem to conclude that God is non-existent, indifferent, weak or vengeful. Conversely, humans are seen to have boundless potential for great nobility, soaring artistic achievement and moral perfection. That illusion claims that if we could only and totally liberate humans, we would finally discover the ideal society.
So, the utopian confusion sees God as weak and miserable and man as transcendent and glowing with goodness.
Ironically, the utopian pattern – which has marched under the banners of socialism, communism, eugenics, hedonism and other philosophies – is a brutal way to live. Like Hitler's pursuit of "the master race," utopianism tends to morph into dehumanization and holocausts. It sacrifices human beings on the altar of its own mad idealism.
A redemptive view accepts the full scope of sinful human nature; it fully believes that people are going to trample and even kill one another.
That viewpoint knows that "human potential" is an illusion. The only hope for humanity lies in the God Who paid the price of our sinful nature. In other words, redemption assumes that people will be people and that God will be God; the roles cannot be reversed. But, because He chose to freely forgive and to give His Spirit to us, we have become partakers of His nature. Think of it: We are invited to live on the higher ground of His purposes.
A redemptive view releases humans to accept personal responsibility for their own actions. And we will never get very far accepting responsibility without the mysterious role of forgiveness.
To forgive is to release. Let it go. Freely and wholeheartedly grant freedom and blessing. It has very little to do with feelings or even trust. Forgiveness is simply a decision to let go of our regrets and our own view of justice.
Lily Tomlin captured a wonderful summary of forgiveness: To forgive is to give up all hope for a better past.
I think that is why some people find it almost impossible to apologize. To do so seems to be a subconscious abandonment of the utopian ideal. It is an admission that we didn't measure up to the possibilities which are implicit in the idea of a perfect society.
Well, yes. To try to live in utopia is to deny the relational nature of life. That illusion says that we are to be perfect — all by ourselves! Not at all true. God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. When we step into His magnanimity, the matrix of failure, injury, disappointment and forgiveness opens us up to the large panorama of possibilities which mark the Christian life. It is often through heartache and redemption that we discover new reasons and rhythms for life.
Have you ever deflected an apology? How often have you heard (or said), "No apologies are necessary," or "Oh,don't worry about it? "Those kinds of responses abort the necessary and healthy process of redemption and renewal.
When we violate another human being, an apology and plea for forgiveness is essential to cleaning the wound and preventing relational infection. Apologies are serious stuff. They should be heartfelt and real.
And, when I extend forgiveness, it has to be real also. I can’t forgive in order to avoid or quickly conclude an uncomfortable moment. The seeking and the granting of forgiveness are profoundly serious acts. They demand full attention and deep sense of reality.
I do not deny the dark possibilities contained in human nature. But, more than that, I want to try to pull back a curtain on the powerful, beautiful and unique role of forgiveness in human relationships.
How does forgiveness actually play out in a family situation? What does it look like in other arenas of life? How do we live out forgiveness toward those whom we do not know? For example, how do we forgive the racists (or racist system) which turned humans into personal property?
Finally, how does forgiveness take hold of the reality of heaven and apply it in the dust of the earth. In short, does forgiveness have a role in seeking the Kingdom of God "on earth as it is in heaven?"
When Jake O'Hara 1 was 13, his father violated his marriage with an affair. Soon, his sexual infidelity slipped into a lifestyle. Sadly, his chronic immorality plunged the whole family into years of an ongoing nightmare of confrontations, fights and suicide threats by Jake's mother. When the children finally left home, Jake’s parents divorced.
Naturally, Jake resented his father for what he had brought to their family.
Within a few years, Jake married. And then, he told me, "My own family began to take on an eerie resemblance to my parents." Jake’s parents had four sons and a daughter. Jake and his wife had four boys and a girl. Mr. O'Hara had traveled frequently; Jake was spending much of his working life on the road.
One day, 11 years into marriage, a friend confronted him with what Jake will always recognize as a "message from the Lord." Through that message, the Lord reminded Jake that he would soon reach the same age at which his father became adulterous. That reminder was followed by a very sober warning: Jake would soon face the same failure . . . unless he forgave his father.
Mr. O'Hara agreed to meet at a local restaurant. As they sat at the table, Jake recalled the painful and unrelenting crises of his childhood. Then, Jake freely forgave his father and expressed his deep love for him. The two men wept as they understood the enormity of what had just happened. Both men were free; the pattern of sin was broken! Both men had given up all hope for a better past.
From that point of release, his father made things right with Jake's mom and their children. Jake told me, "Years later, I had the privilege of leading my father to the Lord. He lived two years as a Christian believer." When he died, Jake conducted his funeral.
And Jake has escaped the bondage which held his father throughout much of his life.
Jake O'Hara did not wake up one morning in a mood to forgive. He did not suddenly realize that all the pain of his childhood was gone. Rather, Jake made a choice to forgive. That choice released the emotions which flowed at the table.
Our therapeutic age has suggested that we feel our way into action. It is, in fact, just the opposite. Even in the face of emotional evidence to the contrary, we have the power to choose.
The choice to forgive is a deliberate and purposeful act. It surveys the landscape of life, recognizes the full range of possibilities and consequences, and then makes a decision to forgive. Forgiveness is not holding our nose, squeezing our eyes shut, uttering a prayer and then jumping into a new reality because we believe that is what the Bible commands. That kind of forgiveness doesn’t produce anything for anyone. To forgive is to make a choice to break the pattern. It takes everyone off the hook. Very often, that choice breaks multi-generational patterns and extends far into the future.
Every home (like every other micro-society) has a distinct culture. In other words, every home reflects a pattern of unspoken assumptions which convey the approved way to perceive, think, and feel.
One of the most important things parents can do is to create a culture of forgiveness in the home.
How can they do that?
It begins with a gracious tongue. Parents should be quick (and sincere) to speak grace into every corner of family life. The language of graces and manners – "Please," "thank you," "pardon me," and "I'm sorry" — should flavor the family conversation.
Additionally, parents should not tolerate disrespect, shrillness, selfishness or cynicism. That kind of parental vigilance should not be motivated by an expectation of perfection. Instead, responsible parenting recognizes that those weeds will choke out the garden of grace.
When our children were growing up, each of them heard me or their mother correct their attitude or actions toward their siblings by saying, "You will not treat my daughter (or son) that way." They knew they had to honor their siblings simply and primarily because they were ours. We didn't dishonor our children; they couldn't either. House rules.
Forgiveness should never be extended purely as a model or teaching tool. However, parents should be quick to apologize to each other and to the children. And, of course, children should be taught how to extend and receive forgiveness.
Finally, a theology of forgiveness should permeate the home. Children should know the story of Adam’s failure and the greater story of God stepping into human history and choosing to forgive and redeem. Children should be firmly rooted in the assurance that the blood of Christ covers all sin — including any and all violations against them by their parents, siblings, school or team mates, neighbors or anyone else.
In view of God's incomprehensible generosity, how can we remain locked up in the prison of resentment? We are free to forgive each other freely and generously because we have been freely and generously forgiven.
The young pastor moved his family halfway across the United States because he believed he heard a call to help carve out a new church. Everyone was excited about the possibilities. In the joy and excitement of the moment, promises were made to the pastor.
After two years of joyful and purposeful partnership in the grand adventure of church planting, a pivotal player in the new church moved to another city. Then, one by one, other members slowly drifted away from the once-glorious mission. Financial resources began to dry up. The pastor and his wife felt abandoned. He had to get a job; in fact, he had to work two jobs. His wife went to work. They ended up declaring bankruptcy. The dream was dead.
He told me about the depth of betrayal which he felt . . . from people and from God. But, one day as he drove – “I can show you the spot in the road where it happened” – he suddenly saw a financial ledger sheet. He saw columns of numbers representing what was owed to him. But, he also noticed the ledger contained no columns of what he owed to others. Suddenly, his heart broke. He groaned out to God, “No one owes me anything. The ledger is clear.”
And, in that moment, he chose to forgive. Giving up all hope for a better past released him to walk into a new future.
It could accurately be said that forgiveness is the remission of debt. The debt is justly owed; payment can righteously be demanded. But, what happens when the one to whom it is owed chooses to forgive it?
For example, Jesus told a story of king who forgave a debt to one of his servants who begged forgiveness. However, when that man encountered one of his debtors, he physically abused him until it was clear the debtor had no capacity to pay. At that point, the recently-forgiven man tossed his own debtor into prison (Matt. 18).
That man had received forgiveness but could not walk in it. He was too conscious of the ledger of columns showing what was owed to him.
In his book, Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright says, “Forgiveness is a way of life, God's way of life, God’s way to life; and if you close your heart to forgiveness, why, then, do you close your heart to forgiveness. . . If you lock up the piano because you don’t want to play to somebody else, how can God play to you?
“That is why we pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ That isn’t a bargain we make with God. It’s a fact of human life. Not to forgive is to shut down a faculty in the innermost person, which happens to be the same faculty that can receive God’s forgiveness.”
How do we Forgive?
First, I think it is helpful to recognize that offences and injuries are always bottled in our past. So, forgiveness requires us to deal with our past – not our present or future. We have to let go of our past in order to fill up the present and bless the future. When we fail to deal properly with our past, we are like someone whose elastic belt is caught on a barbed wire fence; we can make very little forward progress until we unhook ourselves from our pain and injustice in our past.
Once we understand and settle that, we can walk into a forgiving way of life. Consider these specific components of walking in forgiveness:
Bitterness and unforgiveness are almost always the results of boring into a very small perspective. Living in that smallness is trying to gaze at the great vista of your life through a tiny and very dirty fisheye lens.
For example, rather than focusing on your embarrassment at being fired, remember that your next job became a doorway to a brand new chapter of life. So, in fact, the humiliation was a gift from God to move you from one dead-end job to a place of purpose and fulfillment.
Do you understand that your life represents a multi-generational miracle? All your ancestors were protected from death until the lineage which produced you was passed on. That is an enormous gift.
So, to forgive is an act of celebrating that gift. To forgive is to boldly declare that your life does not belong to the offending party or incident in your past; it is God’s gift to you. Moreover, you choose the freedom to fill up your own life with the joy and purpose which God intended.
Forgiving is also the choice to surrender and reject your own view of, rights to and desire for “justice” (more accurately known as “revenge").
Life without Christ consists of an impossible calculus of justice. It represents meticulous ledger sheets of obligations and endless partial payments. We can never tear up the note.
Jesus is the continental divide of history. He changed the calculus. He gave His Own life as “payment in full” for the crippling legacy of sin as well as for specific transgressions. Because of God’s abundant mercy, we are forgiven – released from – the obligation to pay our own account.
Dallas Willard has written, “Once we step into this kingdom and trust it, pity becomes the atmosphere in which we live…It is not psychologically possible for us really to know God’s pity for us and at the same time be hardhearted toward others. So we are ‘forgiving of others in the same manner as God forgives us.’”
Walking in forgiveness is choosing to live a large life. It rejects the suffocating smallness of the old calculus. It releases everyone (including ourselves) from our own claims. To forgive is to finally walk away from the miseries and mistakes of the past and onto the higher ground of a life so large that it could only be gift from God.
The condition of our life has been shaped in part by people, groups and ideologies which we will never see or understand. Regardless of who or where you are, the life you are living has been curtailed or diluted by forces which are historical, global, invisible and inaccessible.
For example, many people feel accused and violated every time they fly because of the security checks at the gate. And, they have to endure that humiliated matrix because of nothing they did. It is inflicted on them because of terrorism and bureaucracy and they will probably have to submit to this systemic insult every time they fly for the rest of my life. And, they did nothing to cause it. Injustice is the most difficult thing to embrace.
On a much larger scale, how do African-Americans forgive the pervasive and unrelenting culture of racism which killed, raped and robbed their ancestors and created an exclusive, elitist and often unresponsive power structure which continues to this day?
These are very tough issues; they trace the far horizons of organized cruelty and injustice. How does forgiveness play out in the context of these hidden sources and offenders? When you cannot face the one who injured you and constricted your borders, how do you forgive? Is it even possible to walk away from such overwhelming injustice? How would a Jewish father ever transcend the memory of his daughter being torn from his arms and sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz?
I recently sat beside a woman on a long airline flight. I was tired; she wanted to talk. She won. In the course of her opening up her life, she revealed the searing pain of her husband’s cruel rejection and the trauma of divorce. She talked about it for more than an hour.
When she finished, I said very spontaneously, “As a man, I am sorry you had to suffer this injustice. I despise what he did; he violated who you are. But, he is not here and I am. So, I’m asking you to forgive me on his behalf.”
Tears filled her eyes. She said, “I didn’t know I needed to hear that until this moment. I accept your apology and I forgive you.”
As those who are forgiven, we are free and empowered to be agents of forgiveness. It does not matter that we are not the specific offending party. If we represent them at all, we should ask forgiveness. The prophet Daniel repented for things he had not personally done. He represented others in going before God to ask forgiveness.
I once asked an African-American friend to forgive me for what white people have thought, believed and done. I broke down in a very public place – for a moment I felt like I stepped into the sin which had abused and oppressed so many. I personally identified with it and was more reviled by it than ever in my life. My apology groaned up out of my guts. And, he broke down, wept and forgave me.
Don’t misunderstand; we should not live in some politically correct posture of running up to people and asking their forgiveness. But, as we sense “the moment” of redemptive grace and invitation from the Lord, I believe we should always be ready to serve as an agent of forgiveness.
I can and must forgive the 9-11 hijackers and others unseen, unknown and unreachable because I choose to give up all hope for a better past. Giving it up is not at all to condone it. But it does release me to walk beyond the reach of what they did.
Forgiveness also releases me to live beyond my own capacities and walk in the everlasting provision of the One Who does for me what I cannot do for myself.