I have been thinking about something that may look both simple and impossible at the same time: forgiveness.
Sometimes forgiveness really is simple - no big deal. The initial offense was not that bad. We can simply process the incident rationally, remember times when we’ve hurt others, and forgive.
However there are those traumatic experiences that cut deeply. Or those prolonged experiences where we forgive and it happens again, usually with some loved one whom we want to believe and/or someone we feel we can't just cut out of our lives. Sometimes it happens with a person who has what I call a "cat and mouse" mentality.
The cat/mouse person is good at pouring on the love but they can't help mixing the good with the bad - loving and nurturing for an indeterminate amount of time but always falling back at some point on the tools of their trade: the silent treatment, sarcasm/belittling words, outbursts of anger that can go on for hours, attempts at intimidation, deception, and in too many cases, actual physical harm.
In those cases, forgiveness is the same as in the first case scenario - it is an act of the will. But because of the depth of the hurt, what is doable in the first case seems impossible in the second case.
For a minute, I'd like to turn that question around. What if you are the person who has been the "bad guy"? What if you are the one who “occasionally lets their temper get the best of them”? The person who repeatedly slanders others? The salesman who is mostly above board in all his dealings? (Note: another problem with forgiveness – we tend to minimize our sins while magnifying others).
Or let’s up the ante. What if you are the wife - as an older lady once confided in me in a very sanguine fashion - who just couldn't be faithful to her husband? The woman I knew said her husband was a good man and she knew it was wrong to cheat on him but she just couldn’t help herself. And even as she told me, I have to say that she didn’t sound too remorseful.
What if you are the guy who swindled a handful of elderly people out of their life savings? Or maybe you just slipped a few dollars here and there out of the company till, intending to pay it back but not really being too concerned about it because, after all, you worked hard and you deserved it.
Or maybe it’s really bad – maybe you are the guy who accidentally killed someone else while driving drunk as a neighbor of mine did when he was very young – a thing he could never erase from his mind and/or make restitution for. The memory of it followed him to an early grave.
I wonder if we could take it a step further. Let’s say you've committed some heinous sin against another, either over a prolonged period of time or in just a onetime event. And now you've changed. To put it in Christian terms, you have repented. You've stopped what you were doing and you've started doing the opposite, either through a self-help program or through the grace of God. (Personally I recommend the grace of God).
Can you ever truly make up for the anguish you've caused another? What I mean is this: you can start doing good deeds - and that's a great thing to do. You can give money to the ex-wife you withheld support from for 10 years - and you should. Or you can begin to "pay" for your bad deeds by giving back to humanity in general terms through great programs like "Habitat for Humanity".
Essentially we can make amends for some of the damage caused, but there are some things which simply can't be “fixed”. The memories of daddy grabbing mommy and throwing her up against the wall once in a while can linger for a long time. The sleepless nights while the abandoned mom cries and wrestles with “what ifs”. The family who visits a grave every year because of an intoxicated driver.
We can readily see that those are heinous offenses which leave indelible scars on the heart.
For those of us who believe in God, what about His heart?
When King David committed adultery and murder, he recognized that his sin went beyond the human drama that we can easily see. To the surprise of many who read the Bible, David cried out to God, "Against You, You only, I have sinned. And done what is evil in Your sight.” Psalms 51:4.
Yet when the prophet Nathan convicted David by telling him the story of a rich man who stole the poor man's only sheep, David got it. He knew what he had done, he knew that his sin was against Bathsheba as well as against all of Uriah's loved ones. He knew he was the rich bum who callously betrayed one of his military leaders and then took this man’s life in order to “beat the rap” that would surely come if his sin was known. (Uriah would have been justified in leading a revolt against David and it is possible that as a military leader of integrity, he could have done it).
However when King David came before God in anguish, he recognized something deeper: that his sin was ultimately, at rock bottom level, an offense against His God. In other words, his sin had wounded the heart of his God as all sin, large and small, does.
DAvid had consequences to bear here on earth and they were serious. (Note that David’s punishment fit his sin – he wasn’t told to go out into the desert somewhere and become a hermit but rather he was told that bloodshed and betrayal would become a part of his family life. And it did. In the natural order of things, sin begets sin.).
But what about his responsibility before Almighty God - how could he bear that? How could he just make his sin against the heart of God… go “poof” and simply disappear? Because again, sin is not just a matter of the flesh but also of the heart, of the soul. And God has the biggest heart of all as well as the only pure one.
Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned…
All sin, ultimately, is an arrow, a dagger, or a sword which pierces the heart of God. Because God is complete love, He feels that wound. And there is no amount of good deeds that we can ever do to remove that wound from the heart of our God.
So He did it for us. He sent His Son, who knew no sin – none at all – to live on earth, suffer and die on a cross, to pay for each and every sin that we have or could ever commit. (God didn’t just make a list of our sins and cross them out as He hung on the cross, He felt them as if they were things He Himself had done, the heat of anger or lust as well as the shame and the guilt. He who knew NO sin became sin on our behalf. II Cor. 5:21)
Whether our sins were (in our eyes) mere pinpricks or darts lobbed at the heart of God (I shouldn’t have said that but it’s no big deal) or whether they were heinous stabs at the heart of God, God and God alone can (and does) wipe our slate clean. In God's economy there is nothing left that we owe or need to do in order to remove all barriers between us and His unrelenting, sustaining love. Because there never was anything we could do in the first place.
And it is when we understand the gravity of our sin and the totality of God’s forgiveness that we are set free to forgive others.
Or to put it another way, when we realize the enormity of what God did for us, dying for us while we were yet sinners, then we can forgive others.
Today, what is the basis of your life? Are you operating out of the sure knowledge that God loves you, will always love you, will never leave you, and has removed your sins from you as far as the East is from the West, never to bring them up against you again? (Romans 8:1).
If so, then you can forgive.
After all, what can the one who has hurt you do … that will make things right? And maybe more to the point, what can he/she do that God cannot and has not already done for you?