Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Seventy Times Seven

I've been pondering forgiveness lately: its nature and necessity. Some of the questions which have arisen are:

  • Can sin which is unrepented of be forgiven--by God or anyone else?
  • Do we sometimes, out of a false sense of the responsibility to be forgiving, offer it too readily to those who are undeserving? (By undeserving I mean unrepentant.)
  • If we do offer forgiveness to one who has shown no true contrition, are we enabling them to continue down the destructive road of rebellion towards God?
  • As Christians, does the command to forgive as we've been forgiven mean a blanket forgiveness for all who say the words "I'm sorry"--even though there is no evidence that the one mouthing those words means them, or has adjusted their behavior accordingly?
This has been so much on my mind lately because of an ongoing situation with my mother. As a child I knew the heartache of a mother who was distant and unprotecting. She sided with her hubby (a pedophile) by choosing to stay with him for financial security rather than holding him accountable for his misdeeds.

I've discovered that it's not even so much that long ago bad decision on her part which has me so emotionally confused about this whole issue of forgiveness. It's more a matter of her actions and words towards me since then; the absence of any contrition or a willingness to see how her lack of a maternal instinct to protect has created for me lifelong struggles and sorrows.

About six years ago I came to the point of realizing I could no longer have a relationship with my mother. This was not an easy decision to make, but a necessary one if I was to seek healing and restoration from the wounds of childhood. Time and again my mother proved to me her unwillingness to see the enormity of what she had done, towards me and my younger siblings and even towards future generations. The legacy of pain bequeathed to me is something I've had to fight against every day of my life.

If I were to toss aside every instance of her continued animosity towards me in favor of attempting to make peace with her, would I be interfering in God's work of convicting her of sin? If I were to lightly gloss over the heinousness of her crimes would I really be paving the way for some kind of peace between us or merely calling evil "good?"
(“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” - Isaiah 5:20. ) Without honesty there can be no true peace, merely a quick sweep under the rug of those unpleasant things we'd rather not think of, let alone discuss. The Bible does tell us "as far as possible, be at peace with everyone." This implies that it's not always possible. Some will not choose peace, for it is too costly. One of the reasons I disconnected from my mother was that I'd come to the realization that this was the case with her. Things had reached the point between us where I could do one of two things. I could try to push her for the kind of honest relationship she obviously had no use for, or I could walk away. Gone were the days of playing games, of talking about everything under the sun except for the elephant in the room between us. I couldn't stomach any more pretense--it made me feel like the world's biggest fraud.

I know we're commanded to forgive. Seventy times seven, in fact. That's an astounding thought! And yet . . . can there be authentic forgiveness when it is not truly sought from the heart? If one wants simply to hear the words "I forgive you" (to relieve their surface
naggings of guilt) but shows by their deeds and words that they are not one bit remorseful, isn't a hastily proffered forgiveness tantamount to casting pearls before swine?

I want to please God in all that I do. Because of decades of involvement with legalism, I've a tendency to assume that whatever His will may be it will involve something unpleasant and hard. Constantly I must remind myself that He is a God of love, not force or cruelty, not even of the school of thought which commands us to "keep a stiff upper lip."

God loves me. He loves my mother too. He doesn't want me to have to live a lie, I'm convinced of this. I'm also convinced that He longs for her to fall on the Rock and be broken, to fall at the foot of the cross in true contrition and receive forgiveness. This can't happen if everyone in her life refuses to hold her accountable. To hit rock bottom she needs for those who have been shielding her from the consequences of her actions to step aside and let God deal with her sin and guilt.

He is much kinder in his judgments than we sometimes think, but He doesn't wink at sin for He knows its
devastating cost: the life of His only Son.

One more thought on this subject. I often confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. I've heard over the years many times that there's a difference between the two, that it only takes one to forgive but two to reconcile.

I hope to keep this in mind as I struggle with my attempts to understand this whole issue of forgiving those who have trespassed against me. If anyone has any light to throw on this subject, I'd be grateful for any little bit of wisdom thrown my way.


  1. I can't truly understand what it is you're going through inside, or what a terrible and emotional struggle it must be, but I know it must be hard. As if the word "hard" can even come close to describing something of such monumental importance as the relationship with and forgiveness of a parent.

    As I was reading your post, it sounds like you really know what is right, sounds like God is whispering in your ear.

    There is a story from Corrie Ten Boom (I noticed you had a quote from her on your page), where she talks about an SS guard walking up to her after a speaking engagement and reaching out his hand to shake hers...he didn't recognize her, but she recognized him. She said that all she felt inside was the opposite of love and forgiveness for him, and she went through a terrible struggle at that moment but in the end, she said that God gave her the forgiveness as a gift...just flooded her soul with it.

    Let me know what you come up with.

  2. I think you caught the issue in the paragraph about confusing forgiveness and reconciliation.

    Forgiveness is never deserved -- no one can apologize or make amends in such a way as to undo or make up for the wrong -- if they did, we'd call it vindication, not forgiveness.

    Remember that God loved us while we were yet sinners -- he doesn't withhold his forgiveness until we earn it or even ask for it properly, but lavishes it on us and regenerates our hearts with it -- it's his kindness that leads to our repentance.

    I think it is theoretically possible to forgive your mother without reconciling with her -- maintaining safe boundaries is wise and good. And your forgiving her also does not negate, deny, or vindicate what she did then or since then. It is simply (not easily, but simply) not counting her sins against her.

    I am not at all suggesting that it's easy to forgive -- I struggle still to forgive some who have hurt me rather less than you've been hurt. It just -- still FEELS like vindicating, or negating, what was done.

    So -- I do think unrepented sin can be forgiven -- I think the forgiveness is offered before the repentance can even happen. When I read the Prodigal Son parable, for example, to me it sounds like the kid is calculating -- what to say that will make his father do what he wants. I don't think he understands love and forgiveness and reconciliation until his father comes running out to him.

    Is it necessary to tell your mother that you have forgiven her? I am not sure. I think you're right to suspect how she would take such news, and what she would think would come next -- reconciliation.

    I'm sure you've also heard how forgiveness is often more important for the forgiver than the person forgiven -- releases the forgiver from continuing to suck the poison of past hurts, supposedly. I sort of understand that, and yet, and yet, it still FEELS like, if I forgive, and no longer suck that poison, it'll be like it never happened.

    May God shower you more and more with the understanding of how you have been loved and forgiven and reconciled, so that the gospel will sink in deep and nourish you -- and that you will more and more realize how firm a foundation you stand on, how strong a place you can reach out from, and that God will gift you with forgiveness for others that does not feel like death.

  3. Deb, there is the beginnings of wisdom in that last comment. I have learned so much in the past few years about what forgiveness really is and what it is not and it has been extremely liberating and refreshing for me. By the assumptions that you expressed here I recognize that you have the typical picture of forgiveness that confused me for most of my life. Only a few years ago did I begin to learn about the true nature of forgiveness and the incredible freedom that it brings when it is properly understood and practiced.
    I would love to share more about this and have some resources that really helped me understand it much better. While meeting with a counselor a few years ago he shared with me the amazing truth about the parable of the debtor in Matthew 18 that I had never heard before. Nearly everyone misinterprets this parable because of our false paradigms from religion. But when it is understood correctly it is stunning, convicting and liberating all at the same time.

  4. The SS guard must have been repentant when he spoke to the crowd. His presence must have been a request for forgiveness out of sincerity. It was within the survivors duty as a child of God to extend it.

    Expressions of remorse, changed behaviors, request for forgiveness with a proven path of change = forgiveness. To receive forgiveness takes action, not just once but continual. It means a turning around of harmful ways. Also, there are some sins that God only gives partial forgiveness for. Take for example Manasseh. His bloodshed was so that God gave only partial forgiveness. Manasseh was in fact repentant but God knew he had to at least pay for his crimes against his brothers. He was given forgiveness but still punished. Both can take place.

    The Apostle Paul himself put to death several Christians and lead campaigns against them. It wasn't until much later that he realized his errors. It was Christ came to him and offer forgiveness. The Apostle Paul took action to change his ways and has become a very well known example of faith and leadership. Does this not remind you of the guard and the survivor?

    While forgiveness is NOT a personal issue it is one that we as spectators must never, ever judge.

    I will say this, please stick to the Biblical definition of forgiveness and remove yourself from the theories and pressures of men.

    We must remember to follow God's word to the best of our human ability. Tell us please what you understand forgiveness to be.


  5. Todd,

    I appreciate you leaving a comment on my post. What strikes me most about the little story about Corrie ten Boom and the SS guard (which I've read before) is how God gave her forgiveness as a gift. Maybe I'm not there yet, at the place I need to be for that to happen. I don't think He forces on us the ability to forgive others. I don't think He's about force or guilt at all.

    I think too we may be talking about two different things, forgiveness vs. reconciliation, which I'd mentioned in my post.

    While I have no problem working towards forgiveness (and I do believe it to be a process, not a sudden event), I find it hard to imagine reconciling with one who herself does not really even wish for it. There would be a sense of it being forced for...well, I suppose for the sake of appearances. Or so that the rest of the family wouldn't have to feel the awkward tension any more. In which case, would it be a genuine reconciliation? God knows our hearts, and His opinion is all that really matters. This is why I oppose (for now anyway) initiating any attempt to repair things with my mother. Neither of us truly wants it or is the least bit ready for it.

    This is a subject upon which we'd all do well to give serious thought to from time to time. We all need forgiveness and we all need to learn how to extend the same to others.

    I'm always interested in hearing how others have dealt with this sometimes confusing subject.


  6. Marcy,

    I didn't mean to imply that I think anyone actually deserves forgiveness. Probably I didn't word things well!

    I know none of us are deserving of it. What I was referring to is the person who steadfastly refuses God's grace and forgiveness. Yes, I agree that forgiveness existed even before the sin which made it necessary. But as CS Lewis has said, "not all will be saved. If a game is played, not all will be winners."

    I believe that as long as a person has life there is the possibility of turning things around, of humbling oneself and repenting. God is always in motion towards us, wooing us into the warmth and passion of His love and atonement. Not all will respond to that love, not all desire any kind of grace or forgiveness.

    While we can't read hearts and minds as God does, we are told that we may look to the fruits of an individual's life as evidence of whether or not they are walking in the light.

    I don't desire to sit in judgment on my mother. I know it must sound that way, because of the necessity of working through all the horrible things she has set in motion so that I can get beyond them. (I used to not deal truly with anything hurtful, thinking this was God's will for me. I've since learned better. He wants healing for us on every level. When we don't deal with our issues we can so easily become whited sepulchers.) I must call things by their proper names, and not gloss over them as if they are of no account.

    I would not begrudge Heaven to her should she turn things around, in fact I do hope she does. Whether or not we ever have a relationship again on this earth, I do hope she gets that right.

    And for now, that's as much forgiveness as I'm capable of.

    But God's not done with me yet!


  7. Clay,

    I'm interested in whatever you have to share with me on this subject.

    Can you get me in touch with those resources you mentioned?

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  8. Austin,

    I don't remember the story of Manasseh. I'll have to look that up to refresh my memory.

    As always there is much in your words for me to mull over. I appreciate you taking the time to share with me your viewpoint.

  9. I have found a couple of principles in the teaching of Jesus about conditions for forgiveness. One is that the person we are willing to forgive should repent (Luke 17:3-4). I do not know that God requires us to forgive someone who has refused to repent of the wrong they have done. Yet even in the case of someone who has not repented of the wrong they did, we can love them and pray for their repentence in the future and have a willingness to forgive them when they repent. Another principle is that we should forgive those who do not realize fully what they have done (Luke 23:34). Oftentimes, people do not fully realize the harm they do, just as those who crucified Jesus did not realize that they were killing the One who was their creator and savior. I know I have done stupid things that have harmed people, and did not realize how wrong it was until later. Since we cannot read minds, it is safer to give people the benefit of the doubt and not bear grudges.

    As a personal observation, I have noticed that I can be much more forgiving when I know I am in trouble and need God's help. There is something about going through a trial and being desperate for God's mercy that softens me and makes me much more forgiving towards others. I also become more forgiving when I think about my own faults.

  10. I should say that I am in many, many cases, most I'd say willing to offer forgiveness even if it is not known that it's needed. However, it takes heart and conscience to realize forgiveness is needed from others. It also takes information about the crime, which your mother has.

    Some people don't understand what they've done or fully grasp the harm they've done but others will make excuses or word things in such a way that it allows them to continue to deny damage and pain so that they are shielded from the truth.

    Then others, like Pontious Pilot, are given truth on a platter but toss it away. The Pharisees and Sadducee had the ability to see what was right or wrong and chose to do wrong. Some turned from their ways, most did not. Why? Personal gain and appearances were more important than truth. Their gain was more important than the fact that their children were suffering (physically, spiritually, ect) because of what they were doing.

    If Pontious Pilot were asked if he could go back and change anything and he said "No" many would shake their heads in disbelief as they should. There would be no repentance on his part, no show of remorse. He'd stand back and let it all happen without saying a word. That is what kind of unrepentant attitude that would be unjust to offer forgiveness for.

    Austin of Sundrip

  11. Austin,

    Yes I agree with this. I think too of the difference between Judas and Peter.

    Peter felt deep remorse for his sin of denying his Lord, and wept bitterly. He truly repented. Judas, rather than repent, went out and hung himself.*

    I think that another way to look at this whole issue of forgiveness is that some reject it just as surely as they also reject salvation. For either forgiveness or salvation to have a redeeming affect on a person's life, a certain type of humility must take place. Many, I believe, are unwilling to humble themselves. This isn't passing judgment but stating truth. Of course it's not up to us to decide who is or isn't humble, but often a person's decision regarding salvation and/or forgiveness is pretty obvious.

    (*I came across this on a website called The Answer Bag:

    We read the Bible through our Western glasses and we have to remember that the Bible is wrapped up in a culture. Our Western culture says "hanging = rope around the neck." The Middle Eastern culture is quite different. If someone were to be "hanged" or "hang themself" they would stand on something (i.e. rock, stool, etc.) and leap onto a sharpened steak or spear so the body was quite literally HANGING from the pole. That is why Luke says that Judas' guts were poured out on the field and that's why Matthew says Judas hanged himself. They are saying the same thing. We just don't understand that as readers because we fail to unwrap the culture that the Bible comes in. What we need to steer away from is the "Old West" or "Western" backdrop for Judas' suicide.)

  12. Deb, I would be glad to share with you what I have been learning about forgiveness. I have struggled with some of the very same issues that you describe in this post. My relationship with my Dad was one of the main motivations for me to unpack this issue of forgiveness and question the many assumptions that I and nearly everyone else has about this subject. As with nearly every other religious word, this has been distorted and made very dogmatic by people who are threatened by questioning their own assumptions and beliefs. But I can see that you are well on your way out of that rut and seem to be honestly searching for real truth.

    I have two suggestions for further information as far as from my direction. I am not trying to give you the run-around at all. It is just that I have already posted quite a bit about what I am learning on this and it might be helpful, I hope, if you went to my blog and brought up all the posts related to forgiveness. I just checked and right now there are only six listed. My blog is clayfootsteps.blogspot.com.

    The other resource that really helped open my eyes about the real nature of forgiveness was a series of videos by John Regier called Biblical Concepts in Counseling. If you would like to get them or contact him the info is on my Resources page that can be accessed from the top of my blog. (Really, honest, this is not an ad for my blog) I will also be very happy to dialog about any questions that you may have. I really try to avoid being hard and dogmatic about things, but what I have been learning has been so healing for me and has made my perception of God and religion make so much more sense and attractive.
    God bless you as you pursue His heart and continue your own healing journey.

  13. Clay,

    I can't seem to find a "search this site" link on your blog, so that I can find all your post re. forgiveness.


Comments, anyone? I'd love to hear your point of view.