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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Five Things Forgiveness Does Not Do

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There seems to be a popular belief that forgiving someone will just make life hunky-dory and everything will magically be peace, love and flowers. Not so. God offers perfect forgiveness without hesitation or qualifiers to all humans, and yet the world is filled with so much bad "stuff" that people continually shake their fists and ask "how can God let this happen?" God is perfect, but human forgiveness is not, and those who are forgiven do not always step up to do their part in correcting things.

1. Forgiveness does not erase the consequences of past decisions and actions

Life, in time, is a process. Certain things result from previous decisions and actions. A murderer may be forgiven by the relatives of the person he killed, but this does not remove the consequences of his action. The dead person is still dead. The killer will be tried and probably sent to jail. Each person who was involved will be changed.

Examples of forgiveness like that one often make the news because they are so unusual for humans. But everyday events work the same way. I may forgive my son for riding his bike through the flower beds, but broken daffodils and tulips will not bloom for another year. You may forgive your wife who got drunk and wrecked the car, but the car will still be wrecked and it will cost money to fix or replace it. She may be required to pay fines, she may lose her license or spend time in jail.

You may be late for a concert because someone cut you off on the freeway and made you miss your exit. You can forgive that person, but you'll still be late for the concert, and possibly face sour looks from other concert-goers or even miss part of the event if entrance is prohibited during the performance. You can choose how you will respond to these consequences, but that is another topic.

2. Forgiveness does not give the forgiven person a free ticket to continue bad behavior

When God forgives, he alone is capable of doing so with an instantaneous and complete pardon. But even God expects and demands a change in behavior. He admonishes people to turn from their wicked ways. and to be holy as he is holy. Romans 6 makes it clear that there is no excuse to continue in sin just so that God's grace can be exercised. In fact, verse 2 suggests that those who are truly dead to sin will find it increasingly less comfortable and pleasurable to continue to do wrong.

People who continue making poor choices with no attempt to change, all the while demanding that other people should be more forgiving, simply want to have their own way. In fact people who do this are often abusive.

Those who exhibit no desire to change might be said to be guilty of idolatry; they are worshiping themselves, demanding their own way.

3. Forgiveness does not instantly restore trust

Christians sometimes seem to think that God's gifts result in instant solutions. Even if we say we don't think that, we often act like it. We want problems to disappear when we accept God's salvation. We want forgiveness to be like a magic wand that will make broken relationships all better. It just doesn't work that way.

Trust must be earned. Even if, each night, we so completely forgive someone who has wronged us that we could wake in the morning with no memory of the wrongs previously committed, the best that could be said is that the relationship would be a blank slate, like meeting a stranger. We would not entrust our most personal feelings and needs with someone we had just met.

It is possible and desirable to forgive hurts from the past. An abusive parent who has died can be forgiven. Your teenager who stole from you, but who has finally grown up, can be forgiven.

The most difficult scenario is where the person who is wronged and the offender must continually deal with each other. Examples of this might be in a work environment or living with siblings.

Particularly in a marriage, if one spouse has wronged the other, over and over, forgiveness alone is not going to fix things. One partner can forgive the other daily, but this alone will not restore relationship. Trust must be earned. James says (James 4:8) "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you." A person might experience and accept God's forgiveness, but still live far from God on a daily basis. Human beings are not going to succeed at something even God does not do. Relationship takes effort from more than one.

4. Forgiveness does not indefinitely operate unilaterally

Following on the concept that relationship requires effort from more than one party, unilateral forgiveness has limits.

First, to clarify, there are at least two levels of forgiveness. We've all known people who seem to turn incidental slights into major events. They "can't" forgive road rage; they hold small wrongs against others for years, etc. We all just want to yell at these people, "let it go and move on." Most of us are willing to forgive others for minor infractions of our rights. We at least acknowledge reciprocity- I can put up with you if you can put up with me. And we don't need the other person to ask for forgiveness. We really can just choose to let it go, whatever it is.

Then there are deep wrongs to be forgiven: a lifetime of physical or emotional abuse, becoming victim of a crime, moral failures such as sexual affairs, etc. Forgiving these kinds of wrongs can be done unilaterally, eg. the other person does not ask for forgiveness. If the guilty party is deceased, or no longer in a physical location where the other person's life is affected by their actions, forgiveness without a confession by the offender may be the only option. (And this can release the hurt and bitterness of the offended person.)

However, if there is to be restoration of a relationship, both parties must come to the table, so to speak. For a husband and wife to build a marriage rather than destroy it, one spouse can not be forever the forgiver while the other refuses to make necessary changes. A sister can not forever be bailing out a brother from the consequences of a life damaged by habitual drug abuse.

Unilateral forgiveness easily becomes enabling of the other person to continue in wrong behaviors and bad life choices. This is grace run amok. It needs an infusion of truth.

Even God requires confession for forgiveness of sin.

5. Forgiveness does not stand apart from God's forgiveness of us.

As Christians, we forgive because God through Christ has forgiven us. And this is the only source of true and deep forgiveness.

Anyone can let go of small wrongs. At least anyone who expects others to overlook faults of theirs. But to forgive deep and lasting wrongs, physical or emotional wounds so deep that the scars remind us continually of their reality, requires the love of God.

Finally, these things which forgiveness can not accomplish do not let us off the hook from forgiving. We can't say, "I'm done forgiving her because she never changes." We must continue to forgive, while at the same time speaking truth in love. Forgiveness is not the same thing as letting people do whatever they want to do.

Forgive, forgive, speak truth, forgive.