Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Debt Resolution

If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6.14-15)

An Essential Tool

We’re apt to think of forgiveness as a principle, when it’s more accurate to view it as an essential tool every bit as powerful and effective as prayer, Scripture, good deeds, and meditation. We use forgiveness to pry loose clamps of hatred and resentment binding our minds. Then, turning to our hearts, we use it to break padlocks of fear and worry so we’re able to love those we forgive. Love is the principle. Forgiveness activates it. This is true for everyone, including God. It’s inaccurate to believe Jesus died simply to purchase pardon for sin. Yes, forgiveness for all—regardless of nationality, religious standing, and every other contrived impediment—is available through Christ’s sacrifice. But Calvary’s purpose exceeds forgiveness. It remains the purest portrayal of love the world will see. “God loved the world,” John 3.16 says—not, “God forgave the world.”

In light of this, might we make too big a deal of forgiveness, and thus make it harder than it actually is? How many times do we say, “I know I should, but I just can’t find it in my heart to forgive So-and-So”? Perhaps we can’t find forgiveness in our hearts because we already hold its power in our hands. Of course, admitting struggles to forgive implicitly confesses doubts about loving those who’ve wronged us. Particularly with enormous, unresolved debts owed to us, we estimate love will cost more trust and hope than we can (or care to) sacrifice. This is hard to accept, if only because we want to love others as Christ taught. We want to live by His example. So we justify reticence to love by citing incapacity to forgive.

Expecting Future Increase by Exempting Former Debts

If we detach the two, we can train ourselves to use forgiveness as a tool to facilitate love instead attempting to use love to prove forgiveness. Forgiveness functions much like bank checks. It promises eventual settlement of unreconciled accounts. It’s presented in good faith, expecting love's future increase by exempting its former debts. Seeing forgiveness as the first step toward debt resolution, rather than all-or-nothing restitution, achieves two things. It eliminates the need to delay forgiving others until we’ve amassed enough love to absorb previous losses—because, spiritually or financially, that’s all forgiveness is: repaying what’s owed us at our expense. Then, relieved from making the full debt “whole” (another financial term replete with resonance), we honor our promise gradually, offering love and trust as needed. Here’s where forgiveness proves its real strength and value. Every debt must be reassessed as it’s addressed. Some turn out less severe than we recall, others much worse than we thought. But from the most to least traumatic, our pledge to forgive constrains us to find sufficient love to compensate for what’s owed us. As much and as long as it takes, we get the job done.

Isn’t this how Calvary works and God forgives? The cross ensures pardon for our past and future sins. Any time we err, we look to the cross in full confidence God will find love He needs to make us whole. In Hebrews 4.16, we’re urged to ask forgiveness without hesitance: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.” God sealed His promise of forgiveness the instant Jesus died. But He honors it by meting out mercy and grace as we need it. By learning to forgive like God we learn to love like Him. Forgiving freely and loving fully at the same time expects more of us than we expect of Him. Is it any surprise we struggle to find enough love to forgive people who’ve deeply hurt us? There’s probably not room in our hearts to contain the love needed to pay all of their debts at once. So we forgive in advance and pay as we go, replacing love we sacrifice for those we’ve forgiven (note: past tense) with love we receive from God in reward for asking His forgiveness.

Out-In, Give-Receive

The out-in, give-receive dynamic is rudimentary to following Jesus. He quashes any possible doubt about this by opening His first major discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, with an eight-point manifesto that explicitly states sacrifice defines reward. Impoverished spirits gain heavenly riches. Mourners find comfort. Humble people earn earthly honor. And so on—including, those who give mercy receive mercy. The rest of the Sermon basically expounds on these points in greater detail, piquing interest in where Jesus ties each attribute to certain situations and behaviors.

He links forgiveness to prayer—The Lord’s Prayer—setting aside the bulk of its content to zero in on one phrase: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6.12; again: past tense) He enlarges on this in verses 14 and 15: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Jesus provides no wiggle room for mitigating circumstances, rare exceptions, or other alibis for withholding forgiveness. Extending mercy to others predicates obtaining mercy from God. The 1:1 reciprocation appears too obvious for further thought. Yet if we maintain ability to forgive hinges on adequate love to back it up, Jesus’s later thoughts about it are misplaced. They should land at the end of chapter 5, where He builds on the eighth Beatitude (enduring unjust persecution) by charging us to love our enemies. But forgiveness goes unmentioned in context with unconditional love. There’s just no ambiguity here. We forgive others to be forgiven. We love in obedience to Christ's command. The two are related, but not interdependent. Forgiveness promises to make love whole. Love makes good on forgiveness’s pledge over time.

Hat-tip to Rev. Harvey Carr for his inspiration.

Forgiveness promises to make outstanding debts whole and love steadily delivers, reassessing and reconciling each debt as needed.

(Tomorrow: Axes Are for Floating)


Anonymous said...

Tim this is so important. You have laid out a workable means to achieve the end of forgiveness. We all struggle with this, big or small. We all find reasons for delay. We all claim we forgive but don't. In fact, I've heard it in so many courtrooms over the years. the Victim or family says "my faith says I must for give you, and I do, but know that I will never forgive you!" I guess they mean something by this, but I've never known what. But some version of it is the norm I'm convinced. Thanks for so much food for thought here.

Tim said...

Sherry, for so long I had forgiveness and love confused as two parts of the same thing. It mystified me how Jesus sets our forgiveness as a pre-req for God's forgiveness when some of the things we suffer require much time for emotional healing and rebuilt trust. And then there are those who never loved us and never will, which make it all the harder to forgive.

It was the whole placement business in the Sermon that spoke to me. We forgive by faith, just like we pray--expecting things that haven't yet happened. Love doesn't have to be stocked up and ready to pay the whole tab to forgive. It just has to be willing to honor the commitment.

Thanks for this, Sherry. I will confess I've gone back and re-read the post a few times, concerned it might be misperceived as insensitive to the awful things so many of us must forgive. When in fact, because forgiveness tasks with such a big job, I hoped to help free of us trying to bear its weight with an excessively tall "love order" at the same time. You ease my mind that I didn't completely fall off the edge here!

Blessings and light,

PS: I've heard that "for give" business before, too, and I haven't the vaguest idea what it's supposed to signify--other than the speaker isn't forgiving anybody, or fooling God, Who's can't be bamboozled by semantics.

Fran said...

Tim - there is so much I want to say, I don't know where to begin. Sherry has already expressed much of it and so eloquently as well.

(Hi Sherry! *waves* Sorry I have been a stranger to your wonderful blog. I have been a stranger here too.)

I love that line near the end - inter-related not interdependent.

This is brilliant.

Tim said...

Fran, you know my regard for yours and Sherry's opinion makes any compliment high praise indeed. But, as I mention above, this post was a quite a bit tougher than usual for me. Both of your comments are especially sweet to my soul.

Now, if I can only learn to do what wrangling with this taught me! (Subtle request for prayer there....)

Thanks for this, and everything besides.

Blessings always,

tepoyglobal matrix said...

Nice topic you got here, good post too, glad I passed by. Thanks for sharing this. Glad to know something about debt

Tim said...

Thank you, TM. Welcome to Straight-Friendly. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and hope it helps you in some way. Feel free to come by and/or comment any time. I'm sure you'll enjoy the company here--great people just trying to do the best we can...